It happened so fast: With a free-agency commitment from Kawhi Leonard, and news of a trade for Paul George moments later, the Clippers became championship contenders literally overnight just more than one year ago.
Then, the waiting began.
It took six weeks from the start of training camp until the duo first played together, joining forces on a practice court in mid-November. Then an injured hamstring kept George out of the lineup for more than two weeks in January. And Just when a healthy, complete Clippers roster was finding its stride in March, the novel coronavirus shut down the season indefinitely.
On Wednesday afternoon, 369 days after they acquired Leonard and George and 120 days since their last game, the Clippers boarded a flight to Florida, where they hope the wait is over to learn how the star duo’s anticipated first season together will end.
“I’m excited about getting going,” coach Doc Rivers said July 1. “I think anybody would be excited about going back to work. … I think obviously in our profession, we’re working for something hopefully that results in something big for us.”
The Clippers, who held the second-best record in the Western Conference before the season’s suspension, departed Los Angeles early Wednesday afternoon and were scheduled to arrive at the Walt Disney World campus near Orlando late Wednesday night. The team is scheduled to practice together Friday evening for the first time since March, with another scheduled the following day. Their first scrimmage is July 22, against Orlando, with two more against Washington and Sacramento before their first counting game of the NBA restart July 30 against the Lakers.
The MLS Is Back tournament, held at the same ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that the NBA will use, has suffered a choppy start when one team, FC Dallas, had to withdraw entirely after 10 players tested positive for coronavirus. The NBA is guarding against such trouble once players arrive in Florida, but teams have already had plans upended by positive tests, including the Clippers.
After welcoming players to their practice facility July 1, the first day individual workouts could be required, the Clippers shut down their facility for the next six days as a precaution after a positive test by a member of the 35-person traveling party.
Teams expected some positive tests during the final run-up to Orlando and though the Clippers would have preferred their facility stay open, the lost workout time was considered a bump in the road rather than a major concern, a person with knowledge of the situation said.
Before the facility shut down, Rivers reported that “most of our guys look really good.”
“But that’s still individual, though, so until we’re together, I think the challenge will be for every team — until you’re together, you will find out what your rhythm is, how quickly you can get it back, how quickly you can get engaged and conditioned. I don’t care how much working out you’re doing, you’re not playing basketball, so that sets every team back .”
All 22 NBA teams will face a similar balancing act of quickly improving their physical conditioning but not so demanding that it puts players at risk of injury, and that’s especially true for the Clippers. Their championship chances hinge on staying healthy, given the history of injuries suffered by Leonard and George, yet the Clippers want to return to their March form, when they won seven of their last eight games before the shutdown, as quickly as possible before the playoffs begin in mid-August.
“For us, with all the trades, I would say those last 10 games were an exceptional window for us to look at and how we were playing,” Rivers said.
Injuries led Leonard and George to play together in half of the team’s 64 games, but they had begun to find rhythm just as the season came to a halt. In their final eight games together, George and Leonard combined to average 42.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 3.2 steals per game, with George shooting 43% on three-pointers.
A key challenge during the resumption of play will be receiving more contributions from starting forward Marcus Morris. He shot 28% on three-pointers in his first 12 games with the Clippers since a February trade from New York, far off the 43% he made while with the Knicks.
But before they can step on a practice court at Disney, they must wait a little longer.
Members of the team’s travel party are not allowed to leave their room at the Gran Destino Tower of the Coronado Springs Resort until they return two negative tests, a process estimated to take between 36 and 48 hours.
“It’s going to come down to talent, it’s going to come down to teams trying to get back together and play together,” Rivers said. “But there’s going to be so many things that are thrown at us that we don’t even know yet that it’s really going to be a mental toughness challenge.»