NBA Rumor: Los Angeles Clippers Turmoil?

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Doc Rivers says he fought preferential treatment of stars in L.A.

In the weeks after Rivers took the Sixers job, Paul George publicly questioned how the coach utilized him on the floor, and reports surfaced of extraordinary allowances made for Kawhi Leonard that infuriated teammates and compromised chemistry. “A lot of it is true,” Rivers concedes. “There was special treatment, but what people don’t understand is I was the guy who didn’t like it and was fighting it.”

As the Clippers begin the second year of the Leonard-George partnership, the burden is on Lue, the front office and ownership to figure out how to maximize the pairing. After last season’s embarrassing ending, that task includes continuing to evaluate and determine which players fit around Leonard and George, both on and off the court. The pressure is on for LA to learn from last season’s cultural mistakes. The onus is also on Leonard and George to take greater accountability and establish a healthier locker room dynamic this season, which league sources say the duo is aware of. The 2021 free-agency period is looming.

Before every Clippers game last season, the team’s training staff would honor Kawhi Leonard’s request and create a private space for his pregame routine. The staffers would enter and take over that space for roughly 20 to 45 minutes, according to multiple team and league sources. On the road, there were occasions when the space they occupied was the female staffers’ locker room. That also happened sometimes before a doubleheader at Staples Center when the changing of the court limited the availability of the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room, where Leonard normally warmed up privately.

Various Clippers players, coaches and staffers were aware of the arrangement and some felt uneasy about it. While there appeared to be no sexist intent, the visual of women staffers being unable to use their locker room to use the bathroom, to change clothes or to access their personal belongings while Leonard stretched did not go unnoticed. At least one player mentioned it to a confidant and at least one staffer complained about it to coworkers. It was an awkward arrangement, but drawing too much attention to it risked being seen as going against Leonard, the team’s unquestioned star, in the eyes of the organization. “What were they going to do about it?” one league source said. “It’s Kawhi.”

On and off the court, the players never established the requisite chemistry, continuity or trust to win a championship in their first year together. The organization estimated it could layer superstars on top of the core group of returning role players to win a title, but it awfully misjudged the internal blowback over everything from playing time to preferential treatment to personality differences. “How do you ever build a strong team with that shit going on?” one team source said. “I thought from the beginning, ‘We’re doomed. Kawhi wants too much special treatment.’”

But according to multiple league sources, the perks the Clippers gave Leonard and George began to compromise the standard of the culture they had built over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons — the very culture that the Clippers used, in part, to attract Leonard and George to Los Angeles. Some of those perks included: • Leonard and George were the only players to have their own personal security guards and trainers. • Leonard and George had power over the team’s practice and travel schedule, leading teammates to believe Leonard canceled multiple practices.

Teammates had a level of acceptance of Leonard’s preferential treatment, as his status as a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP — the then-reigning Finals MVP, at that — was indisputable. But George’s treatment was more of an issue within the locker room, league sources said. George, while a perennial All-Star and All-NBA candidate, didn’t carry the same cachet with his teammates. There was a sentiment among certain teammates of, “What have you accomplished in the playoffs?” multiple league sources said.

Players like Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams — Clippers bedrocks before the arrival of Leonard and George — bristled when Leonard was permitted to take games off to manage his body and to live in San Diego, which often led to him being late for team flights, league sources said. The team also allowed Leonard to dictate to Rivers when he could be pulled from games, among other things. Lue was on Rivers’ bench for all of this, but the Clippers were Rivers’ show.

In the postgame locker room Tuesday night, George was preaching to teammates to remain committed, for all the players to return to the team this offseason and stay ready to make another run. It was met by some eye rolls and bewilderment, sources said, because George did not back up his words with action in the series and the team has multiple free agents with decisions to make. George scored 10 points on 4 of 16 shooting and 2 of 11 from 3-point range in the Game 7 defeat. “We can only get better the longer we stay together and the more we’re around each other,” George said after the game. “I think that’s really the tale of the tape of this season. We just didn’t have enough time together.”

Harrell approached his teammate about the risky pass, with George not taking responsibility and arguing the pass could have been caught had Harrell made the right play, sources said. This set off the NBA Sixth Man of the Year. Harrell responded with something along the lines of, “You’re always right. Nobody can tell you nothing,” and expletives were uttered from both players, sources said. George eventually toned down his rhetoric, but a heated Harrell wasn’t having it. Teammates began clapping on the sideline, in part to disguise what was going on and in an attempt to defuse the situation. The incident deescalated shortly after as coach Doc Rivers took his seat to go over the game plan.

Internally, the Clips need to worry less about people who write about their iffy chemistry and more about fixing their iffy chemistry. Solving this problem will take some sleuthing in end-of-season meetings. Was it one person? A combination? Were there bad apples or was there just a misunderstanding? Do they need another locker room leader? We don’t really know the answers, but these are huge questions that will inevitably dictate some of the Clippers’ offseason approach.

Pushed by the Nuggets again in a Western Conference semifinal, the Clippers saw their commanding 3-1 series lead disappear in a run of missed shots, missed stops and missed opportunities that revealed that their inconsistency was still present months later. They flexed their championship potential while building leads of 16, 19 and 12 points against the Nuggets in the series’ final three games. They also looked helpless when Denver began its rallies. “They ran into a real team that played together, not in spite of each other,” said one league executive.

The rapport simply wasn’t there for the Clippers, and it certainly wasn’t there in Game 2 when Montrezl Harrell and George got into a heated verbal exchange during a timeout, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Early in the second quarter, a struggling George had committed two careless turnovers in less than a minute. The second mishap was a half-court pass to Harrell, who was near the paint but surrounded by Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Murray picked off the pass. Seconds later, the Clippers called a timeout.

Harrell responded with something along the lines of, “You’re always right. Nobody can tell you nothing,” and expletives were uttered from both players, sources said. George eventually toned down his rhetoric, but a heated Harrell wasn’t having it. Teammates began clapping on the sideline, in part to disguise what was going on and in an attempt to defuse the situation. The incident deescalated shortly after as coach Doc Rivers took his seat to go over the game plan.

Clippers in turmoil?

Montrezl Harrell had spoken his truth, telling the world on Jan. 4, after a 26-point home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, about the frustrations that had surfaced inside the Clippers’ complicated locker room. Now it was Doc Rivers’ turn. The 58-year-old, who is one of just six current NBA head coaches to have won a title, has been known to take the head-on approach to discussing disagreements with his players, and so it was that he decided to address Harrell’s unfiltered media session from the afternoon before. With his Clippers set to host the New York Knicks that afternoon in the second of a home back-to-back set, sources say Rivers lit into his team in the pregame meeting and directed his ire at Harrell multiple times in reference to the comments he had made.

The gist of the expletive-laden message had been sent loud and clear: Keep your frustrations internal. Don’t vent to the media and create distractions for this locker room. But the damage was done. Harrell, the 25-year-old center whose passion had shone through in those candid three minutes with reporters, had pulled back the Clippers’ curtain just enough to make us wonder: After executing one of the most stunning moves of the summer, adding superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a team that was among the league’s most cohesive and gritty before they arrived, why did these Clippers — even on those winning nights — seem somewhat off?

As more than a dozen sources shared in The Athletic’s reporting on the matter, the transition from the team’s overachieving past to the promising present has not been seamless. From the frustrations relating to Leonard’s injury management and his quiet ways, to the different views regarding regular-season competition, to the reality that their chosen style of play isn’t always conducive to collective joy, there are issues tugging at this talented team that will need to be resolved by the time the playoffs come around. Harrell, sources say, was hardly alone when it came to some of the sentiments he had shared.

The adjustment period with Leonard and George was inevitable, especially in a confident Clippers locker room where they took so much understandable pride in what they accomplished last season. Without an All-Star, the Clippers finished 48-34 and — with Beverley, Lou Williams, Harrell and all the rest leading the way — even took two games from the vaunted Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. At the time, it was a perfect recruiting pitch for players of Leonard’s and George’s caliber. Fast forward to this season, and the introduction of the injury management lifestyle has led to a shift in ethos and, at times, made for an awkward adjustment. What’s more, this was hardly the first time that the combination of Leonard’s unique handling of his health and his sometimes-distant personality has led to questions about team chemistry.

According to Clippers sources, that’s precisely why they refer to Leonard’s situation more accurately as ‘injury management.’ As The Athletic reported in early November, the fact that Leonard was not considered a “fully healthy player” meant he would sit out as often as the doctors advised this season. Sources say the medical advice, at present, still mandates that he not play in back-to-back games — hence the fact that he sat out against the Hawks despite the fact that the team was already without two other key players.

There’s not been some massive overhaul in how the players on the team view each other. The clashes still exist – and will continue to exist, Griffin said. “I don’t think people realize how much teammates are going to have to (slams fists into one another) sometime. You know?” he said. “Every team does that. Listen to Mo (Speights) talk about Golden State. Listen to Paul (Pierce) talk about Boston. Every team does that. And when you win, it doesn’t matter. “… Anytime you’re trying to achieve something this big, it’s going to happen.” Griffin said he never subscribed into those disagreements defining the Clippers’ failures. “People try to make it a thing,” he said. “I’ve never really bought that.”

In a radio interview with Colin Cowherd on Thursday, Davis, who hasn’t played in an NBA game in over a year after undergoing ankle surgery in September, was critical of his ex-teammate, particularly for dribbling the ball too much. “He has his way about himself,” Davis said when asked if Paul was a problem in the locker room. “It’s, ‘I’m Chris Paul, give me the ball, I’m gonna dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, might pass if it looks good, or I’ll shoot.'”
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