LOS ANGELES -- It was almost exactly a year ago when the Clippers welcomed the media on the same day the Lakers debuted LeBron James, and Patrick Beverley told the half-dozen or so reporters who must’ve made a wrong turn: “We’re the best team in L.A.”
That bit of bravado went unnoticed and unheard, partly because of the Laker noise, partly because few -- if anyone -- bought it. Of course, Beverley was ultimately proven wise when the Clippers scrapped their way to 48 wins and a pair of first-round wins against the Warriors while LeBron and the Lakers almost literally collapsed from a kick to the groin.
With a swell of attention now being paid to presumptive title favorites, who added Paul George and Kawhi Leonard while retaining much of the supporting cast, Beverley was given the chance Sunday to double down on his prophecy. He toned it down.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Yet his sinister grin was plain to see, and it reflected the swagger and internal expectations of a franchise not known for through-the-roof projections. Such is the new world order in Los Angeles, and perhaps the NBA, in 2019-20. These are unprecedented times for the Clippers, who’ve had winning teams before but none with this much title twinkle headed into the season.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” said Beverley, and so does everyone else. You don’t add the reigning NBA Finals MVP and another who finished third in the regular-season Kia MVP balloting without shaking up the establishment, even if you’ve never won a championship in franchise history.
But there’s a long wait between now and next spring's playoffs, and a shorter one to see George on the floor.
The 29-year-old swingman is still in the mending stage after off-season surgery on both shoulders. He said “I’m not sure” when he’ll be ready to play, even with opening night against the Lakers a little over three weeks away. George said he hasn’t had any complications or setbacks, but won’t engage in any contact work in camp and coach Doc Rivers said George will not appear in any games until he does.
“There’s no problems,” George said. “I’m just going to do light work and drills for now.”
The other issue as it relates to health is Leonard’s usage. Last year in Toronto, still smarting from a persistent quad injury that led to his stormy exit from the Spurs, Leonard didn’t play on consecutive nights during back-to-back games. Rivers said there are no such restrictions this season, or demands from the player, although the coach wants to reserve the right to monitor and change the approach if necessary.
"Last year, I was going in with an injury that I was dealing with the year before, still was lingering, and we knew that I had to be healthy going throughout the season and making it to the playoffs,” Leonard said. "This time, I'm feeling good. I’m feeling way better than I was at the start of last season. There really was no plan laid out to discuss with everyone."
Rivers also noted that the Clippers’ depth will allow for rest periods for George and Leonard; both players are joining a team that prospered without an All-Star last season, a team that will probably once again bring reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench.
In due time, the Clippers will be complete, and that’s the most important takeaway from their first official gathering. The level of enthusiasm is “sky-high,” said Williams.
We’ll force a lot of defenses to make a lot of hard decisions.
Rivers has flexibility with Leonard and George, widely considered among the most elite two-way players in basketball. On offense, George and Leonard are top-10 league scorers (26.6 points last year for Leonard; 28.0 for George). Playing those two alongside Williams, who averaged 20 points last season in just 26 minutes off the bench, should cause matchup headaches.
“We’ll force a lot of defenses to make a lot of hard decisions,” said Williams.
And the options afforded to Rivers might even be richer on the other end. Rivers thinks pairing two newcomers plus Beverley -- who guarded Kevin Durant in the playoffs, while giving away seven inches -- can be “special.” Utilizing three players who can legitimately guard multiple positions, the Clippers’ defense could be epic, if not historic.
George said: “It’s going to be scary … we’ve really got a chance to do something special on the defensive end. Watching Pat get out there and picking somebody up 94 feet, that's going to get me going. It's going to get Kawhi going. It's just going to become contagious on a nightly basis. I honestly think, for the first time, people are going to be excited to watch the defensive end as opposed to watching the offensive end.”
The makings of a unique season, then, is on deck for the Clippers. It became realistic when Leonard, fresh off a title in Toronto, chose George and the Clippers over LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the Lakers — which, in itself, seems un-Clipper-like given the club’s former reputation and history, when superstars were once allergic to L.A.’s "other" basketball team. But these are new times.
“We actually wanted to be teammates for a long time,” said George. “This was always in the works to happen at some point.”
From the top of the organization to the bottom, everyone knows the potential and just the same, would rather allow a scenario to play itself out than speak it into existence. That’s why Beverley provided the most unexpected news of camp by playing it coy.
But you knew where he stood.
“Can’t wait to get started,” he said, echoing the thoughts of a locker room thinking big.
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