ORLANDO, Fla. -- They’ve had 10 months and 10 days to meet and greet and gather and grow together, yet the LA Clippers still don’t know who they are here in August.
They arrived at Walt Disney World for the NBA season restart a month ago and are staying in the same hotel and on the same floor. And yet the Clippers still haven’t occupied all the seats on the team bus for the trips to practices and games.
Of the 22 teams on the NBA campus, the Clippers are one that’s missing, in a sense. What could be more appropriate, though? Their experience at Walt Disney World has mirrored their experience all season back home in Los Angeles. Meaning, disruptive.
Injuries and mid-season acquisitions conspired to give the Clippers the look of a team caught hopelessly in transition from training camp through March. Just when a four-month delay in the 2019-20 season appeared to give them stability, their trip to Orlando has turned into more of the same.
One starter and a key bench player arrived late due to coronavirus reasons. Another starter and a pair of leading candidates for the Kia Sixth Man of the Year Award had to leave unexpectedly with excused absences for emergencies. That’s five players in an eight-man rotation being affected one way or another, and the playoffs begin Aug. 17.
The good news, of course, is the Clippers are built for distractions. Otherwise, there’s no chance they’d have the second-best record in the Western Conference and still be projected to be in the championship mix. Having Kawhi Leonard and Paul George around does help, at least in the regular season where there’s more room for error.
The playoffs are different and given all the moving parts of the last several months, the Clippers can only hope they can develop championship-level chemistry on the fly.
Pat Beverley flew to Chicago a week ago to attend the funeral of a close friend. He then returned last weekend and, after clearing quarantine, helped the Clippers to an easy win against the Pelicans. Beverley did play in a loss to the Lakers in the restart opener, but Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams did not as both missed the game after the deaths of family members. Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac played in both games, but were late arrivals to Orlando.
Williams was cleared to play Tuesday against the Suns, while Harrell’s status for the remaining five seeding games is uncertain.
“Had to go back home but I’m able to come around my brothers, come around the coaching staff, and come here and do what I love to do most, and that’s play basketball,” Beverley said.
Beverley was born and raised in tough Chicago surroundings and has previously mentioned how some of his boyhood friends had died by the time he reached the NBA. That upbringing prepared him for a professional path that veered through several minor leagues in a handful of countries before stabilizing in the NBA.
“It seems normal for me. Been dealing with adversity since I’ve been growing up so this is nothing,” Beverley said of his latest personal setback. “I guess I can use it as motivation. It prepares you for life.”
Beverley said he’d like to serve as an example to others, especially those who are victimized by situations they didn’t create for themselves.
“My message is simple. Faith and hard work have been my mirror. When things get hard you’ve got to run with it, and when things get good you run with it,” Beverley said. “Things are not going to be easy, things are not going to be fair. Just do your best.”
Without a full compliment of players in practice, the Clippers have needed to be creative while keeping the missing players in shape. Beverley was given a stationary bike in quarantine. The same was true for Williams, who had to serve 10 days -- six longer than normal -- after running afoul of social distancing rules while being away from Orlando. Beverley said the New Orleans game was emotional therapy for him, which was needed while the physical part is lagging.
“It was good,” he said. “I was able to clear my mind a little bit being back on the basketball court. I definitely need to get my wind up a little bit. My conditioning is not where it needs to be. But I’m just happy to be back with my guys to get on that quest to win the NBA championship.”
The Clippers aren’t the only team feeling left behind in Orlando. The Nuggets had to halt their pre-Orlando workouts and close their practice facility because of positive tests. Their star center, Nikola Jokic, tested positive after returning to Serbia during the hiatus. They have played their seeding games without guards Jamal Murray (hamstring issue) and Gary Harris (hip) and forward Will Barton (knee).
But much like the Clippers, the Nuggets have already clinched a postseason spot and therefore are understandably placing a larger priority on getting healthy for the playoffs.
Unlike the Clippers, though, the Nuggets were virtually healthy all season and didn’t swing any mid-season trades.
Marcus Morris (trade deadline) and Reggie Jackson (acquired off waivers) were added in February while Joakim Noah was added in late June. The hiatus limited their playing time and they have yet to give Clippers teammates and coaches credible evidence of what (and how much) they can contribute.
That’s why the Clippers are still a work in progress. They’ll need to evaluate swiftly to establish a playoff rotation. Depth won’t be an issues as 10 of the Clippers’ players have started for them (or other teams) over the last two seasons. Most likely, the rotation will be trimmed to eight, or nine at the most. Their depth is what gives them an advantage on most contenders -- especially the Lakers, their biggest threat in the West. Finding the right mix remains crucial.
The Clippers have little worry about Williams and Harrell, who’ve spent the most time away from the club while in Orlando. Both are veterans with playoff experience and were healthy during this season, and their styles mesh well with Leonard and George. Conditioning may be an issue initially with them, but the big games don’t begin for two weeks.
Until then, the Clippers are the biggest mystery among the contenders here at the restart. Much like the 2019-20 NBA season itself, the Clippers remain a team anxious to overcome interruptions to fulfill all the early promise and projections.
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