Three games into the Clippers’ exhibition schedule, with just one final dress rehearsal before the regular season begins, All-Star wing Paul George has identified “slippage” defensively with the way the team has allowed back cuts.
There are things to work on including their help defense, all-wing lineup and communication on switched assignments.
But barely two weeks into the preseason, there is one thing George says is perfectly clear: The team’s two-star dynamic and the place he has happily accepted within it.
With Kawhi Leonard returning from a knee injury after missing the entire 2021-22 season, George said after Sunday’s 119-117 loss to Minnesota at Crypto.com Arena that his job is to complement Leonard.
Asked if he had studied other successful teams built around two big wings, George mentioned the former Miami combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He added that in the fourth year of his Clippers partnership with Leonard that “Kawhi is the No. 1, and I am totally fine with that.
“I think I try to complement him with being able to take the load off of him,” George said. “Everybody says, ‘Kawhi, you are 1 and 1, [or] 1A, 1B.’ I’ll publicly say, I’m the two. Kawhi’s the one. I’m the two. … There’s no ego when it comes to that. But with that being said, I believe in my talent and what I can do and I believe on any night of what I am capable of. But I feel my job is to make everybody better.
“That is what I try to do when I am on the floor, just make the game easy for everybody whether it is creating or just being aggressive and making reads off of that. So I think we will go a long ways if everybody just knows their role and what we bring to the table. Everything else is easy, we just roll the ball out and we get after it.”
If that sounds as though George is happy taking a back seat, numerous Clippers have noted throughout the offseason how George had taken steps to establish himself as a more comfortable locker-room leader. He was one of the key voices organizing offseason player retreats to San Diego and Santa Barbara, even covering the tab for some of his teammates.
“We’re very lucky, you think about our two star players, they really, really appreciate and respect and care about each other, and they don’t compete for whose team it is,” Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, said last month.
When Leonard committed as a free agent in July 2019 and George arrived the same night in a trade from Oklahoma City as a package deal, the two knew one another but not on a deep level. They shared ties: Both were prep stars from the Los Angeles exurbs who had gone from smaller colleges to selections in the middle of the draft’s first round before developing into NBA stars. They’ve grown closer since.
“Just a genuine relationship,” Leonard said. “We’re both unselfish, so I mean I feel like if you go on the floor and somebody’s passing the ball, just moving it, you’ll get that continuity back going easily.
“My 12th year, his 13th year … we’ve been through this before, so I feel like just having those years under our belt … we have a genuine relationship and it just carries over.”
Here are some other observations with the start of the NBA season a little more than a week away.
John Wall is where he wants to be
After scoring 20 points and getting to the free-throw line nine times in three quarters Sunday, John Wall said that “I’m there now” as far as where he wants to be before the season’s start. The last step is conditioning.
“The game shape is totally different than playing pickup or playing one on one,” Wall said. “So going into a game, continuing to run for like five minutes without a break, I think that’s where we’re all trying to get to.”
Wall started against Minnesota, a long-planned move to see how he played with George, Leonard, center Ivica Zubac and forward Marcus Morris Sr. Reggie Jackson had the same opportunity in the second exhibition game. They are competing for the only starting spot open. Wall scored style points by carrying the ball around his waist during a dribble into the paint and softly scoring a layup in the second half.
He scowled to the crowd as teammates smiled from the bench.
“You see somebody that’s happy and enjoying the game,” George said of Wall. “When it’s taken away from you and you don’t know where you’re going to go from there and you get the opportunity to come back to it, you appreciate it.”
Leonard grateful to be back
Clippers guard Norman Powell has a good feel for who Leonard is, having known him since high school. And Powell has noticed a change in Leonard — more joy.
Leonard didn’t disagree with that assessment.
“Yeah, I mean I missed a whole year missing basketball, went down in one of the worst ways, in a playoff run,” he said.
“You just miss it, you know what I mean? That’s some of the reason I don’t play pickup in the offseason. The grind is so heavy during the year, it’s like I need to find a way to miss playing basketball again.”
Where was Lue after halftime?
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue spoke with reporters before tipoff as usual, coached the team through the first half and then didn’t return after halftime. It turned out to be a plan 24 hours in the making. It was designed to give associate head coach Dan Craig some experience in the top chair. Lue watched the second half from inside the arena.
Only days earlier Lue described Craig, who has been in charge of the defense since joining the Clippers in 2020, as one of the assistants on his staff he believes could one day be a potential head coach. He also mentioned assistants Dahntay Jones and Jeremy Castleberry, as well.