PLAYA VISTA — The first three years of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era with the Los Angeles Clippers haven’t been a failure by any stretch. But they also haven’t been as successful as most had hoped. Now, with George entering his 13th season in the NBA, including Year 4 alongside Leonard, the pressure is on.
Through three years together, the Clippers’ star duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has played just 104 games together, including 24 in the playoffs. Each year has felt like a step forward from the previous one, especially considering how their first year together finished. Entering their fourth year together, George and Leonard know the time is now.
“Focused,” Paul George said when asked for one word to describe the vibe of this Clippers team entering camp. “Focused, I think. Understanding the opportunity, the window, and I think that’s how I approached every day training was just a focused, locked-in mentality to bring the best out of myself, to get the best out of myself.”
George will turn 33 years of age in May 2023. Leonard will turn 32 years old a few months later in June 2023. Both have had illustrious careers, but only one has a championship to his name. The goal to win one together has never been more within reach for the duo than it is entering this season.
“My window is shrinking to be a champion,” George admitted. “I think [focused] is the one word I can say to sum up the mindset going into this year.”
In the 2019-20 season, their first season together, the NBA was hit with both the death of Lakers legend and mentor Kobe Bryant, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the national protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. Following the four-month layoff due to COVID, the NBA returned in the Orlando bubble, where it was evident a lot of teams didn’t want to be. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, and the Los Angeles Lakers went on to win the NBA championship.
Everyone took the bubble experience different. Guys like TJ Warren and Anthony Davis shot the lights out of the basketball. Paul George was among those who struggled significantly in the bubble, citing not being around his family and being stuck in one place with no outlet.
“A lot of it was just weighing on me,” George told then-teammate Serge Ibaka on his show, “How Hungry Are You?” “For one, I wasn’t sleeping. I don’t know what it was … It was probably, no lie, I probably went a good week and a half to two weeks of zero sleep, zero sleep. No lie. I would lay in bed and my mind would just be racing, racing, racing. I tried everything bro, I tried using apps, I tried therapy, sleeping gummies … they don’t know this.
“You put that on top of having a bad game, then you’re not sleeping,” George said. “Then there ain’t nothing else to do there, so you’re surrounded by basketball, there’s no escape, there’s no outlet. We’re stuck in our rooms in the hotel, all we got is our phones, you get on social media, oh it’s a meme here or it’s a joke there. You mix all of that on top of not sleeping, I didn’t know what to do. I was just lost, bro. It was tough.”
Having returned home to play in more normal conditions, with the exception of fans, Paul George and Clippers bounced back in 2020-21 and reached the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, Kawhi Leonard suffered a torn ACL in Game 4 of the semifinals against the Jazz, ending his fantastic playoff run. The Clippers would fall to the Phoenix Suns in six hard-fought games.
For those who wanted more, here’s nearly 2 minutes of Kawhi Leonard’s off-the-dribble jumpers before Clippers practice today pic.twitter.com/z2uz5SBNv9
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 27, 2022
The ACL tear to Leonard would also hold him out for the entirety of the 2021-22 NBA season, which also saw Paul George play just 31 games due to injury. The Clippers fell short of a playoff spot, but they were able to upgrade the roster by adding Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the mix.
“I think when Kawhi went down, Lawrence [Frank], the team’s, T-Lue’s approach of having T-Mann play for minutes, Luke play more minutes, Amir get minutes. A lot of our young guys I think grew so much when Kawhi went down, to where now if we’re faced with obstacles, he’s pretty confident in the group, and I think the group is confident in each other, having given those minutes and put in those positions.
"The plan is to start tomorrow at training camp. I'll be participating in training camp… Right now I feel good and the plan is to start camp tomorrow and play."
– Kawhi Leonard on returning to Clippers lineup.
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 26, 2022
“I think it was a lot of value. Granted, you don’t want to see your best player go down with an injury at all for that matter, but there was a lot of value, I think, gained from Kawhi being out and myself being out. I think there was a lot of minutes there, as well.”
The last three seasons, all in the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era, have been shortened and accelerated seasons. This 2022-23 season marks the first time in four years that the NBA has had a normal scheduled offseason — from the NBA Finals and NBA Draft to Media Day and Opening Night.
“It seemed like it went by so fast with obviously the first year was the COVID year,” Leonard said. “Nobody knew it was going to happen. Then going into the next season basically we made it to the semifinals, I think, and then tore my ACL and then last year didn’t play.
“Now it’s our fourth year. I feel like me missing last year and that COVID year kind of made time go by quick. But I felt like over the years with us first being here you’ve seen a gradual improvement of the team, so hopefully we can take another step. That’s all I can hope for really. This is our fourth year, so hopefully, we can have a shot at the semifinals or the Finals and try to make something happen.”
“I think it’s more important to play small with Kawhi & PG on the floor. I think having Zu come out early & go back with the second unit so we can help the rebounding, I think it will be better for us because Kawhi & PG are great rebounders.”
Ty Lue’s thoughts small ball lineups pic.twitter.com/V7HY5H0Y2S
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 27, 2022
When Leonard suffered his ACL injury, the Clippers’ goals shifted from competing for a championship to figuring out how to improve by his return. The team did exactly that, improving their roster and developing their young players over the last year.
“Our roster has definitely gotten better,” Paul George added. “Last year those guys were in some tough games. They were in games that came down to the wire, and they won some and they lost some. But I think being put in those positions as a young player, it helps with your confidence going forward, and it helps with your maturation as a player going forward.”
This team has a great problem with their unimaginable depth. Not only can the Clippers afford to ease Kawhi Leonard back into NBA game shape, but they can also continue to give all their aging veterans some much-needed rest. The younger players on the roster have a bevy of experience, so the drop-off won’t be too significant.
Last season, the Clippers put out 26 different starting lineups and still finished with a 42-40 record, showing just how much trust Lue can have in his guys this year.
“I think everyone on the team started for us at one point last year,” head coach Tyronn Lue said when asked how many players he considers starters. “Except for John Wall. So I guess I consider any one of our guys starters.”