LOS ANGELES -- Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are a match made in Clipper Heaven because of their similar size, skills and ability to make game-winning plays at either end of the court. But let the record show that their first appearance in public together was initially a chemistry failure.
As they stood for the obligatory jersey-raising photo, Leonard was to the left of George and something didn’t seem right. Leave it to Doc Rivers, one of the game’s best coaches, to intervene and put his new players in the right spot.
And so the official photo now shows Leonard holding his No. 2 next to George’s No. 13, forming the Los Angeles area code and therefore sending well-intended shade to the other team in town.
In order for this to work and the Clippers to reign supreme, those jerseys must someday occupy the ceiling at Staples Center, the building they share with the Lakers. That’s where there’s a major disadvantage from the Clippers’ end. There are no retired Clippers jerseys and that’s a fairly accurate reflection of the history of a franchise that owns zero championships and rarely generated the same level of civic buzz -- even when they were the better team.
But what a spectacle that would be if the Leonard-George combo forced LA to hold a parade in the Clippers’ honor and prompted the club to raise a pair of retired jerseys in the distant future -- in the proper 2-13 order, of course.
Paul is someone I always wanted to play next to. Now we’re on the Clippers and we have something special together. We can make history here. We got the right team to do it. I’m excited.”
In due time, all of this will sort itself out. Until then, the Clippers certainly owned July 24, when George and Leonard made their first public statements as teammates, and when no less than Jerry West, the Laker great-turned Clippers advisor, proclaimed: “It’s a great day for the Clippers.”
Or, as team president Lawrence Frank echoed: “A landmark moment.”
And as chairman Steve Ballmer, who refused to contain himself, so comically chimed in: “I’m pumped.”
How can he not be? How can the Clippers not be anxiously awaiting the 2019-20 season, where they find themselves in the unusual but desired position of being ... title favorites? It’s all because of Leonard, fresh from dragging the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, and George, fresh from finishing third in the Kia MVP award chase, decided to return to Southern California and try to make the improbable happen.
You know the story by now: Leonard, raised in Riverside County, became a free agent this summer and signed with the Clippers after they swung a deal for George, who is from nearby Palmdale and had two years left on his contract with OKC. Both players are 6-foot-8-ish and athletic with a strong taste for defense yet can also double as their team’s leading scorer, as Leonard did with Toronto and George last season with the Thunder.
Plus, they are also playmakers who can turn a key steal or 3-point shot into a moment of victory.
... It seemed it was destined that we’re playing together. We’re going to make it happen. I wanted to be a part of something special, to build something special. It’s pretty dope, pretty awesome.”
What especially excites Ballmer and the Clippers is how George and Leonard are coming to a ready-made team, with deluxe Kia NBA Sixth Man Lou Williams, low-post big man Montrezl Harrell, defensive pest Patrick Beverley and young shooter Landry Shamet all able to supply ample and proven support. The Clippers won 48 games last season without a superstar. And now?
“One of the toughest things to do is get one superstar,” said Frank, “let alone two who compliment each other.”
Curiously, Leonard and George both spoke about the moment when their paths nearly crossed previously. George was then with the Pacers and just starting to show promise as a rookie when the Pacers selected Leonard in the very next draft, in 2011. That tandem was only temporary for a few minutes; Indiana sent Leonard to the Spurs for George Hill.
“When we drafted Kawhi I was a little confused by it,” said George. “Kawhi was at my position and I was a bit nervous about that competition. Fast forward, knowing what I know now, knowing the player he developed into and what I developed into, I wish we would’ve kept him and us together. Would’ve been special for Indiana.
“But we’re both here in LA and it seemed it was destined that we’re playing together. We’re going to make it happen. I wanted to be a part of something special, to build something special. It’s pretty dope, pretty awesome.”
Leonard and George knew each other from high school competition in the LA suburbs, developed a respect for each other’s playing style and habits, and soon became All-Stars. When Leonard spoke with the Clippers, he demanded they find a co-star. He and the club went through a list of possible candidates and kept coming back to the same one.
“Paul is someone I always wanted to play next to,” Leonard said. “Now we’re on the Clippers and we have something special together. We can make history here. We got the right team to do it. I’m excited.”
What separates George and Leonard apart from other tandems -- say, for example, the LeBron James-Anthony Davis behemoth across the hallway -- is their energy on defense. The best and closest comparison is probably Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Being able to guard multiple positions and still have enough for offense is what could bring the Clippers to their first taste of champagne.
“How we play is a lost art in the NBA, where guys want to get after it on both ends,” said George.
George also wanted to make one thing clear: There is no competition between the Clippers and Lakers, at least on his end.
LA. Our Way. pic.twitter.com/SbylgAGo6b— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) July 24, 2019
“We’re not looking at a battle for LA,” he said. “We’re chasing other things and we’ll build our own legacy along the way.”
Of course, it could very well be the Lakers standing in the Clippers’ way and keeping Staples Center free of Clippers’ banners.
That’s what the upcoming season is for, to sort out the pecking order and determine who really won this offseason. Well, sort of.
He didn’t exactly take a victory lap around the recreation center, where the Clippers donated a basketball court and which served as the site for the press conference, but Ballmer had his running shoes on and was ready to run a marathon.
“They’ll give us a chance to do the only thing we want to do,” he said. “We’re only here for one reason.”
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