June 12, 2024

Paul George began thinking about the end of his NBA career, and how it would be remembered, two years ago. He knows exactly what sparked it.

Already the parents of two daughters, George and his wife, Daniela, welcomed a son in the weeks before the 2021-22 season, and from the start George envisioned a future in which the boy, who carried his name, might follow his career path. The clues were in the photo George posted to social media announcing the birth: The newborn’s eyes are closed, a stocking cap drooped over one ear, his left hand atop a basketball placed in his lap. Nearby, a pair of wooden blocks with the numbers 1 and 3, his father’s jersey number.

“It just started to shift toward, ‘What am I leaving behind?’” George said. “Ultimately, I want him to be like, ‘Yo, my dad’s a champion. I know what he says is golden.’”

His father will be remembered as a lightly recruited wing from Palmdale who transformed into a star while making four all-defense teams, six All-NBA teams, eight All-Star teams and nine figures’ worth of salary and endorsements. Top recruits, such as A.J. Dybantsa, and draft picks, such as Brandon Miller, point to George as the model for their styles of play. When George retires, he will pass down a rich inheritance.

“But in terms of the grand scheme of things and what we’re playing for, all of the things I’ve had to endure from a physical standpoint, you know I don’t have anything physically to show for it,” he said.

Entering his 14th season and fifth with the Clippers alongside fellow All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, a duo that was supposed to finally earn the franchise the title that has eluded it for five decades, George has yet to win a championship, the one thing he says will make all the surgeries and his toil of the past decade-plus worth it.

Russell Westbrook greets Clippers teammate Paul George and his son, Paul Vuk, during media day.

Russell Westbrook greets Clippers teammate Paul George and his son, Paul Vuk, during media day.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“My legacy here is just haven’t been able to finish,” he told The Times. “I think in a lot of ways, injury prone, inability to finish. So can’t even say that — like, I never go into a summer like, ‘Hey, what do I need to work on to get better, what do I need to’ … I got to just try to find a way to stay healthy.”

George knows what the Clippers know: As their season opener arrives Wednesday, time is running out — at least for this roster. Four years after George and Leonard joined the Clippers in their late-20s primes with a championship window that appeared limitless, their time together borders on finite.

Though George and Leonard have spoken openly about their desire to remain Clippers, both have only this season, plus a player option for 2024-25, remaining on their contracts. How much the team is willing to invest in the duo is being asked across the NBA, after one or both ended each of the last three seasons injured.

Security could hinge on production, and the Clippers left training camp optimistic they are primed to see the best version of their stars, and the team as a whole, since 2021. They attribute that to George and Leonard being healthy at the start of camp for the first time in three seasons, and also a shift in their own mind-set.

“Night-and-day different, just in terms of intensity at training camp,” guard Norman Powell said.

Players take issue with any suggestion they did not take last season seriously, a notion they heard all summer after top basketball executive Lawrence Frank said the team needed to value the regular season more during his end-of-season address in April.

Yet in public statements and private conversations during the last three weeks of practices, various Clippers acknowledged the cracks that compromised last season’s foundation well before the knee injuries to George and Leonard. Several team insiders were taken aback by the lack of intensity during camp one year ago in Las Vegas.

When referencing last season, Leonard has mentioned the team “skipping steps.” It wasn’t that they had talked explicitly of setting a championship goal; it was that by setting their focus on April, May and June, they often overlooked the value of November, December and January.

This season the Clippers have not backed down from stating their championship ambitions, but starting with fiery training-camp practices in Hawaii, they believe they have placed a greater emphasis on the months of work that precede the playoffs.

“Last year when we were in the same spot we were talking about like, ‘We’re the favorite,’ and they’re not really talking about us that way this year,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “I think that could be a good thing.”

The positive mood around camp — remarkable only in its contrast to the frustration that emanated from the front office, locker room and coaching staff following last season — was boosted by seeing Leonard fully healthy and George’s “better mind-set,” as Leonard observed.

“I don’t see a lot of unnecessary, like, joking around with him,” Leonard said.

“It just comes down to, I haven’t won nothing, you know what I mean?” George said. “And I’m not satisfied with that. I shouldn’t be moping around here, joking every second. That shouldn’t be how I carry myself. I’m pretty laser-focused. I know what I want out of this season, I know what I want out of this group and for me, man, if we come up short, at least I want the opportunity to say we came up short if we don’t win it all, as opposed to not giving it a chance.”

Philadelphia's James Harden throws his hands out as he reacts to making a shot.

All-Star guard James Harden has not only demanded that the 76ers trade him, he’s indicated the Clippers is the team he’d like to join.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

How long this roster has to prove itself is the question. With so much pressure on the Clippers to emerge from a loaded Western Conference and earn a first NBA Finals appearance, rival scouts believe there is a gap between their level of talent and that of reigning champion Denver, Phoenix and the Lakers. It is why the Clippers remain interested in trading for disgruntled Philadelphia guard James Harden, if the price is right.

“I don’t think they need that, but it would add talent,” said Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach from 2013 to 2020, who coached Harden last season and is now an ESPN analyst. “Adding talent doesn’t always just do it, if you know what I mean. They do play a style, they do run a lot of iso stuff with Kawhi and then with PG, so if you look at James and James’ style, it fits in. But if there’s a third guy that stops the ball, would that be good or bad? I’m not sure.”

Yet questions about fit — “Who will sacrifice what would be fascinating,” one league executive said — and scheme matter only if the Clippers remain healthy.

“It’s not like this is a trick question; they have to play,” Rivers said. With health and chemistry, “the window is still open.”

For how much longer is something coach Tyronn Lue said he does not think about. Yet many within the Clippers do, including George, according to his close friend, Denver guard Reggie Jackson.

“With each year that goes by even in our chats throughout the summer or through group chats, on the phone, friends, it might just pop up out of nowhere like, you can tell in a sense it lingers in his mind that he’s definitely accomplished a lot — one of the greatest players in our league that has talent that’s amazing, second to none,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing he hasn’t done in his own mind except, that’s the biggest thing I know he always talks about, he wants to win a championship.”

Jackson said George was the first person to text him in June after he won his first championship in Denver, his congratulatory text beginning, “What’s up, champ?” It is the signifier George hopes to be called himself, the legacy he wants to leave behind.

When the Clippers kicked off the season with media day this month, George took the podium as his son, now a curly-haired 2-year-old sucking a lollipop, sat on his lap. So began a season he hopes will be remembered forever.

“I feel things matter at this point, and not to say the years prior to this season or up to this point didn’t, but my numbers are coming to an end at some point and it’s just bottling up whatever I have left to finish strong,” George said. “I’ve yet to win it. If I have some sort of hand in how I want this to finish for me, then I’m going to give it every shot that I have and so that’s just what’s important to me.”

Paul George addresses reporters during media day with his son, Paul Vuk, sitting in his lap.

Paul George addresses reporters during media day with his son, Paul Vuk, sitting in his lap.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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