Midway through the second quarter against Dallas on Tuesday night, Kawhi Leonard went out of bounds contesting a corner three. Recovering, he sprinted down the court, grabbed an outlet pass, and threw down a vicious dunk. Although his three-point shot wasn't falling, the Clippers' superstar finished with 36 points as L.A. eked out a 110-107 win on the road.
What a game!
What a great effort by Leonard and his teammates!
Second-place Los Angeles (32-14) is only 4.5 games behind the first-place Lakers in the West. Kawhi averages 27.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists -- stats similar to last season's. In a win over Miami on Friday, he had the first triple-double of his career. And yet, something feels off with the Clips, who have somehow lost to the awful Bulls and Hawks. The Clippers seem to follow their quiet superstar’s lead by taking possessions and even full quarters off, like when they barely held off a terrible Knicks team at home.
Could a laissez-faire attitude derail the Clippers and Board Man... ah ... Bored Man?
Load management aficionado Leonard, who has missed 11 of the Clippers' 46 games, won an NBA title with the same approach last season with the Raptors. But the dynamic on the Clippers is different. Toronto was a perennial playoff team adding a one-year mercenary to its core. The Clippers have far less history together, and often play more like a weary team defending multiple titles then a squad that, aside from Kawhi, hasn’t won squat.
Montrezl Harrell was concerned about the team’s lackluster effort after Memphis blew out the Clippers 140-114 in Los Angeles on January 4. “We’re not a great team," he told reporters. "We just became together this year. We have two players that haven’t never been a part of this team last year. We have a player who won an NBA championship with a whole other team last year."
Popping off to the media and ripping teammates is a time-honored NBA tradition, but it seemed like Harrell was singling out Leonard and Paul George. Clearly all is not ubuntu in Clipper Nation.
Last season's Clippers were undermanned. No Chris Paul, no Blake Griffin, no DeAndre Jordan, and yet L.A. won 48 games and made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, overperforming their point differential by five games. They got by gutting out wins and giving maximum effort, including two upsets of the mighty Warriors in Round 1 of the playoffs. The Clippers, who didn't pull away from the Kings to nail down a playoff spot until the middle of March, played like every game was critical.
Harrell is a free agent next summer in an extremely shallow class. Trez wants to win a title, but he’s also understandably worried about his next contract, and his statistics, and whether the Clippers are going to trade him, since he may be too expensive for them next summer. Kawhi is set, professionally and financially, but the regular season really does matter for guys without that same security, such as Mo Harkless and Landry Shamet. So switching one’s mindset from “win at all costs” to “the season is a marathon, not a sprint” is tough for them.
The Clips have other issues, too.
Throwing load management out the window, George played 25 straight games after missing the beginning of the season recovering from shoulder surgeries. But now he’s about to miss his eighth straight game with a hamstring injury. Surely the team wishes he’d taken a rest day along the way. Shamet has missed 17 games. Patrick Beverley and JaMychal Green have each missed nine.
At the end of games, Kawhi often forces up low-percentage shots, as if forgetting that his team has Lou Williams, one of the NBA’s great closers. The team doesn’t pass a lot, and the defense is ordinary when Kawhi is on the bench. The Clippers are 26-8 when Leonard plays, 5-6 when he sits.
When a player like the Board Man is this integral to a team’s success, the team must adjust around him. The Clippers might resent that Kawhi gets special treatment, but special treatment is a time-honored NBA tradition for superstars not named Tim Duncan. Michael Jordan didn’t have a curfew. Magic Johnson fired a coach he didn’t like. Cleveland once let LeBron take a two-week, in-season vacation to hang out with Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Leonard missing so many games feels wrong, but a lot of things feel wrong that are good for you in the long run, like colonoscopies. He’s earned the right to preserve his body, and that doesn’t mean that he’s disinterested in basketball.
But his ringless teammates haven’t earned the right to loaf through the doldrums of the NBA season simply because they got the eight seed and then signed some famous guys. If Marc Gasol could deal with Kawhi’s load management, than Harrell should be able to as well.
It’s time for the Clippers to take more of an interest in the regular season, because playing a Game 7 on the road in Salt Lake City in May will be far more exhausting than getting back on defense against Atlanta in January.
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