June 19, 2024

To those unfamiliar with recent Clippers history, the facts might seem surprising for a team headlined by two players voted among the NBA’s 75 all-time best, another with eight All-Star appearances and a coach who guided the most improbable comeback in NBA Finals history.

Yet when the Clippers jet to Hawaii on Monday for the start of Kawhi Leonard‘s and Paul George’s fifth training camp together, and fourth under coach Tyronn Lue, they will do so with only three combined playoff series victories in that span, three consecutive seasons ended with one or both injured, and a bitter aftertaste from last season’s often joyless slog.

Their mountain of individual accomplishments has yet to push the Clippers atop the NBA’s summit, the only achievement that truly matters for a franchise that has transformed itself into a draw for top players, but not yet a place where they can win big.

Maybe that was why last week Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ top basketball executive, uttered the team’s unofficial, but ultimately appropriate, 2024 slogan.

“You always look at, why is this offseason different than prior offseasons?” Frank said. “One of the things that stands out is I think we all have something to prove.”

It is a prove-it season, one whose results could influence future plans.

From now until late June, Leonard and George are eligible to sign extensions of up to four years. Yet receiving any long-term security from the team — whose financial prudence will be severely tested by onerous new league rules penalizing top-spending teams — could require both to prove they can remain durable and productive. They became the face of the NBA’s new player-participation policy, which imposes penalties if multiple “stars” miss the same game, or nationally televised games, for unapproved reasons. There are exceptions, ones that include serious injury history, which would seemingly apply to Leonard, whose offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus was his second surgery on the same knee in the last two years.

“Kawhi and PG, those guys play when they’re healthy; when they’re unhealthy then they don’t play, no different than anything else,” Frank said. “It’s just having a little better fortune. So the policy in itself, what they’re saying is yeah, healthy players should play and we totally subscribe to that.”

In the next month leading up to the Oct. 25 regular-season opener, players will be challenged to prove they belong in the rotation. Frank said rookie draft picks Kobe Brown and Jordan Miller should compete not as though they’re bound for the G League but as though they could dislodge a veteran.

How much do the Clippers truly believe in this team’s title potential? Proof might be revealed in their potential trades. The Clippers were uninterested all summer in putting wing Terance Mann in potential trade packages for Philadelphia’s James Harden, though the sides have remained in contact. The team is strongly pursuing Jrue Holiday, meanwhile. If Portland asks for multiple future first-round picks to trade Holiday, would the Clippers, who control few of their future draft picks, go all-in?

Can point guard Russell Westbrook, who joins Leonard as the Clippers bearing top-75 accolades, prove he can sustain the career resurgence, stronger shooting and joyful spirit that highlighted his arrival at midseason last February and surprised so many?

Can Lue show he can again outfox opposing coaches with his lineup choices and in-game adjustments?

Clippers guard Terance Mann reacts after blocking a shot during a game against the Celtics last season.

Clippers guard Terance Mann reacts after blocking a shot during a game against the Celtics last season.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Considering the team waived veteran Eric Gordon in June in part to create room in the backcourt, can young wings Mann, Bones Hyland and Brandon Boston Jr. showcase progress?

Can the front office, whose top decision-makers have been in place the last six seasons, prove their big-picture, team-building vision under the punitive restrictions of the new collective bargaining agreement to position the team for a championship?

Rival executives, coaches and agents say they are observing closely the potential fallout if the Clippers again do not prove themselves to be championship caliber. No one inside the Clippers needs reminding that in just one year team owner Steve Ballmer will open Intuit Dome, the arena for which he has invested well north of $1 billion, in Inglewood and wants to draw full houses by fielding a relevant, exciting team, not a reminder of a roster that has consistently fallen short.

One underlying issue is whether the Clippers can prove they will take the regular season more seriously, as Frank and Lue have vowed they will. It was a message that Frank said stemmed, in part, between the jarring contrast of the last two seasons. In 2021-22, the Clippers won five games when trailing by 20 points or more, the most by any team in the previous 26 seasons since the league began collecting play-by-play data. And that was while missing Leonard for an entire season of knee rehabilitation, and George for all but 31 games.

“We had a sense of pride,” Frank said. Last season, he added, “it didn’t feel like that every night. And we get injuries, they suck, OK, but at the same time we have a responsibility to each other, to the organization, to our fans to make sure that that we’re playing our hearts out. “… You do have guys that feel like we owe something to our fans, we owe something to each other, we do have something to prove and yet we know, hey it doesn’t matter what we say. We got to do it and then we got to be able to sustain it and then we have to be able to finish it.

“And guess what? The competition, there’s more quality teams. There’s great parity. Denver is clearly the best team in the league, OK, and then there’s a lot of high-level teams and you look out West, that’s why everything matters. You can’t take anything for granted. You can have a poor two-week stretch, you could go from being a top-three, top-four team to where you’re battling for the play-in the last game of the season.”

As Frank noted, the Clippers have talked about their title ambitions for years, dating before Leonard‘s and George’s arrival. When training camp opens in Hawaii, they will set out to prove whether they can at last live up to it.

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