5 takeaways from Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and team from LA Clippers Media Day 2019, training camp day 1
PLAYA VISTA – For the first time since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the LA Clippers opened their doors for the most anticipated season in franchise history by hosting Media Day Sunday afternoon. It’s almost fitting that I got to celebrate the start of the new Clippers season and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) on the exact same day. Shortly after that, the Clippers took to the hardwood for their first official practice as a team.
A lot of questions were answered about this Clippers team, but even more still remains unknown. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George spoke freely while donning their Clippers’ white, red, and blue Association jerseys for the first time. Here’s a rundown of the biggest takeaways from Media Day and the first day of training camp on Monday, both in Playa Vista.
1. Kawhi Leonard/Paul George Health Updates
Much has been made of Kawhi Leonard’s load management situation last year as well as his plans for it this year. Well, Kawhi made it very clear that, while there will be a load management plan in place, it certainly won’t be as strict as it was last year.
“It’s different this season,” said Leonard on Media Day. “Last year I was going in with the injury that I was dealing with the year before. It still was lingering and we knew that I had to be healthy going throughout the season and making it into the playoffs.
“But this year, I’m feeling good. I’m feeling way better than I was at the start of last season. There’s really no plan laid out yet to discuss with everyone.”
Head coach Doc Rivers, who didn’t speak at Media Day, said that Leonard was not taking any contact in practice yet.
“[He did] all the skeleton work,” said Rivers. “We didn’t want any contact from him and obviously Paul, we’re in no hurry with that, but other than that, he was on the floor the entire time. Conditioning wise, he looks pretty damn good.”
Barring injuries, I’d predict Leonard will likely end up playing around 66-69 of a possible 82 regular season games this year. The Clippers have 13 sets of back-to-backs and a six-game, 11-day road trip starting in mid-January. Following the first day of training camp Rivers all but confirmed that Leonard will not be participating in any preseason action.
“I think this year is gonna be more like the quarterbacks. I’ll tell you this story. It was a week before the season started, I was at dinner with [Jared] Goff, and we were just talking because I hadn’t watched a preseason game in like 20 years. And I said, ‘how have you been playing?’ And he said, ‘I haven’t played.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean you haven’t played?’ And he says, ‘I haven’t thrown a pass.’ I have a feeling that the NBA will be following in those footsteps. Not to that extreme, but maybe. We’ll see. If you’re at a practice, then yeah [you’ll see him]. I’ll answer it that way and I’ll let you figure it out from there.”
While Leonard’s load management was a big talking point at Media Day, the only bigger talking point was the health and status of one Paul George.
George underwent rotator cuff surgery in early May to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder. In early June, George then underwent surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum. The Thunder said a more concrete timeline could be established for George’s return at the start of training camp. Well, training camp is here, and George says he’s progressing well, but isn’t close to a return yet.
“As far as my health goes, I’m pretty good,” said George. “I’ll be in camp starting this week. Nothing contact, but all the 5-on-0 stuff, all the scripted stuff, I’ll be a part of.
“I’m used to being in this rehab stage and knowing what it takes to get my body prepared and get my body up to speed. It’s a long process, but again, I think me going through it and having a drastic injury on my leg, I know what to expect, I know what pressure to put on myself and what pressure not to put on myself as well. That comes with a lot of stress when you’re going through rehab, so I’m just in a good place. I know what I need to do. I know what I’m capable of, and ultimately I know when my body’s ready.”
When speaking on NBA TV, George said he was at about 85-90 percent right now, and told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne he expects to be out all of October with a return in November.
Doc Rivers said George looked terrific during the 5-on-0 workouts, and although he wasn’t taking contact, the anxious Palmdale native was doing something else that he wasn’t supposed to.
“He did everything other than live,” added Rivers. “Like, he looks great… When you watch him, you’d never know he’s injured. That’s how good he looks. He shoots. He’s dunking, which they told him he couldn’t do and he did it two or three times. Someone had to tell him, ‘Don’t do that.’ But he knows he can. He’s shooting it and you can tell all the strength is back for sure.
“I think we can live with the dunks. What we can’t live with is him playing, like him trying to sneak into action, which he clearly was trying. We’re just not going to allow it. Could he? Honestly, he probably could. But we’re just not going to have it.”
2. Not Rushing The Process
When the team finished their biggest transactions this summer, which included trading for Moe Harkless, signing Leonard, trading for George, and re-signing Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, as well as JaMychal Green, all eyes and expectations immediately shifted to dates the Clippers had never played basketball before: late May and June.
While this team is a championship contender on paper, they have a long way to go before they’re willing to talk about the ‘Larry O’ B,’ as Kawhi called it following the Toronto Raptors championship.
“Guys are ready to go,” said Landry Shamet. “It’s here, the offseason’s over, we’ve been sitting around long enough without playing anybody.
“At the same time, [we] have the mindset that it’s gonna be a grind if we wanna get to where we want to go. So coming in on a day-to-day basis with that right mindset [is important]. Pat talks about it a lot. You gotta live like an NBA champion, so doing all the little things, outside of just on the court. You gotta think about it, you gotta wake up every morning and live like you’re an NBA champion and hopefully that’ll manifest into a championship. Just little things and coming in with the right mindset on a day-to-day basis.”
Patrick Beverley, who took a bit of a discount to re-sign with Los Angeles this summer, acknowledged that this year’s Clippers are going to be a lot different than last year’s.
“It will be hard this year,” added Patrick Beverley. “We’re not the surprising Clippers that we were last year. People know exactly who we are. The targets on our back. We’re gonna get everyone’s best punch. It’s up to us to be ready day in and day out.”
3. Team Ahead On Chemistry
As Clippers fans saw last year, chemistry is one of the most important parts of building a championship culture. Last year’s Clippers were one of the most tight-knit groups I’d ever seen, and it showed on the court. Every player wanted the other to succeed as individuals, but their goals never got in the way of what mattered most: winning. The Clippers had that thanks to the chemistry they spent months building with each other.
This year’s new-look Clippers are already ahead of the curve. They’ve gone paintballing, they went on a team fishing trip just off the coast, and they’ve played pickup ball with each other a month before the start of training camp.
“Chemistry is a real thing,” said Lou Williams. “I thought it was important for us to be in the room with each other as much as possible to start building that camaraderie, to understand what each guy brought to the table, personality wise, that way once we get into the season, once we get into those 4th quarters where we need to communicate and our competitive spirits are high, your words won’t be misconstrued, your teammates can understand that you’re coming from a positive place and you have a common goal to win a basketball game. That camaraderie is important when you get to know guys. I think we speak every day if not every other day, just building that and learning who we each are.”
The most surprising part is that they’ve been in a team group chat that began shortly after July 5th, when the Clippers acquired both Leonard and George.
“The second this came together, we were all in a group chat, talking, laughing, building that togetherness, that camaraderie,” said George. “That happened the second me and Kawhi became a part of this team. That relationship was established early to where we came to the facility, it was like I knew them, I’d been around these guys. We fast-forwarded all of that getting to know each other based off of us already in that chat.”
Montrezl Harrell gave some great insight into the Clippers’ already developing chemistry while sending a bit of warning to the rest of the league.
“I definitely think we’re farther along than people actually think,” added Harrell. “We’ve come in probably right after Memorial Day Weekend and we’ve been playing pickup, guys have been lifting weights, getting extra cardio in, and preparing for what we’re about to have on the first day of actual training camp and then going off to Hawaii, which is an improvement of team bonding and team building. We’ve been going for a while. We’re kind of ones that work behind the scenes and get the job done. We’re a lot farther along than people actually think.”
Rivers warned, however, that the so-called great chemistry players have been raving about had yet to be tested, saying that the Clippers haven’t faced any adversity or bumps on the road yet to challenge that chemistry.
“Chemistry’s easy, it really is,” said Rivers. “We’ve had no adversity, we haven’t lost a game, minutes haven’t been dispersed. Everybody gets along. My guess is after the third or fourth preseason games when some guys are seeing I’m not getting as many shots or I’m not getting any minutes, that’s when the chemistry starts, so we’ll know more. Right now, yeah they like each other. There’s no doubt about that, and that’s good, but what they are also is they’re very competitive. That’s good too. Like it’s good to be competitive, go at each other, be physical with each other, and then still like each other.”
4. Grit & Grind Clippers Were Key In Free Agency, Will Return For 2019-20 Season
The Clippers won a lot of hearts among NBA fans last year, charging their way through the NBA’s regular season and into the playoffs without (officially) an All-Star on the team. Any potholes on the road were made to look like small speed bumps at the end of the season, including a season-changing trade of the Clippers’ best player in Tobias Harris and fan favorite Boban Marjanovic.
Despite the trades and lack of superstar talent, the Clippers fought their way into the postseason and took a healthy Golden State Warriors to six games. Harrell said the goal all year was to make opponents work so hard, they’d dread coming into Staples Center to play the Clippers.
That fiery mentality is what lured Leonard in during free agency. It’s what made Beverley, Green, and Zubac want to re-sign. More importantly, it’s what the Clippers plan to bring back next season.
“I’m not changing nothing I’m doing,” said a smiling Harrell.
“We ain’t changing nothing,” George followed up with a laugh. “It’s gonna be scary. With myself, Trez, Kawhi, Pat, Sham, Moe, Rodney, I mean we’ve really got a chance to do something special on the defensive end. I think it’s gonna be an energetic thing. Watching Pat get out there and picking somebody up 94 feet, that’s gonna get me going, it’s gonna get Kawhi going, and it’s just gonna get contagious on a nightly basis. I honestly think, for the first time, people are gonna be excited to watch the defensive side as opposed to watching the offensive team. It’s gonna be fun. We can do a lot. There’s a lot of versatility.”
Beverley’s line on the scrappiness brought out laughter from the media.
“I think it’s the same scrappiness attitude [from last year]… But on steroids.”
5. Home Is Where The Heart Is
At the end of the day, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s free agency decisions were about basketball, but there’s certainly more behind it. Sure, playing at home and winning an NBA Championship for a franchise that’s never been able to so much as sniff one is the ultimate goal, but Leonard and George are back to where it all started for them as kids. Being home has proven to be an underrated part of free agency over the last few years.
“One of the reasons I came back is being able to go back to my community,” said Leonard on his return. “For them to see me, to be able touch them, for them to be able to shake my hand and just being able to be there, be a guidance or inspiration for the youth. It’s hard to do it when I’m being drafted in Texas. They really don’t have no time but the two games we do come out here. Then last year, I was in a totally different country and I was on the East coast, so it was only twice that I came out here.
“It’s one of the big reasons I came back. I’m able to be a part of the community that I grew up in and just let them know it’s not a myth and that I really was in their shoes one of those days and they could be in my shoes.”
The feelings George got when he was traded are the same feelings he gets to this day. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles dreads having to get on the 405 freeway during the workweek. Instead, every bit of it of his return home is still a surreal moment.
“The fact that I’m unpacking instead of packing at this time is a surreal moment,” George said unable to contain his smile. “Every day I’m here, every day I’m waking up in the morning, every day I’m taking that drive on the 405 is a surreal moment.
“Ultimately, what I wanted to get to in my career is being back home and being close to my people. It’s never gonna get old from me coming in today having media day here to putting on this jersey to first game, to hearing my name in the starting lineup, everything is gonna be a reminder of where I’m at right now.”
The Clippers arrive in Hawaii shortly after Day 1 of training camp and will stay there until October 6th, where they’ll have three more practices and two preseason games.