Not everything has changed: the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and they still have Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. The belief of Clippers fans in their young center Ivica Zubac remains unabated.
But otherwise, wow, what a difference a year and two months makes.
First, this season is kicking off in the midst of a pandemic: The NBA announced on Wednesday that 48 players across the league were positive for the coronavirus during the tests that greeted them when they returned to their team’s home markets last week.
The coronavirus, which the NBA relegated to a Florida bubble last season, has also pushed back the start of this one, which will be somewhat abbreviated and played largely in empty arenas – starting December 22 with a Clippers-Lakers clash at Staples Center without fans.
Aside from those more existential distortions, in the Clippers’ neighborhoods, the buzz is no longer about what will be an ideal match between two no-nonsense stars with a tough bunch of luminaries.
The topic of the trip is instead whether the superstar treatment delivered George and Leonard last season disrupted chemistry so much that the team underperformed spectacular. After being first anointed to the title favorites, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead and lost to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
As a result, Coach Tyronn replaced Lue Doc Rivers in the driver’s seat, asking questions on Wednesday on Day 2 about what is a fully virtual ‘media week’ this season.
Lue – who has played with and successfully coached with the most prominent stars – perhaps uniquely qualified to navigate the challenges on a redemption trip from Clippers.
“Last year we all know we have underperformed,” said Lue, who donned his sneakers alongside Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan and called the plays from the sidelines for LeBron James.
“We had high expectations and we failed to achieve those goals along with (28) other teams. … We have not succeeded and we all know it. But now we have a new attitude. We have a new system that we have put in place.
“I’ve been talking to our players for two months for the past month and a half. They are very excited. ”
She including Leonard, who described Lue as eager to compete – and responsible too – after last season’s early playoff exit.
“We all failed in our goal last season and we all know it,” said Lue. “Kawhi has done a great job taking (initiative) to get guys on the phone, talk to guys and see more guys.”
During a pandemic forcing teams to cautiously open training camps, with four days of individual training instead of more team-based training, those kinds of overtures from the team’s biggest star can add value.
So is Lue’s experience working with players who perform in the harshest light of the spotlight. He helped heal a broken Cleveland Cavaliers team – led by James – on its way to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including a title in the first.
“Every time you coach LeBron James, there’s a lot of media coverage, there’s a lot of pressure to win,” said Lue. And just being able to deal with that caliber of player, with Kawhi and PG as our two best players on the team, I think it translates to just being the Clippers coach and being able to deal with those guys to go, understand stars in this. league, how they perform, what they like, what they want to do. Just being so around guys, it certainly helped me a lot. ”
Honesty, Lue said, is the best policy. Even with – or perhaps especially with – the greats.
“What I learned from Brian Shaw a long time ago is always tell the truth, whether they like it or not,” Lue said. “Even (then) with Kobe and Shaq, those guys were just telling the truth. They may not like it, but they respect it.
“They won’t always like what you have to say, but if you’re honest and tell the truth, I think if they’re real with themselves, they can always look and … the next day (say), ‘ You know what T-Lue, you were right. “I learned it at a young age. So that’s why I can hold boys accountable. Whether it’s a great player, the best player on the team to the 15th player on a squad,” that’s kind of what I live by. ”
Making progress in a fraught Western Conference requires more than frank conversation. It also requires some on-track adjustments – changes George said were missing last season while performing on the podcast “All the Smoke” with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, which airs December 10.
– SHOWTIME SPORTS (@SHOsports) December 2, 2020
“The talk was like ‘we’ll be fine’,” George said of the debacle in the second round of the playoffs. “The conversations should have been, ‘We have to change things.’
“At the end of the day, I don’t think we deserved it; we weren’t prepared enough to respond, just our position on making adjustments. ”
George also says he was unhappy with his role in Rivers’s attack, suggesting he didn’t have enough opportunities to mix pick-and-rolls and post-ups.
Lue said he would introduce new ideas.
“We’ve implemented a new system,” he said, noting that he plans to use the game skills of new shooting guard Luke Kennard and that the two 7-foot Clippers – Zubac and the recent acquisition of a free agent Serge Ibaka – could play in lineups together.
Those plans will of course benefit from healthy stars. In their first season with the Clippers, Leonard and George respectively missed most of the training camp.
This year they will hit the ground healthy.
“I just think more, for us it’s practice,” said Lue. “When your two players of that caliber miss a training camp, it’s hard to build that camaraderie and that chemistry. So if these guys are just healthy they’ll come in (Thursday) I’m excited about it.
“Guys are excited to just be on the field and be healthy, and we’ll move on from there.”