Asked about the disappointing finish to last season, Kawhi Leonard shifted the focus to the troubling start.
How he and Paul George were limited in training camp.
How the season was interrupted by the pandemic.
“I think that all played a big role,” Leonard said Friday on a videoconference call.
Boo freaking hoo.
Technically, what Leonard said was true. Here’s what he missed: The NBA is a star-driven league and stars are expected to save their teams when unexpected problems emerge.
Leonard famously isn’t a man of many words, but some acknowledgment of his role in the Choke Job for the Ages would have served as a welcome introduction to a new era of accountability for the Clippers.
The Clippers don’t have an established culture of success like the San Antonio Spurs teams on which Leonard played. They don’t have a vocal leader like the Toronto Raptors had in Kyle Lowry in their championship season with Leonard.
The individuals most responsible for creating a winning environment will be Leonard and George, the sidekick whose propensity for making tone-deaf remarks has made him the subject of ridicule.
Andrew Greif, who covers the Clippers for this publication, reported that some players were bothered by the special freedoms afforded to Leonard and George. A recent story by the Athletic detailed the tensions.
Star players often receive preferential treatment in the NBA. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that Leonard and George didn’t reciprocate by producing when it counted most.
Leonard single-handedly closed out the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, but faltered as the Clippers blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinal.
Leonard and George didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter of their Game 7 loss. Leonard scored only two points in the second half on one-for-11 shooting.
Leading by example becomes difficult when the leaders in question disappear during gut-check time.
The closest Leonard came on Friday to owning the defeat was when he said, “Obviously, we should all play better, coach better, all that,” which sounded more like a sneaky cheap shot at former coach Doc Rivers.
To be clear, Rivers deserved a share of the blame. But considering that Rivers is now coaching another team, the players’ eagerness to continue pointing the finger at him raises questions about their mind-sets.
George was critical of Rivers in a five-minute teaser of an interview on Showtime that will air next week. Marcus Morris Sr. later reiterated George’s assertion that the Clippers didn’t adjust against the Nuggets.
George at least tried on Friday to reframe his comments, for which he was widely skewered.
“I think that’s what everybody misconstrued,” he said. “We all take responsibility into that. Fact of the matter is, me being one of the top players on the team, I wasn’t at a peak performance. I wasn’t playing well enough.”
Not entirely convincing, but that was a start.
George also addressed the burdens he and Leonard must shoulder to foster the right team environment.
“If we put winning first above anything else then everything else will iron itself out,” he said. “It has to start with us and from there we can enforce that upon the team.”
Tyronn Lue guided a Cleveland Cavaliers team with LeBron James to a championship, but there’s no guarantee he will have the leverage or the backing of management to be stern with Leonard and George if necessary.
Leonard and George can become free agents at the end of the upcoming season. They were in charge last season and they will be in charge again.
For what it’s worth, Leonard described himself as motivated.
“It does leave a bad taste in your mouth blowing a 3-1 lead,” he said. “But I love it. These are things that build the player. It’s the things that I like, the challenge. The road of going to a championship is hard. I love the process.”
At the same time, he didn’t sound overly concerned about the team atmosphere.
“This year, us being able to start training camp and going full speed with the guys since Day 1, I think that will just build up for a better chemistry,” he said.
Translation: Because the conditions are better, the results should be too.
But what if trouble surfaces?
The reason the Lakers won the championship last season was because James kept them on track regardless of the obstacles they encountered, whether it was the death of Kobe Bryant or the pandemic or the social justice protests in which they were involved.
Can Leonard be that kind of leader for the Clippers? The situation could very well call for it. As it is, Leonard mentioned how he can practice with only three other players at a time in the facility. The worsening pandemic is once again threatening to disrupt the schedule.
“If there is a stoppage, we’ll take it better because we’ve been through it before already,” Leonard said.
Ultimately, the season could prove him right. At the moment, he hasn’t said or done anything to show that’s the case.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.