Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy: Clippers storylines to open the season

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Spending time around his players nearly every day from fall to spring has shaped Clippers coach Tyronn Lue’s philosophy regarding offseason communication: less is more.

And yet during the summer, there is one player he calls, or who will call him, often.

“I might be watching a game or overseas game or something and ask him, ‘Have you seen this?’” Kawhi Leonard said. “Just see what he’s thinking about and nitpick his brain a little bit, and then the same with him, he’ll call me and see what I think about certain things.”

Said Lue: “He calls and checks on me.”

It was during one such conversation this past summer when Lue wanted an update on the right knee of Leonard, the All-Star on whom the Clippers’ championship hopes rest. Leonard tore the meniscus during April’s first-round playoff exit, the same knee he’d torn a ligament in two years earlier.

“‘Will you be ready for camp?’” Lue asked. “[Leonard] said, ‘I’ll be 100%. I’ll be ready to go.’”

Nothing was more significant to emerge from the Clippers’ offseason. Leonard averaged 27.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals and made nearly 47% of his three-pointers over the final 35 games of last season, looking every bit the All-NBA talent to whom the Clippers have pegged their title ambitions.

When co-star Paul George, who missed the final four weeks of last season because of a knee injury, also started training camp this month without any health-related restrictions, it marked the first time since 2020 that both All-Stars were healthy from the start. The Clippers’ championship hopes hinge on it staying that way. The Clippers are 96-46 — a .670winning percentage — when Leonard and George both play, including the postseason, and their readiness has buoyed the mood of a team that exited last season’s playoffs frustrated and hurt.

“Just feeling a lot better than I was coming into training camp last year just brings a better energy, just me just overall feeling better and trusting myself and I’m able to show it more than say it now,” Leonard said.

“Last year, I was kind of trying to get into things a little bit slow just ’cause of the feeling I was feeling in my knee. But I feel good, so [teammates] being able to see me move around and be agile like I used to, just kind of brings that energy, and as well as PG just showing us that he’s bringing that energy and intensity while we’re at practice, as well. I think that’s helped.”

It is the overarching storyline that will define this Clippers season. Here are four more:

Will the Clippers trade for James Harden?

Almost four months after Harden, the future Hall of Fame guard who led the NBA in assists last season, made clear he wants to be traded to the Clippers, talks remain at an impasse. As the only interested team, the Clippers aren’t keen on bidding against themselves, while the 76ers aren’t moved by trade packages that won’t help them get another star. The Clippers’ attempts to shop around the league for more draft picks isn’t persuasive to the 76ers, said one person briefed on the discussions who spoke on condition anonymity because of the sensitive topic. Meanwhile a tug of war over young Clippers wing Terance Mann has also contributed to the stalemate, with the Clippers uninterested in dealing away the homegrown talent.

Terance Mann drives against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in the Clippers' final preseason game Thursday.

Yet several league insiders expressed a belief that a deal is only a matter of time. Philadelphia is under pressure to maximize reigning most valuable player Joel Embiid’s prime, while the Clippers are under pressure to produce momentum as the franchise moves into their new arena, Intuit Dome, next season.

Harden’s fit next to Leonard, George and point guard Russell Westbrook isn’t seamless — “It will be interesting to see what guys will be willing to sacrifice,” one scout said — but because, as a second scout said, the talent gap between even this preseason’s upbeat, positive version of the Clippers and the top of the Western Conference remains too wide.

“The Clippers don’t have enough right now,” the scout said.

NBA champions share a common thread. Can the Clippers join them?

Championships are historically won by teams that carry regular-season success into the playoffs. Since 1996, the last 28 champions have all been the third seed or better. Only six teams lower than the No. 3 seed have even reached the Finals — and half of those were not far behind as the fourth seed.

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Clippers forward Paul George, right, backs down Nuggets guard Justin Holiday while dribbling with his left hand.

Lawrence Frank, the team’s top basketball executive, referenced this history in April when he called for the Clippers to value the regular season more than last year, when he observed their “pride” had appeared missing.

The Clippers’ motivation — which varied wildly when playing on consecutive nights, or weekend matinees — appeared to be intertwined with the availability of their best players, and Lue made clear from the intensity of training camp’s first practice that the Clippers would no longer be easing into the season.

While the team will still protect players’ health, they will push them to play as often as possible when healthy. Will that lead to a top-three seed in the West? If not, winning a championship would require doing something no team has done since 1995.

Can Russell Westbrook keep this up?

When the Lakers discarded Westbrook in February after a tumultuous season-and-a-half run, the point guard, while certainly bound for a Hall of Fame induction in the future, was not guaranteed a place on an NBA roster at that moment. When the Clippers made it clear how much they needed him, Westbrook felt wanted and thrived over his last 26 games, shooting the ball seven percentage points better on shots from the field, including three-pointers while being an upbeat locker-room presence.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook low-fives teammates during introductions before a preseason game against Utah.

Since re-signing as a free agent in July the point guard, who turns 35 next month, has filled the Clippers’ needs during the offseason, with teammates praising his leadership and the tone of accountability he showed during a September retreat in Las Vegas.

The question is how much Westbrook’s resurgence of last spring will carry over to this season. His energy is undeniable and his rebounding still arguably the best of any guard, but success hinges on limiting turnovers — 3.4 per game last season after joining the Clippers — and misses when teams inevitably leave Westbrook open. Not taking off-the-dribble three-pointers, which the Clippers want him to studiously avoid, and make shots when playing off the ball is key. He shot 31% on catch-and-shoot opportunities with the Lakers last season and improved slightly to 33% with the Clippers.

Can the Clippers sustain their commitment to playing better defense?

More than a third of the way through last season, the Clippers’ long-vaunted defense, with its long-armed wings and rim-protecting center Ivica Zubac, was performing as planned, allowing the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions and only 59% shooting on shots defended within six feet of the rim. By the February All-Star break the bottom had fallen out, the Clippers allowing nine more points per 100 possessions while opponents shot seven percentage points better near the rim.

With so much roster continuity, a strong defense should be attainable during the season’s first weeks, especially considering Leonard and George are healthy, offense-first guard Bones Hyland has taken defense more seriously, and there is no longer a patchwork solution covering the hole at backup center. Sustaining the team’s own goal of a top-10 defense, as last season proved, is another matter. There is a reason why defense was the overwhelming focus of training camp. In particular Lue wants more physicality, asking his guards and big men to be “up” higher on pick-and-roll plays than before.

As always, everything with the Clippers comes back to health.

“If we can be healthy we can have set rotations and same guys on the floor every night, guys know what they got to do,” Zubac said. “If we got that I think we can sustain that and be one of the best defensive teams throughout the whole season.”

Clippers center Ivica Zubac, back right, and forward Nicolas Batum swarm Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon in the lane.
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