After pulling off one of the most impressive offseasons we've seen in a long time, signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George on the same night, the Los Angeles Clippers made an immediate leap from possible playoff team to title favorite. With the Golden State Warriors dynasty dismantled -- at least for the time being -- and the defending champion Toronto Raptors now without their best player, the league seemed as wide open as it's ever been, and the Clippers were happy to fill the void.
So far, however, their brilliant summer has not led to quite the success they were hoping for. Or, at least not the joy and fulfillment. They're 31-14, which is good for third place in the West, but they're 4 1/2 games back of their roommates, the Los Angeles Lakers, for the top spot in the West, and they've been decimated by injuries. Furthermore, there's been some public discontent from Montrezl Harrell, and apparently some more frustrations behind the scenes.
According to a new report from The Athletic, the adjustment to the new ecosystem revolving around Leonard and George has been difficult at times:
Off the court, sources say there are some teammates who have struggled with the organization's preferential treatment that is afforded to Leonard and George. On the one hand, this sort of superstar handling is somewhat commonplace in the NBA...
But that element didn't exist with last season's Clippers, where there was a largely egalitarian ecosystem. It has been an adjustment for multiple players to see two newcomers come in and have such a significant influence on everyone's schedule.
When two walk-throughs were unexpectedly canceled this season, for example, sources say some of Leonard's teammates who had been eager to work believed he was the one who made the final call. Clippers coach Doc Rivers denied to The Athletic that this was the case.
In addition, sources behind the scenes told The Athletic that Harrell, who voiced his frustration with the team during a postgame media vent session after the team's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, is not alone in his feelings.
Tension had been quietly building in the locker room, according to multiple sources, but Harrell's comments confirmed the uncomfortability some felt. The comments also rubbed certain players the wrong way, as they feel that Harrell's post-game mood can be dictated more by his individual box-score performance than the game's outcome, according to sources.
At the same time, there is some good news in the report. Per sources, the team has become closer in recent weeks, thanks to player-only outings and film sessions.
To shake off some of the strange vibes, several players decided to round up players for dinner and bowling on their second day off, according to league sources. Interacting off of the floor has never been a problem for the group, which has enjoyed off-court activities like paintballing, fishing and movie-screening before and during the season.
Since that four-day break, the team has held multiple players-only film sessions. Instead of watching games by themselves on their phones or iPads, or with their player-specific assistant coaches, the players have met on off-days at the practice facility to pore over film. According to Rivers, the process is "extremely unique" and players hold each other "accountable … because they're in front of each other."
So, what to make of all of this? Considering the swiftness with which this team came together, and their lack of familiarity both on and off the court, it's not surprising that there have been some bumps in the road -- especially considering Leonard is their star player. While he's not quite as reclusive or standoffish as the media has made him out to be at times, there are plenty of details, even some in this reporting, that suggest he isn't always the best communicator, or easiest person to get to know.
They went from a scrappy, underdog team led by a diverse cast of essentially role players, to a contender who has to deal with every game being a referendum on their title chances. That means new roles for the leaders of last season's team, and more pressure than many of them are used to dealing with. Throw in some injuries and a few dropped games to bad teams and it's easy to see how some bad vibes develop.
Would it be awesome if there were no issues with the team? Obviously. At the same time, none of these problems seem like something that could completely derail a team. If you pulled back the curtain, you could find similar stories with just about every squad in the league, it's just that no one really cares about the internal drama going on in the lockers of non-contending teams.
Plus, there are plenty of positive signs. They seem to be jelling, thanks to their recent bonding activities, and don't forget, they're still really good at basketball. Winning cures a lot of these little issues, and the Clippers win most of the time. They're 31-14 overall, but when Leonard is in the lineup, they're 26-8. The top of the Western Conference is tough, but it's clear that when they're healthy, this Clippers team deserves to be one of the favorites to make, and possibly even win the Finals.