The summer acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has the LA Clippers on the cusp of long-sought greatness.
2018-19 record: 48-34, lost in first round of playoffs
Key additions: Paul George (trade), Kawhi Leonard (free agency), Maurice Harkless (trade), Patrick Patterson (free agency), Mfiondu Kabengele (Draft)
Key subtractions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari
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One of the more unexpected surprises in the league in 2018-19 was the play of the Clippers. They traded their leading scorer (Tobias Harris) on February 6, ended the regular season with an all-rookie starting backcourt and not only reached the playoffs, but won twice at Oracle Arena against Golden State in the first round.
It was one of Doc Rivers' best coaching efforts, which says a lot given his resume, and a ringing endorsement of the blueprint put in place by GM Lawrence Frank and advisor Jerry West. It was also a salute to a group of grit-fueled players who rarely took a night off.
Among them was Lou Williams, who became a fourth-quarter saviour after the Harris trade. He averaged 20 points per game, logged two 30-point playoff games and claimed his second straight (and third career) Sixth Man of the Year award.
Key reserve Montrezl Harrell had a breakout season (16.6 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game) where he developed a trusty hook shot while giving the Clippers otherwise weak interior game some presence.
The Harris trade was strategic as the Clippers wanted to clear salary-cap space for a free-agent splash rather than re-sign Harris to an extension. Not only did the Clippers get rookie Landry Shamet and picks in return (including the valued, unprotected Miami 2021 pick), they didn't miss a beat without Harris. They drew the Warriors in the first round and played valiantly, then awaited a summer where they'd be big players in free agency.
The blueprint for building a championship team began two years ago when the Clippers hired West, more famously known for his Hall of Fame link with the other team in Los Angeles. Almost immediately, 'Lob City' was dismantled, with Chris Paul traded first and Blake Griffin dealt months later. They were replaced by a low-cost, clean-slate approach designed to put the Clippers in position to strike big in free agency come the summer of 2019. It was a change of philosophy that most teams probably wouldn't have the guts to do, but the Clippers were thinking boldly.
Then this summer came a target that was a poorly kept secret throughout 2018-19: Kawhi Leonard was the player they craved.
It helped that he was born and raised in Southern California and longed for a team that could provide stability, something he didn't really have in Toronto despite leading the Raptors to a title, and trust, something that eroded in San Antonio the previous season over a persistent quad injury.
The problem was the Lakers, who could offer a union with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as well as a massive edge in historical credibility, also had the cash to land Kawhi. Yet in the end, the Clippers perhaps offered more: Rivers, West and chairman Steve Ballmer, and more importantly, a chance for Kawhi to make the Clippers his own team rather than be a co-star or third wheel with the Lakers.
Then came the unexpected bonus: Leonard managed to sway Paul George into requesting a trade from Oklahoma City. Thanks to some deft management and asset-building, the Clippers had the goods to offer an acceptable package of players and picks in the negotiation via the Griffin and Harris trades.
The Clippers' blockbuster, transformational summer was complete. An organisation without a championship and long known for their dysfunction had grabbed one of the summer's three premier free agents available. It was a masterstroke that, a year ago, few saw coming.
Leonard and George need little examination or introduction; their skills and accomplishments are obvious enough, along with their ability to be interchangeable and flexible. They're almost mirror images, in terms of the package. Mostly, they're a match because of their willingness to share the load and the spotlight, and also their unique ability to impact games on both ends of the floor. By adding a pair of smart defenders who double as 20-point scorers, the Clippers own an advantage over other teams led by twin stars.
It helped that Leonard was coming off an epic season where he led the Raptors to the top while restoring a public image that was sullen, to a degree, by his messy exit from San Antonio.
Leonard and George, when coupled with Harrell and Patrick Beverley, make the Clippers a superior defensive team overall (at least on paper). The number of line-up combinations and switches available to Rivers is scary. It's the sort of challenge that makes coaching fun, and Rivers should enjoy this season if most expectations are met.
The summer offered another mild surprise in the form of the four-team Jimmy Butler-to-Miami trade. The Clippers agreed to take Maurice Harkless' contract and in return received a future first-rounder from the Heat (which was sent to OKC in the George deal). From the Clippers' end, this was a win-win.
Harkless is a 6ft 9in perimeter player and should be a comfy fit in the rotation. Plus, his contract ($11m) is only for this season. The Clippers also re-signed guard Rodney McGruder for three years after claiming him off waivers late last season. He brings another three-point shooter into the mix.
The Clippers enjoyed a summer filled with big signings and deals that, in the past, always escaped them. Throughout their history, the Clippers usually watched other teams execute like this.
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But now it was their time. And the Clippers made the most of the rare opportunity to remake themselves and create a new and respectful image.
Now it's about transferring it to the court. The season can't start soon enough for them.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Powell2daPeople
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