Being a superteam can be hard.
This is a lesson that has been passed on from the 2010-11 Miami Heat to the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers to the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers — and one that the LA Clippers are grinding through this season.
Their 30-13 record heading into Tuesday’s game at the Dallas Mavericks is very good. They’ve beaten the conference-leading Lakers twice already. Most sportsbooks currently have the Clippers as the co-favorite if not the favorite to win the title. But to look at the record and Vegas odds would belie their journey thus far.
It has not been a smooth season.
At times over the past month players have expressed frustration over a lack of cohesion, coach Doc Rivers has displayed annoyance at waning effort, and injuries have continued to limit chemistry.
More than anything, the entire franchise has been groaning a bit as it settles into the concept of load management.
It isn’t just Kawhi Leonard skipping back-to-backs to manage the stress on his knee. It’s a change in the organizational mindset, to sacrifice the short-term goals with an eye toward the end goal.
The immediate goal was the end goal for last season’s Clippers — a less talented but scrappy bunch that couldn’t afford to take a possession off. This season there’s an apparatus in place to take entire games off.
There’s no doubt this new world order contributed to the frustration felt by Montrezl Harrell recently. With the Clippers in a choppy stretch after their Christmas win over the Lakers, the team’s powerful big man boiled over following a 26-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 4.
“We’re not a great team. … We just [came] together this year,” Harrell grumbled. “We have two players that haven’t been a part of this team. We have a player who won an NBA championship with a whole ‘nother team last year.”
He topped it off with: “Either we wake up and figure it out right now or we’re just going to have a full up-and-down season for the whole year.”
A few days later, Lou Williams, who along with Harrell carried the 2018-19 Clippers, agreed with the sentiment.
“Yeah, we haven’t won anything, so that’s pretty much the truth,” Williams said. “Great teams have championships. We don’t have one, so I agree with that.”
The underlying discussions about the mindset differences between last season and this season have even gotten under Rivers’ skin. A day after Harrell’s rant, the typically unflappable coach snapped back at the notion that last season’s team was somehow better because it gave the appearance of playing harder.
“What I know about last year, we were the eighth seed, we were 19th in defense and we lost in the first round. I just will reject that that was such a great year,” Rivers said. “We did a lot, it was fun, we did some good things, but it wasn’t good enough. And to me, I hate using that as a benchmark. That’s all I keep telling our guys. It’s frustrating as hell to me. Like, everyone brings it up. It’s not a benchmark. That’s a losing organization.”
A root issue is time.
Paul George and Leonard have played just 18 games together, only 461 minutes in total. What probably qualifies as the team’s best lineup — Leonard, George, Williams, Harrell and Patrick Beverley — has played 46 minutes together. The unit has been a defensive beast, allowing 81 points per 100 possessions, but it’s a rare sight.
And with injuries to other rotation players like Landry Shamet, Maurice Harkless and Beverley, the Clippers have had their full roster available for only one game this season: Christmas Day versus the Lakers.
There have been few full-contact practices to get reps. And when a gap in the schedule finally allowed time for practices, George suffered a hamstring injury in the first workout. Basically, the Clippers have tried to get comfortable with their best lineups in walk-throughs and those few games thus far.
The musical-chairs lineups only magnify the fact that neither Leonard nor George is particularly outspoken. They are phenomenal talents who show leadership through their play but are not known for gregarious locker-room bonding.
It has not helped that the Lakers boast tremendous chemistry between new star teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Their group, which has only a handful of returning players, has been a model of nightly effort with relentless defense.
The Lakers have a better record and look like they’re having more fun in the same building.
Last week Leonard seemed to acknowledge his teammates’ growing pains and offered some assuaging comments.
“Don’t be in a rush to win these games,” Leonard said. “Enjoy every moment of this. Enjoy the process. Use it as a learning tool when we get down in the trenches. … We just can’t be in a rush. Be patient. It’s hard to win a championship. The pressure isn’t even on us now.”
Translation: Let the load management do its work, gentlemen.
Of everything that has been said by the Clippers in the new year, none has been as important to their championship hopes as what Leonard said after a win over the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 10.
“I feel better,” Leonard said, referring to the knee contusion that caused him to miss time in November. “I’m able to jump without it grabbing too much. And hopefully I just keep going uphill from here.”
It can be hard to take a player at his word with regard to health, and Leonard guards his as closely as anyone. Earlier this season, the Clippers were fined $50,000 when Rivers said Leonard “felt great” but then was held out of a national TV game for load management. In announcing the fine, the league revealed Leonard was dealing with a serious patella tendon issue. This was after both Leonard and Rivers indicated in the preseason that he was the picture of health.
Recent play supports the statement, though. Over the past five games, Leonard is averaging 36 points on 56% shooting and nearly three steals a game. Monday he won the Western Conference Player of the Week Award. It’s not a coincidence that he has done it with plenty of rest time — Tuesday will be his sixth game in a 15-day span.
The Clippers have won four of their past five games. That run has calmed some nerves and a mood that was spilling onto the court via technical fouls and ejections. Leonard’s stellar play has led to more smiles and greater receptiveness to the process of chasing a championship.
If Leonard is healthy and he and George get any sort of traction together, these midseason doldrums will be long forgotten by spring. Though he has had his outbursts, Rivers has repeated this mantra throughout the season. And if the players don’t want to hear it from him, there’s always the two-time Finals MVP.
“We going to keep getting better,” Leonard said. “I feel like guys want to win and get better. I feel like we are still going to get better.”