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Kawhi Leonard, Paul George motivated to get Clippers back on track

LA's shocking collapse against Denver led to the unexpected firing of Doc Rivers and an offseason reckoning for its two stars.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The Clippers will only go as far as their stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George take them in 2020-21.

The offseason was too short, and yet the 2020-21 regular season can’t come soon enough for the Clippers.

Does that sound like a contradiction? Well, yeah, but welcome to the complicated world of Los Angeles’ non-championship basketball team, last seen limping home from Orlando after a disastrous bubble stay where the Clippers lost their grip on a handful of leads, both in games and a big playoff series, not to mention their credibility.

The Clippers’ goal is to distance themselves from that dreadful experience and reclaim their status in the league while ignoring the snickering around them. They are humbled, and perhaps still wearing scars from blowing a 3-1 advantage against the Nuggets and failing to reach the conference finals, and certainly anxious to recalibrate following a string of personnel changes.

Gone is coach Doc Rivers, who couldn’t generate or sustain any momentum for his team as it crumbled under the weight of title expectations. The level of blame that fell on Rivers is certainly negotiable, and the conversation about that was revisited the other day when Paul George seemed to bury Rivers while speaking on a podcast, saying the Clippers never made any adjustments against the Nuggets and also questioned his role under Rivers.

George moonwalked most of it back Friday in his first lengthy meeting with reporters, perhaps because George himself was a big reason the Clippers couldn’t hold that lead.

“We all take responsibility,” George said. “Me being one of the top players on the team, I wasn’t at a peak performance. The fact I gave up a 3-1 series sits with me and haunts me. I want to clear things up. I respect Doc. Doesn’t mean I agree with everything we did, but it does not belittle the fact that I respect him in that position. I said what I said … the notion that I don’t respect Doc and put the blame on Doc, (that’s) not the case. I’m to blame in that situation as much as anybody else. Let’s not let that get out of hand and make that a story.”

George had more turnovers than buckets in Game 7 against Denver and didn’t shoot well in that series or LA’s first-round battle with Dallas. But it was certainly a team-wide collapse. Montrezl Harrell was exposed as a poor defender — which factored in the Clippers’ decision not to re-sign the reigning Kia Sixth Man Award winner — and Lou Williams made a regrettable side trip while leaving the bubble to attend a funeral. Usually, a playoff exit rarely is catastrophic enough to follow a team into the next season, but this was bad and the offseason was short, and so here we are.

For the Clippers, there will be only one more uncomfortable reminder of the bubble. That’ll come opening night when they’ll watch the Lakers raise a 17th banner. Roughly a year ago this time, the Clippers were a bigger favorite to raise their first banner inside Staples Center but, as they say, stuff happened.

The responsibility now falls on Ty Lue, a protege of Rivers, who assumes the coaching role and must figure a way to get the Clippers to reach their potential. At least he has one advantage Rivers didn’t: The Clippers will start full squad training camp practices with a healthy contingent of players. George missed all of camp last season following shoulder surgery and Kawhi Leonard also was in and out while protecting his body.

Tyronn Lue is excited about taking over a roster with as much talent as the Clippers.

And while the Clippers managed to add rotational pieces in Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard last month, their fortunes once again will be largely determined by the health and performances of their stars, Leonard and George.

There’s also a bit of urgency regarding those two: They can become unrestricted free agents next summer, although George all but pledged his future to the Clippers; take that for what it’s worth here in December.

I want to retire a Clipper,” he said. “I’m committed, I’m here, this is where my heart is and I’m happy to be here.”

Of course, George echoed similar words the year prior to requesting a trade from Indiana, and then did the same last summer from Oklahoma City. Also, if George were to leave the Clippers, it would be crippling for a franchise that surrendered a batch of assets in the form of players and future draft picks to get him.

But for now, he does agree the burden falls on him and Leonard.

“It has to start with us, as a pair and a duo, and from there we force that upon the team,” he said.

About his own reputation, which absorbed a sledgehammer of a battering in the bubble, George was contrite:

“I’m my toughest critic. I know what’s not good and not acceptable. Last year was not a good year for me and I know that. It was a rough year for me, a down year for me. I’m only 30, still got time, got a lot of years in the tank. What happened last year gave me a big motivation coming into this season.

“I just had an offseason to train; I didn’t have one going into (last) season. I got my offseason back so I feel really good. I’m in a great place. I’m comfortable and that’s when I’m at my best. I know the guys, got a great coach, great staff, great locker room.”

Leonard took some shots at his team on the way out of the bubble, questioning the decision-making and execution, and certainly took those concerns to management. He had a strong season, his first with the Clippers, and made All-NBA. But like George, he also wasn’t sharp in the Game 7 moment of truth against Denver.

Leonard said: “I’m definitely motivated. I want to win. I’m doing steps to maintain my body to stay ahead of the curve. The road going to a championship is hard. But I love the process. We’ll see how strong we are and how we can build from this. This is what makes players.”

Both George and Leonard endorsed Lue, although Leonard did hedge from putting a healthy level of importance on the coaching change by saying, “a coach can’t put a battery in your back and tell you to play hard.”

He conceded: “It’s a different start with Ty.”

And so that’s where the Clippers are at the moment, which, while the revamped team remains unproven, at least the few months off allowed for a more upbeat attitude to permeate the franchise.

Based on the nightmare they went through in the bubble, the Clippers will take it.

“It’s all about starting this year off right, making sure it’s a winning attitude and environment,” said George. “If we put winning first, everything will iron itself out.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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