The Clippers did what they could last season to make an impression in a market long dominated by the Lakers, their roommates at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Unlike the Lakers, who were a grease fire in LeBron James’s first season with the team, the Clippers produced a winning campaign. They played aggressive defense. They treated rebounds like performance art. They went to the playoffs, which was a pleasant surprise, and even won a couple of games there against the Golden State Warriors in their first-round series.
One of their marketing slogans was “L.A. Our Way.” Their way was blue-collar aptitude in the shadow of purple-and-gold nonsense.
The aptitude gods rewarded the Clippers over the weekend: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two natives of Southern California, are returning home to play for the team.
Leonard, fresh off his championship run with the Toronto Raptors, agreed to sign in free agency after playing a huge role in convincing George to seek a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Clippers made sure that deal happened by sending an outrageous package to the Thunder that included five future first-round draft picks and two very good players, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
This is worth emphasizing: The Clippers gave up a ton. Gilgeous-Alexander, 20, was the team’s starting point guard as a rookie and has all the makings of a future star. Gallinari, 30, was among their leading scorers. And the Thunder are now in possession of an unprecedented number of picks.
But Leonard was not coming to the Clippers unless they could pry George loose from the Thunder. So, in that sense, the Clippers were not trading all those assets for George alone. They were trading for George and for Leonard, two of the best players on the planet. It was a deal they had to make, and one that altered perceptions.
Forgotten are the laughingstock seasons when the Clippers won 12 games, 17 games, 21 games. Forgotten are the playoff droughts and the tumult of the Donald Sterling ownership years and the suffering of the franchise’s most dedicated fans. Forgotten, too, is the disappointment of the “Lob City” days, which was not all that long ago but now feels like an era from a time capsule.
The fact that the Lakers got spurned in the process — and even lost out on high-profile free agents whom they could have signed as they awaited Leonard’s decision — must make it that much sweeter for the Clippers, who have always had second-class status in their own city.
Even last season, when they were making their playoff push, the Clippers were overshadowed by the Lakers and all their attendant drama: their failed midseason pursuit of Anthony Davis (they later got him) ahead of February’s trade deadline, the injuries and the losing, the abrupt resignation of Magic Johnson as their president of basketball operations. It was a fire hose of dysfunction.
The Clippers just quietly went about their business, and the same held true in recent days: They had a plan for free agency, and they were going to work to execute it even after the Lakers finally succeeded in trading for Davis, which was a big deal at the time — and still is.
But with one bold strike, the Clippers managed to outshine the Lakers.
The Clippers are better positioned to vie for titles right away. The Lakers lacked depth even before their roster was gutted by the Pelicans in the Davis deal. The Clippers, on the other hand, managed to keep much of their core intact. Leonard and George, two of the league’s premier two-way players, join a rotation that already includes Lou Williams, the top bench scorer in the history of the league; Montrezl Harrell, a ferocious post presence; and Patrick Beverley, a defense-minded guard.
In a lot of ways, Beverley personifies the identity of the team: tough, aggressive, fearless. George and Leonard should fit right in. Nothing about the Clippers’ approach needs to change. The only difference is that opponents will likely have even more trouble scoring against them.
For the moment, of course, the refashioned Clippers are an experiment that exists only on paper — flashy and full of championship potential, but with some concerns moving forward.
At the top of that list: George, 29, had surgery after the season on both shoulders, and the timeline for his return is unclear. He could miss the start of the season. When he does return, will he be the same type of high-octane shooter? George has already shown himself capable of returning to top shape after a serious injury. In 2014, he sustained a compound fracture in his right leg. A year and a half later, he was playing in another N.B.A. All-Star Game.
In a twist, the Lakers and the Clippers faced each other on Saturday afternoon at the N.B.A.’s summer league in Las Vegas. James sat courtside with Davis. Four seats down sat Jerry West, the Hall of Famer and consultant for the Clippers who has helped guide the team to its new perch in recent seasons.
At one point early in the game, Darrell Bailey, a superfan who goes by “Clipper Darrell,” stood in his blue-and-red suit and heckled James: “I’m coming for you, LeBron!”
The Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, laughed. After trying hard to ignore Bailey, James shook his head and smiled. The noise was too much to ignore.
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