“My phone was blowing up and I thought I got traded,” the 22-year-old shooting guard told reporters Sunday at the Clippers’ media day. “I’ve been traded before. I know what that feels like at 2:30 in the morning.”
Indeed, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his deep front office had moved mountains to acquire the pair of all-star wings. Sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder were starters Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, plus four unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps. Shamet survived the blockbuster, as did roster mainstays such as Lou Williams, the reigning sixth man of the year, and Montrezl Harrell. Patrick Beverley, the team’s vocal leader, chose to re-sign with the Clippers less than a week later.
The arrivals of Leonard and George, two defensive-minded forwards who fit the Clippers’ vision for hard-nosed basketball, are more akin to Kevin Durant’s 2016 move to the Golden State Warriors, rather than LeBron James’s 2018 signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. When Durant went to the Bay Area, his role was clear and the table was set. When James landed in Southern California, however, his star power became the Lakers’ identity because his new organization had neither the proven complementary talents nor the infrastructure to support him.
While the Clippers mortgaged their future to gamble that Leonard and George could immediately vault them into the title conversation, the headline-making summer moves haven’t triggered an identity overhaul.
“It’s important for us to maintain that mind-set,” Williams said, when asked how Leonard and George would fit with a team that prided itself on overachieving as underdogs last season. “That works in our favor with the personalities we have in our locker room. I don’t think we should stop being ourselves because of the addition of those guys. I don’t know if there’s a way to tell Pat Beverley to chill out. I don’t think my mind-set changes either.”
Beverley agreed, with a promise: “We’ll have that same scrappiness attitude, but on steroids.”
Leonard and George, both natives of Southern California, have wasted no time settling into their new environment and getting to know their new teammates. Leonard has donated one million backpacks to local schoolchildren, while George said it was “surreal” to be taking Interstate 405 to work. The Clippers, who will depart this week for training camp in Hawaii, have participated in pickup games since Labor Day and recently went deep sea fishing as a bonding exercise.
“The second this came together, we were all in the group chat talking, laughing and building that togetherness and camaraderie,” George said of his new teammates. “That relationship was established early. We fast-forwarded all that getting to know each other stuff. You seize the opportunity.”
Leonard said he was struck by the Clippers’ confidence and work ethic last season, and by their balanced approach on offense and willingness to ride the hot hand. The reigning Finals MVP landed in a similar situation with the Toronto Raptors last season, where contributions from all corners helped deliver the first title in franchise history.
One key difference: Leonard, who was on a load management program last season as he recovered from a quad injury that limited him to just nine games in 2017-18, enters the season healthy.
“You have to stay healthy as well [to compete for a title],” Leonard said. “You have to be blessed. Last year I was going in with an injury I was dealing with the year before. It still was lingering. We knew that I had to be healthy throughout the season and into the playoffs. This year I’m feeling good, feeling way better than I was at the start of last season. There’s really no [load management] plan laid out yet to discuss.”
While Leonard looks and sounds ready to go full tilt, George will require more patience as he continues to recover from offseason surgeries on both shoulders. The 29-year-old said that he will not participate in contact portions of training camp this week, telling ESPN that he is targeting a November return. The Clippers are set to open their regular season schedule against the Lakers on Oct. 22.
“I’m used to being in this rehab stage and knowing what it takes to get my body prepared and up to speed,” George said. “It’s a long process, but going through it [previously] with a drastic injury in my leg, I know what to expect. I know what pressure to put on myself and what pressure not to put on myself as well. I’m just in a good place. I know what I need to do. I know what I’m capable of. I know when my body’s ready.”
Much like the crosstown Lakers, who downplayed rivalry talk and avoided brash proclamations, the Clippers largely spent their media day trying to tamp down the hype. Although rivals might view them as the NBA’s deepest team and early title favorites, the July celebrations for Leonard’s franchise-altering decision have given way to a more cautious confidence. Coach Doc Rivers told reporters last week that championship expectations are a “privilege” for an organization that has never advanced to the conference finals, but Leonard looked ready to fall asleep at media day and his new sidekick picked his words more carefully than usual.
“Hopefully by June we’re the last team standing,” George said. “It’s going to be scary. We really have a chance to do something special on the defensive end.”