Clippers preview: Five questions to examine as training camp opens

The Clippers have been looking forward to starting training camp Tuesday since the season lost at the NBA play-in tournament in April.

“It’s like Christmas, you know?” said Lawrence Frank, the basketball operations team’s president. “But what’s happening to me, what I’m having fun with is how do we look in January? How do we look in February? What are our daily habits?”

Frank isn’t the only one with questions leading up to what is sure to be one of the most anticipated seasons in Clippers history. With a roster full of depth and All-Star wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George finally back to health, the franchise without an NBA Finals appearance is one of the betting favorites to raise a banner. Whether the Clippers actually do so may depend on how they answer some other key questions that come to camp.

How can coach Tyronn Lue and the Clippers maximize Leonard and George?

An ACL injury to Leonard would have devastated the Clippers no matter when it occurred, but the fact that it happened in the playoffs, when he and George played better against each other than they had in their previous two seasons, made the injury all the more painful.

This second-round series against Utah in 2021, in which Leonard and George each scored 30 points or more in back-to-back games while playing shutdown defense, remains the clearest demonstration that the two superstars can maximize their potential when playing together. Their title ambitions this season depend on being able to recapture him. As the two of them get used to playing together again, Frank sounded like he had no qualms about his ego getting in the way.

“When you have young, rising stars, what often boils beneath the surface is that they sometimes compete for the team,” Frank said. “Our boys compete with and for each other with one goal in mind. We’re very, very lucky that our two star players have that kind of connection and appreciation for each other. You just see continued growth with these two guys.”

Can the Clippers’ earlier success, which revitalized the careers of Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, now work for John Wall?

Batum and Jackson rebounded with the Clippers because the one-time franchise cornerstones in Charlotte and Detroit, respectively, responded to reaching a career crossroads by accepting smaller roles and, feeling supported, performing them with remarkable enthusiasm and selflessness. This track record of player development was a factor when the Clippers pursued Wall in the free hand.

If the 40 total games the former All-Star guard has played over the past three seasons are any cause for concern, then his spirit and intensity during off-season practice was described by Frank as “encouraging.” After three years, which Wall openly described as the toughest of his life, one thing seems clear: he wants to make it.

In July, he said he was excited to no longer carry a superstar’s offensive load and instead help Leonard and George, a close friend, lighten theirs.

Wall can make their life easier by helping the Clippers score more easily. In Lue’s first season as coach in 2020-21, the Clippers had the fifth-lowest points per possession and third-worst last season. Her fast breaks often had all the precision and grace of a Benny Hill chase scene. Enter Wall, which adds “that quick transition game that we were kind of missing,” George said.

John Wall watches a summer league game in Las Vegas.

Veteran point guard John Wall will be looking to rekindle his career with the Clippers as he is more of a role player than the superstar he became early in his NBA career.

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

What is the plan for supporting the Ivica Zubac center?

Like last season, the Clippers will open camp and review all options behind Zubac. Moses Brown, the 7-foot-2, 22-year-old with a training camp contract, has size, can protect the rim and can screen and roll according to Frank, but “we’re not a prisoner, OK, I’m playing a backup five,” Frank said .

Expect forwards Marcus Morris Sr., Robert Covington, Batum, rookie Moussa Diabate and winger Terance Mann to switch roles to pull the defense off the rim.

“Although we call it, quote, unquoted, ‘small,’ think of the sizes, like the various potential lineups that T-Lue can bring to market,” Frank said. “You have a lot of size. You can put up a lineup out there that you’re not really small with the length alone. Then we’ll just continue to evaluate the position as the season progresses and see if we need to approach it differently.”

The Clippers’ depth is enviable, but how will they keep everyone happy with only a limited number of minutes?

Don’t neglect the obvious way to trim a rotation – a trade. Since Frank took over the front office, the Clippers have been active every trading session. That being said, however, the Clippers appear to be counting on Lue’s skillful personality management, a shared title goal and idle players to keep everyone pointing in the same direction.

As Frank described, being at your best in April, May and June means knowing when to exercise caution in the months leading up. Games where Leonard, George and the rest of the team’s senior rotation players need a break become opportunities for the likes of Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr., Amir Coffey and Jason Preston. With the exception of Preston, who was injured all of last season, these players have done a good job of staying ready and the Clippers expect the same this season.

This team knows where their shooting, versatility and top talent will come from. What about his leadership?

The first iteration of the Leonard-and-George Clippers collapsed under duress with no effective dressing room leadership in the 2020 playoffs, but members of the team suggest lessons have been learned since. Leonard’s rehab after knee surgery was a model of how to work with discipline, Frank said. George described being more comfortable taking possession of the locker room last season and that seems to have continued. Frank acknowledged that George funded and organized two player retreats in San Diego and Santa Barbara this summer.

The offseason can’t offer the same intensity as a playoff series, just as the star of a team is often not the person best suited to keep things focused or light. As the Clippers get to the rough patches of their season, it will become clear who will keep them on course.

“When we talk about leadership, serving leadership is not being served, and I think Paul embodies that in his actions and what he does,” Frank said. “And the team’s ownership is, if you think four years ago when we got Paul and Kawhi, it was more of a destination place. Now this is home. If it’s a home, you want to make it the best home it can be.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-09-26/los-angeles-clippers-preview-five-questions-training-camp-opens Clippers preview: Five questions to examine as training camp opens

Emma Bowman

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