Coach Doc Rivers indulged in a little melodrama Monday when he landed on “survival” as the major theme of the Clippers’ first 10 games. In truth, Los Angeles has led a mostly charmed existence, racking up a 7-3 record and a strong plus-five point differential despite playing the West’s toughest schedule. Leonard has been sensational to start the season, prevailing over Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in an opening night showdown and delighting his new fan base with signature late-game takeovers and an unexpectedly nuanced passing game.
“Kawhi has been easy to integrate,” Rivers quipped after a late-October win over the Charlotte Hornets. “You just give him the ball. I’m no fool.”
Whether George also will prove to be a plug-and-play addition remains to be seen. The Clippers have exercised extreme caution with the 29-year-old, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since an April 23 playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. George exited the court that night in disbelief after Damian Lillard drained a buzzer-beater in his face, famously telling reporters later that it had been a “bad shot” because it originated from so far behind the arc.
The six months since that painful exit were eventful, even if George has been largely invisible. In May, he underwent surgery on his right shoulder to repair a partially torn tendon. In June, he underwent surgery to repair a labrum tear in his left shoulder. In July, the Clippers traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, five first-round picks and additional considerations for George so that they could pair Leonard with his handpicked sidekick. In September and October, George missed training camp, the entire preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season as the Clippers targeted a mid-November return.
“I haven’t played five-on-five organized [basketball] since May,” George said after his first full practice Saturday. “I was finding my rhythm with the full 10 guys on the floor. From a health standpoint, I feel great. [It’s all about my] rhythm, especially where these guys are at right now in the season. They’re flowing right now. I want to come in with an easy transition.”
George has remained a regular presence around the team, partaking in shooting contests with assistant coach Sam Cassell before games, watching games from the bench and chatting with his new teammates in the locker room after games. His locker is adjacent to Leonard’s at the center of the room, setting up the two Southern California natives as an imposing united front.
Both Leonard and George began their careers in small markets, both are in their respective primes, both are on their third NBA franchises, and both have extolled the virtues of their dual homecomings. George described the pair as kindred spirits during their introductory news conference, and Leonard has sounded eager to get their on-court relationship started.
“[George] is going to be a big piece, and he’s going to cause a lot of attention,” Leonard said. “I’m happy for him [that he’s healthy]. I hung out with him previous times before even being on [the same team], but now it’s about translating it on the court. The only thing you can do is just play. It’s hard to do it any other way. Make mistakes, argue, have great communication and move forward.”
The move to Los Angeles has hardly altered Leonard’s demeanor; the NBA’s lowest-profile all-star remains consumed by winning and little else. When he was asked recently whether winning his first MVP award might serve as motivation, he replied with a flat “no.” As frustration mounted over his load management program, Leonard stated simply that his goal was to remain mobile enough so that he could one day play basketball with his young son. He didn’t bother to feign sympathy for ESPN, which has twice aired games in which the Clippers rested Leonard as part of his treatment for an ongoing patella tendon injury.
Just as George needed to adapt to playing with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, the onus will be on him to fit in around Leonard. After all, Leonard is one of the NBA’s purest alphas, ranking second in usage, fifth in shot attempts and sixth in scoring this season. George might be more charismatic and marketable, but he hasn’t advanced out of the first round in four years and has never made the Finals. Leonard, of course, boasts two rings and two Finals MVPs.
Rivers conceded Monday that his two superstars “don’t have a chemistry together on the floor” yet and that his own rapport with George remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, he predicted smooth sailing in the coming weeks.
“[Bonding with George] is going to be easy,” the coach said. “He’s like us: tough and really serious about the game. He knows everything about every team. His [high basketball] IQ is something I didn’t know about him [before this season].”
The Clippers will eventually face a playing time crunch once they are fully healthy. For now, George will be eased back into the lineup as he works his way into game shape. A serious ankle injury to Landry Shamet, a starting guard, also will relieve the logjam in the short term. Even so, George’s arrival will force Rivers to rework his starting lineup and his closing lineup and to decide how and when to stagger his two stars’ minutes.
At the heart of those coaching decisions is the question that will define the Clippers’ season: Will Leonard and George prove to be as overwhelming together in reality as they appear to be on paper? Their shared size, physicality, shot-creating ability, shooting skills and commitment to defense have the potential to make them the NBA’s most lethal duo.
“What you see is what you get,” George said, delivering his first impression of Leonard. “You understand how good he is on the court. He works on his game. He takes care of his diet. He does all the things that you want your [franchise] guy to do. Everything [they say] about his makeup is true. He works hard. He’s a great teammate and a great locker room guy. He actually does talk. He’s a fun guy. The legend is true.”
But this is a new marriage, and neither has experience playing with a comparable wing talent. George, in particular, has plenty to prove and a tricky path to navigate: He will be expected to quickly get up to speed, to recapture his MVP-caliber form and to go further — and play better — in the playoffs than he has before. If the Clippers fall short, he will make for a far more natural scapegoat than Leonard. His résumé is the one with the holes.
This is some life: returning from six months of forced exile only to find a pressure cooker waiting.