For Kawhi Leonard, leading by on-court example will no longer suffice.
It is well known in sports, and life, that the most talented among us will get preferential treatment. Carpets will be rolled out and heads will turn away in situations that normally wouldn’t fly.
Leonard is no exception, as The Athletic’s Jovan Buha detailed at length in a fascinating description about the Clippers’ locker room troubles stemming from an internal hierarchy that didn’t go over well with everyone involved. Leonard’s separate schedule and private demeanor are well-documented across all of his professional stops. His previous stints in San Antonio and Toronto resulted in championships so the chatter was understandably less than what it is now.
This Clippers team is different. There is no decade-long standard of excellence and stability created by the marriage of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. There is no deep defensive identity with high-iq veterans that only needed a superstar to plug in and get them over the top like in Toronto. This Clippers team is the first of Kawhi’s career that truly needs him to be a leader and influence the culture on and off the basketball court. Last season presented a learning curve in that department for Leonard, who along with Paul George failed to create a culture of team connectivity and accountability, something that roster mainstays Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley embrace.
— Martin S. (@marsoaries) December 2, 2020
The Clippers had a solid offseason and saw additions that should help them both on the court and in the locker room. Tyronn Lue is heralded around the league for his ability to manage egos and establish strong accountability in the locker room. Kawhi will likely still be load managed but one would expect that things such as arriving at team flights late or the idea of players controlling if practices are held will no longer take place. Serge Ibaka provides an upgrade to Montrezl Harrell as a true stretch big and adds a veteran presence in the locker room. More importantly, he actually has a relationship off the court with Leonard, who will need to improve his bond with his teammates so that these stories no longer seep out of their locker room.
Regardless of what Lue and Ibaka bring to the table, Leonard will need to be more connected with his teammates this season to improve chemistry. It would be easy to bash George for also getting preferential treatment as a far-less accomplished star, but I look to the best player on the team to set the tone for everyone. Star players around the league all but assuredly get this treatment and more but that idea of elevation for individuals does not work on a team that reportedly “didn’t address on-court issues or miscommunication or hold one another accountable.” Lapses in communication affect the franchise in all facets and require a change in procedure starting at the top, something Lue will assuredly aim to establish from the start of training camp.
The Los Angeles Clippers will still compete for a title this season based purely on the strength of who they have on the roster, but the difference between realizing their potential and being disappointed by a slew of Western Conference upstarts may be in the changes that their best player makes off the court heading into the 2021 season.