Opinion: Will Kawhi Leonard & Paul George deliver the Clippers an NBA championship?

The Los Angeles Clippers acquired one star that had already won two NBA championships because of his positional versatility, his consistent work ethic and how much he prioritizes his health.

Despite collecting hardware with the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard failed to deliver the Clippers an NBA championship in his first season after persistent injuries disrupted team continuity and his individual consistency did not  translate into team success. So amid Leonard’s quest to win his third NBA title in his second season with the Clippers, how much healthier and prepared does he feel entering the Clippers’ first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks beginning on Saturday at Staples Center?

“I feel good,” Leonard said. “I feel confident like any other year. I feel like we got a good team. We got some depth on us. It’s just about between the ears now. How much are we willing to sacrifice to get a win? How much of our mind and body are we going to put into these playoffs?”

The Clippers had also acquired another star in hopes that the championship burden did not fall solely on Leonard. By acquiring Paul George from Oklahoma City for multiple players and draft picks, the Clippers both collected the missing piece to entice Leonard to leave Toronto as a free agent and to complement Leonard with similar skillsets.

Yet, George also played a role in the Clippers’ failure to win an NBA title his first season in L.A. that started with various injuries stemming from off-season surgery on both shoulders and ended with poor performances in the NBA bubble. So amid George’s quest to win his first NBA championship with in his second season with the Clippers, to what extent has he become motivated to rectify the Clippers squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in last year’s Western Conference semifinals?

When Paul George (13) and Kawhi Leonard were paired together last season, the conventional wisdom was that the Clippers would finally advance past the second round of the NBA playoffs. But they blew another 3-1 lead and fell to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. (Photo: Daniel Dunn, Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports)

“That was motivation enough to end last year coming into this season that I needed to be better,” George said. “Up to this point, it’s just being who I am and who I’ve been.”

In fairness to Leonard and George, the Clippers’ shortcomings did not fall solely on them.

Last season, the Clippers missed a combined 114 games due to injuries and fielded 33 different starting lineups. Not only did that include the absences to Leonard (13 games ) and George (24) but significant role players, too. Lou Williams, the Clippers’ leading secondary scorer, spent 10 days in quarantine during the bubble after going on a pre-approved trip to his mentor’s funeral that ended with an unapproved stop at an Atlanta strip club for takeout food. Patrick Beverley, the team’s defensive agitator, missed five seeding games in the bubble because of injuries, then missed five of the six first-round games against the Dallas Mavericks. Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, missed the season restart while spending time with his ailing grandmother.

So after the Clippers’ playoff failures, they made some changes. They departed with coach Doc Rivers, who failed to advance past the second round in six playoff appearances amid overlapping injuries to the team’s star players. They replaced him with assistant Ty Lue, who once coached the Cleveland Cavaliers to three NBA Finals and a 2016 NBA title after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to the Golden State Warriors partly by holding players accountable and remaining flexible with X’s and O’s.

“We're a totally different team. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll win a championship because of that. But we’re in a different place to win a championship.”

The Clippers didn't try to stop Harrell from going to the Lakers before they signed a superior defender (Serge Ibaka). Leading into the NBA’s trade deadline, the Clippers dealt a dependable bench scorer (Williams) to the Atlanta Hawks for a dependable playmaker that also has the credibility to hold star players accountable (Rajon Rondo). The Clippers (47-25) are ranked No. 4 in the Western Conference partly because of those changes.

“We're a totally different team," Lue said. "That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll win a championship because of that. But we’re in a different place to win a championship.”

Nonetheless, the Clippers ability to win an NBA championship still hinges significantly on Leonard and George. After all, the Clippers granted George a four-year, $190 million extension before the season started. Though Leonard is expected to re-sign with the team after he declines his $36 million player option this summer, the Clippers invested heavily in maximizing their championship window.

That explains why the Clippers prioritized their long-term last season in hopes that they would avoid a major injury, especially in the playoffs. But that also resulted in Leonard and George rarely participating in practices and remaining disconnected from a team that had already fostered enough chemistry to challenge the Warriors to six games in the first round of the 2019 postseason. That left the Clippers vulnerable both against the Mavericks and the Nuggets in last year’s playoffs.

This year, the Clippers have still dealt with fluid lineups. They have missed a combined 146 games related to injuries and health and safety protocol-related absences, which have included Leonard (19) and George (17). Yet, the Clippers observed Leonard and George have spent more time on the court than in the trainer's room even amid the team’s condensed practice schedule because of pandemic-related restrictions.  

“The biggest thing is they’re pretty much healthy, especially to start the season and being able to go through training camp and being able to go through two-a days that we had," Lue said. "We were able to set the tone early. Our players are able to see them every day and not just on the sideline and not be able to participate. That was a huge step for us this year.”

Will that be a huge enough step, though, to navigate a competitive Western Conference en route to the NBA Finals and subsequent championship?

The Utah Jazz are ranked No. 1 because of three All-Stars (Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley), a Coach of the Year candidate (Quin Snyder) and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Jordan Clarkson). The Phoenix Suns have the No. 2 seed because they have a veteran leader (Chris Paul), young talent (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton) and another Coach of the Year candidate (Monty Williams). The Nuggets are No. 3 because of an MVP candidate (Nikola Jokic) that has helped the team remain dangerous despite various roster turnover and a season-ending injury to their star point guard (Jamal Murray). Despite having the No. 7 seed, the LA Lakers could defend their NBA championship so long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis overcome their recent injuries.  

As for the Clippers? Even with overlapping injuries and lineups factoring into their shortcomings last year, Leonard and George also came up short when star players are expected to thrive.

George averaged 18.5 points on 34.6% shooting in the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas. In the Clippers’ decisive Game 7 loss to Denver, George had 10 points on a 4-of-16 clip and five turnovers. During that time, George talked openly on how playing in the bubble contributed to various mental health challenges. He occasionally lamented that Rivers’ playbook contributed to those numbers, too. Since then, George has shown increases from last season to this season in scoring (21.5 points; 23.3), shooting percentage (43.9%; 46.7%), rebounds (5.7; 6.6) and assists (3.9; 5.2).

The main reason the Clippers gave up so much to land Rajon Rondo (4) is because of his reputation for holding stars like Kawhi Leonard accountable. (Photo: Jacob Kupferman, AP)

“This year has been easier because I have outlets. I’m able to live a normal life,” George said. “I can go home. I can see my family and spend time with my family and interact with people outside of this team. That alone has been a big difference, to be back to some normalcy. It’s a big different from the bubble life to where I’m at now from a headspace standpoint.”

Leonard did not struggle with those issues. The Clippers marveled at how remarkably consistent he played anytime he was healthy. But in the Clippers’ decisive Game 7 loss to Denver, Leonard had only 14 points on 10-of-22 shooting. From last season to this season, Leonard’s scoring average has dropped (27.1; 24.8). But he has shot more efficiently (47%; 51.2%) and has played more minutes (32.4; 34.1).

“Every year it comes down to being disciplined and knowing there are things you can’t control as far as being healthy and shots not falling,” Leonard said. “The things we can control is defense, discipline and being able to stay focused on the details of the game. With those teams that go further [in the playoffs], it needs some type of blessings for being healthy and shots to go your way.”

Will the shots go the Clippers’ way this time around? Who knows.

The Clippers' two All-Stars have played more consistently with fewer injuries, while their bench has led the NBA in 3-point shooting (40.9%). The Clippers have also been dependable in games since the All-Star break (23-11), when leading at halftime (37-8) and on back-to-backs (20-6). Yet, the Clippers have also struggled against teams with above .500 records (22-16). That includes the Mavericks, whose 2-1 mark against the Clippers this season includes a 124-73 blowout on Dec. 27 that yielded a 77-27 half-time lead in what marked the largest first-half lead in NBA history.

For better or for worse, Leonard and George will have a large say on whether the Clippers add their names in the league history books during the playoffs.

“We’re playing to be the last team standing,” George said. “At the end of the day, it’s what every team at this point has to go against. It’s a journey and it’s one we’re willing to go through.”

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