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Clippers preview: Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George win a title together?

The early October evening and a new NBA season approached when Steve Ballmer returned to the topic that has consumed his eight years of owning the Clippers.

Inside a West Adams compound hidden from the street by high walls, Ballmer turned to Baron Davis, Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford, the former Clippers he was seated next to during a test broadcast of the team’s new streaming service. As it often does with Ballmer, the conversation turned to championships.

“My pattern,” Ballmer said, “says you’ve just got to have one of those guys.”

Pierce, whose 2008 NBA title with Boston came alongside two other All-Stars in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, spoke up.

“You have to have a guy who is considered at least a top-five player to win a championship,” he said. “So when you look at the championship teams, there’ve only been a few who’ve won it without a guy who’s considered a top-five. In our case with Boston, we had KG who was considered a top-five guy. And so Kawhi is considered that guy.”

Pierce continued: “I think that’s the common equation to a championship contender.”

Clippers forwards Kawhi Leonard (2) and Paul George (13), trapping Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, are two of the NBA’s best two-way players.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“You’ve got to have a closer,” Davis said. “I think the Clippers got two closers.”

On a monitor a few feet away from their leather chairs they watched Kawhi Leonard miss a shot, only for Paul George to finish the possession with a basket.

“That’s the perfect example,” Crawford jumped in. “Because Kawhi misses a shot and the ball goes back around and PG, he gets the opportunity on the same possession, and your other closer knocks it down.”

Leonard and George’s arrival three years ago as a package deal of All-Stars was supposed to change the conversation around the Clippers, a franchise whose first four decades were spent with few postseason appearances, only for their last decade to feature repeated playoff trips and repeated disappointment.

“I think both of us kind of internally had a promise — I know I did for myself — to bring a championship here,” George said.

“We have a genuine relationship and it just carries over.”

— Kawhi Leonard, regarding his partnership with Paul George on and off the court

The All-Star duo has pulled the Clippers closer than ever — a first conference-finals appearance in 2021 — but there has been no parade down Figueroa Street. A playoff collapse ended their first opportunity to win a championship and an injury to Leonard derailed the last two. By the time the start of their fourth season together arrived in September, Leonard remarked that “it seemed like it went by so fast.” George acknowledged that his window to win a title is shrinking.

No one can say whether the Clippers, with their roster loaded with length, versatility, shooting, veterans and a well-documented injury history, will ever have a better opportunity to complete what the team describes as its “mission.”

Fulfilling it hinges on this season being different. Throughout training camp, the conversations around the Clippers showed they believe it can be.

They saw evidence of that in the initiative by players, including George, to spearhead and cover costs for offseason retreats in San Diego and Santa Barbara.

They saw it in Leonard’s commitment to a recovery regimen that “didn’t cut corners,” his longtime trainer Clint Parks said, and his healthy first weeks of practice following a 15-month layoff after knee surgery.

They hear it in the way Leonard and George speak up more often, and the way each describes the progression of what Leonard called their “genuine relationship.” Leonard was among only a handful of George’s teammates invited to his Italian wedding in July.

“You don’t talk basketball, [you] talk about your life, and we just building chemistry from there,” Leonard said.

George took the unprompted step during the preseason of declaring himself the team’s No. 2 option to Leonard’s No. 1, adding, “and I am totally fine with that.”

Some viewed it as further evidence that more than a decade into their careers, ego has taken a back seat to sacrifice. It certainly stood out for coach Tyronn Lue, who experienced the potential and pitfalls of the two-star dynamic as a Lakers teammate to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and in Cleveland as coach of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

In Leonard and George, he sees something that is not always the case.

“The biggest thing is just those guys being able to get along,” Lue said. “You know, 1A-1B, one-two, whatever you want to call it, just as long as those guys get along together — they love playing with each other — that is the biggest thing for me.”

As Leonard and George have become increasingly comfortable within the organization, they also have been more willing to do what might have been uncomfortable for them during their first year together — take charge in the locker room.

The two “have definitely opened up a lot,” Lue said.

George has embraced the challenge of “doing something that’s never been done in the history of this organization,” said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations.

After Lue publicly ripped the team’s unprofessional approach to a preseason loss to Denver, George also took issue with their focus behind closed doors.

“We all don’t want to lose an opportunity that we have in front of us,” George said. “There’s a very good chance for us to go and win it.”

Clippers forward Paul George greets a fan courtside before a game.

Clippers forward Paul George greets a fan courtside before a game last season.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“Shoot,” said point guard Reggie Jackson, one of George’s closest friends, “even times he’s calling me out.”

George described his and Leonard’s tandem leadership approach as “read the room.”

“Seeing if T-Lue’s going to be the good guy or the bad guy that day,” Leonard said. “You just kinda working in between there because you don’t want your star players saying you’re not doing a good job, and your head coach. It brings a lot down on you. So if it’s one of those days T-Lue is on his bad, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s try to pick up the team.’ And if he’s on and talking good, then it’s like, ‘OK, we’re not doing this right’ type of stuff.”

Leonard and George’s willingness to speak up, and their teammates’ willingness to listen, is no small element that could determine their ultimate success. Just as a lack of locker-room cohesion factored into 2020’s playoff ouster, Lue said one of his top concerns about his deep roster is how much players are willing to sacrifice. Forward Marcus Morris Sr. has called this season’s camaraderie the best he has been around since joining the team in 2020 — but more telling, Leonard said, is whether that energy continues 20 or 40 games in.

“As a player you just try to see who’s down or see those spots we are lagging in and try to lay those concerns out, but it is human nature, know what I mean?” he said. “When I was coming into the league, I didn’t like what I was doing but I did my job and I’m here now so … it is just about staying focused on the team goal.”

Leonard has the authority to cajole and criticize not only because of his championships with San Antonio and Toronto, or his pair of Finals most valuable player trophies, but also what teammates and executives called an unwavering work ethic during his recovery, often finishing weights workouts by the time teammates arrived for practice.

“Kawhi isn’t going to say too much, he just puts the work in,” guard John Wall said.

“That’s the delicate balance of having two stars, primarily at the same position.”

— NBA scout in regard to having two ball-dominant perimeter players

Among scouts, there seems to be little doubt Leonard can return to his All-NBA form. With Toronto in 2018-19, Leonard returned from a leg injury that marred the end of his time in San Antonio to average 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists during 60 regular-season games before averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists during a postseason that ended with his second title and Finals MVP honor.

The more compelling question for scouts, particularly after watching George’s MVP-level start to last season with Leonard sidelined, is whether Lue and the Clippers can get the best version of George and Leonard at the same time.

“That’s the delicate balance of having two stars, primarily at the same position,” one scout said.

Only a handful of championship teams have been built around wings. Coaches, league executives and players cited the duos of Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas in Detroit, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, James and Dwyane Wade in Miami and Golden State’s long-range combination of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Miami assistant Dan Craig watched in 2010 as Wade and James, both ball-dominant scorers before uniting with the Heat, endured a “huge learning curve” during their first season to learn how to effectively play off one another while also shouldering the responsibility of making their teammates better.

Clippers player Kawhi Leonard points to the court while sitting alongside teammate Paul George.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard (pointing) missed last season as he recovered from knee surgery while teammate Paul George (second from left) played in only 31 games.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Craig recognized similarities with the Clippers when he arrived in 2020 as Lue’s top assistant during Leonard and George’s second season.

“In my experience with Miami that was something those guys had to learn too. One, how do you play off the ball, and then, two, how do you play in actions together where you can bring your strengths out and the team’s strengths?” Craig said.

Midway through Lue’s first season as coach, in 2021, he, assistant Larry Drew and Leonard and George held a lengthy film session together in a Washington, D.C. hotel room to discuss the team’s struggles late in close games. Lue has called the meeting a breakthrough.

“Obviously Kawhi missed all of last year but I’ve definitely seen growth since I’ve been here in terms of them playing together and playing off each other,” Craig said.

Including playoffs, Leonard and George played just 50 games together their first season and 54 in their second. After a season apart, they will run a clearly defined offense that Craig and Lue both credited with helping lower their learning curve and maximize their production together. It won’t be “free flowing,” Lue said, but aimed at calling specific plays for specific players to get the ball in specific spots. There is also optimism that Wall, whose career assist average is seventh best in NBA history, will help play offensive traffic cop.

“I see both those guys having to do a lot for this team to be successful, and that’s on offense,” Lue said. “But the biggest part is on defense. I think [they’re] two guys that are like shutdown corners that can guard multiple positions, so that has to be their mindset.”

Because Leonard does not play pickup games during the offseason, his repetitions with George to recapture their chemistry were limited during training camp. Their chemistry during the 2021 second-round series against Utah, when both scored 30 points in two consecutive games before Leonard injured his knee, will not be regained immediately. Leonard cautioned that there will be ebbs and flows to his year ahead.

The Clippers have, as Davis, Pierce and Crawford underscored, the recipe for ultimate success — All-Star talent, plenty of depth and a championship coach in Lue.

“The sky’s the limit for our team,” Ballmer said in June. “The sky is the limit and it will be kind of our effort and our energy, because of course you have to have a little bit of good luck to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which is what we’d really like.”

They have made that clearly known. Players walking through the lobby of their Playa Vista practice facility during training camp passed a big-screen television. On it was a picture of the golden trophy awarded to the NBA champion, accompanied by four words.

ONE TEAM

ONE MISSION

One hinging on two stars.

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