Sunday, November 28 2021
Los Angeles Clippers Paul George, left, and Serge Ibaka prepare to give high-five to teammates.
Forward Paul George, left, and center Serge Ibaka are part of the returning core of players who will try to get the Clippers back into the playoffs this season. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Three luxury buses and law enforcement officers on motorcycles waiting to escort them idled Monday outside the Clippers’ practice facility in Playa Vista just after noon.

The Clippers were headed south for nearly a week of training-camp practices at San Diego State University and the start of a season in which their challenge is building off of last season’s unprecedented conference finals appearance — all while not knowing when one of their All-NBA superstars will be healthy enough to rejoin them.

Before camp begins, five takeaways learned from the Clippers’ media day session Monday:

1. Serge Ibaka’s back

The veteran says his surgically repaired back is “close to being 100%” healthy.

Of course, close is a relative descriptor. The center, who said he dealt with back pain all of last season before requiring season-ending surgery during the first round of the postseason to “clean up my disk,” said there is no timeline for his return. He will begin training camp limited to non-contact drills.

Could this situation have been avoided? Maybe by undergoing surgery earlier, as he hinted he wanted? He didn’t elaborate on what stopped him.

“I just be dealing with the pain for so long for almost a year, that’s the hard part it was, because I thought like if I just keep working, keep taking the baths, strengthening my core, I’m going to be fine, but it was not the case,” Ibaka said. “I wish I could get surgery earlier, earlier during the season, but hey, things happen. Now I’m going to focus on it for the next season.”

Coach Tyronn Lue seems confident that Ibaka this season — his last under contract — will display the type of floor-stretching talent on offense the team expected when it signed him.

“I think Serge will have a great season once he gets healthy,” Lue said.

The best news for the Clippers’ big-man rotation is that center Ivica Zubac is ready to play. He said the sprained medial collateral ligament that ended his season during the conference finals has felt fully healthy for the last six weeks and that he has progressed to playing five-on-five basketball.

2. Clippers prepared for the grind

Despite injuries to Ibaka and Kawhi Leonard in the postseason, the Clippers won by relying heavily on Paul George, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson. But that was during a seven-game series. Can they keep that up over an 82-game schedule?

“We have to be smart about it for sure,” Lue said. “That’s why I think we got the best sports science team in the league, and they’re going to let us know when guys are in that red zone [physically] or guys need a day or two off, and we’ve got to be smart about it.

“Reggie, Nico, Marcus, P.G., they all played a lot of minutes last year, so we’ve got to be smart about it. But we want to win games in the course of doing that, but we’ve got to be smart about their health as well.”

3. What a difference a year made for George

Twelve months after leaving the NBA’s Orlando bubble as a target of social media criticism for his play during the Clippers’ early postseason exit, George is coming off of a playoff run this summer in which he redeemed his public image by averaging 26.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

George on Monday called his state of mind entering this season “night and day, night and day” compared with exiting last year’s offseason.

“I feel like I’m a lot more clear-headed, a lot more focused, and just sharper coming into the situation,” he said. “Again, I can’t reiterate any more than saying I’m just ready. I’m ready for this in whatever capacity it is. I’m ready for the challenge.”

Said Leonard: “I think he’s motivated enough and knows what he can do. He always knows — he’s been proving himself over the years in this league, from becoming a defender to a leading scorer to a two-way player.

“But he’s going to do good. His expectations need to be better than mine, so it’s all about him and his mindset.”

4. Gearing up on offense

Leonard averaged 59.6 offensive touches per game last season, second most on the team. How will an offense that revolved around Leonard adjust in his absence?

No Clipper averaged more points per touch (.417) last season than Leonard, which is why the team fed him the ball constantly where he was most comfortable: His frontcourt touches ranked 14th in the NBA, just behind the Lakers’ Anthony Davis.

George becomes the indisputable No. 1 scoring option now. The Clippers also acquired Eric Bledsoe hoping that he will bounce back from a dismal season in New Orleans and open up shots for teammates and juice team scoring with his drives to the basket.

“We’ll do some things different, but I don’t think massive changes,” Lue said. “We can do some things we did last year but also incorporate some new things for our new players and some different things. A lot of our offense was based around Kawhi and P.G.

“Now, having Kawhi out, we don’t know how long, but having him out, now we’ve got to do some things differently, run some more stuff through Reggie, run some more stuff through Marcus, also in P.G. We’re going to do a lot of the same stuff, but we’re going to add some stuff as well.”

5. Rebuilding with the core

Retaining the team’s veteran core was priority No. 1 for top executive Lawrence Frank in free agency, a goal Leonard, Batum and Jackson seemingly made easy to accomplish.

Ibaka said he knew Leonard would be back as a Clipper last season. Batum called it an “easy decision” to return on a two-year contract with a player option in the second year.

“Why go anywhere else?” Batum said. “They gave me a chance to be a player again, so I want to come back and have fun and keep winning.”

As for Jackson, the team’s unexpected source of so much postseason offense, “it was never really that much of a thought about me being elsewhere.” Even while mulling his options, he still continued to work out at the team’s practice facility, he said.

“Unless they didn’t want me here, I think I was going to be a Clipper,” he said. “Even then, I was just going to bring my bags and sit on the front door and ask for anything.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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