PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Whenever they see Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers become increasingly encouraged with their future for numerous reasons.
The first reason? Although Leonard has yet to complete any 5-on-5 drills since injuring his right ACL during the 2021 NBA playoffs, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said he’s on course to do so in time for the 2022-23 season.
“He continues to do great,” Frank said following the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday. “He’s maniacal in his work ethic. It’s fun to see. I’m glad we can afford the light bill because he’s putting in the hours.”
The second reason? The Clippers have seen Leonard invested in more than just his rehab after missing all of 2021-22. The Clippers credited both Leonard and Paul George for their collaboration with the front office on how it’s formulating LA’s roster.
“They are great partners. There’s a lot of give and take and talking,” Lawrence said. “They have great insight. They passionately care. They care about the type of people that are in the locker room. They look for people who work, have great habits, are pros, can contribute to winning and are great in the locker room. Yet at the same time, they are very respectful that at the end of the day it’s our job to make the decision. But their opinions are very, very valuable.”
Let’s get to work. 💪 https://t.co/9AMG7KbZjx
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) June 24, 2022
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Clippers’ activity on Draft day reflected the wishes of their star players.
Technically, the Clippers made minor moves. Holding only the 43rd pick, the Clippers targeted a versatile and athletic big man (Michigan forward/center Moussa Diabate) that will likely become a long-term project, possibly on a two-way contract. The Clippers also plan to add Utah State forward Justin Bean, Georgia Tech senior guard Michael Devoe and Loyola senior guard Lucas Williamson on Exhibit 10 signings, a non-guaranteed deal that includes a training camp invite and the players’ G League rights.
He’s maniacal in his work ethic. It’s fun to see. I’m glad we can afford the light bill because he’s putting in the hours.”
— Clippers president Lawrence Frank, on Kawhi Leonard’s offseason work
But for the first time since 2015, the Clippers declined to make a trade on Draft day. Frank considered that non-move reflective of the team’s devotion both to its talent and continuity.
“I hate trades. It’s the worst part of the job because we have all good guys,” Frank said. “Every decision that we make is, ‘How does it help us compete and win a championship?’ It’s really, really tough when you do it. So, you’re almost happy when you don’t. And so I’m glad we did not make a trade. I’m sure many of our guys are glad we did not make a trade.”
One of those guys presumably was guard Luke Kennard. Frank said there was “zero truth” to rumors that the Clippers tried to trade Kennard leading up to the Draft. Frank praised Kennard’s “unbelievable season” that included leading the NBA in 3-point shooting at 44.9%.
Frank sounded just as bullish about the rest of his roster.
He described the franchise as “super excited” for extending forward Robert Covington with a two-year, $24-million deal. Although forward Nicolas Batum reportedly declined his $3.3 million player option, the Clippers remain optimistic about retaining him. And the Clippers hope to keep center Ivica Zubac ($7.5-million team option), center Isaiah Hartenstein (unrestricted free agent) and power forward Amir Coffey (restricted free agent), too.
“Our No. 1 goal on free agency is we would like to try to retain our free agents,” Frank said.
That’s because the Clippers believe they don’t have any significant weaknesses with their roster. They chalk up their missed playoff appearance last season mostly to Leonard’s injury as well as George sitting out the Play-In Tournament game against the New Orleans Pelicans after testing positive for COVID-19.
Nonetheless, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving reportedly listed the Clippers as a possible sign-and-trade destination if the Nets cannot agree to a contract extension. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue worked with Irving when they won the 2015-16 NBA championship together with the Cavaliers. But during his time in Cleveland (2011-17), Boston (2017-19) and now Brooklyn (2019-present), Irving has received criticism for his inconsistent availability and leadership qualities.
Frank spoke for nearly three minutes on how much he ranks those variables when evaluating whether to pursue a player.
“You look at it all,” Frank said. “You start first with the question on how does this player’s skill set fits with the group? Does it fit with the group? Does it enhance the group? Does it help connect the group? Is it a young, emerging player that may have a pathway to play? Is it a veteran who provides a skill set that we need? Is it a player that has unbelievable basketball character, and yet has great self-awareness and knows where they’re at at their stage of their career?
“You really, really study it. Anytime you put a player in the locker room, whether it’s through the Draft, free agency or trades, it is a statement to your team what you think of them because that is their sanctuary.”
In other words, the Clippers may not try to make a splash like they did when they acquired Leonard and George two years ago.
“Basketball character is, ‘Can you be counted on every single day to do what you do at the highest level?’” Frank said. “The bond that you form with your teammates, that’s part of basketball character. Can you be the same teammate when things are going bad for you as well as when things are going good for you? I think all of those things are leadership skills. Your best players are always your leaders one way or the other because that’s who the other players are always going to look to.”
All of which circled back to the Clippers’ collaboration with Leonard and George.
“We’re really, really fortunate in [that] our two best players really enjoy each other,” Frank said. “They have a great bond with each other. I wouldn’t say that’s unique, but it doesn’t happen everywhere. Those guys set a great tone of we work. That’s what we do. There’s not a lot of talking in terms of verbally. We’re about our work.”
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