Los Angeles is already showing its weatherly excellence only a few minutes after 6:30 a.m. on a Monday in late September. With night finally revealing light, the temperature is hovering in the low 70s. The doors to the L.A. Clippers practice facility have been left open to let the cool dawn stream in.
Today’s breakfast isn’t about taste. It’s about the other senses. It’s a gourmet meal of aromas and of sights and of sounds. Hoop heaven is in here, made by high level basketball artisans. That familiar smell of the hardwood bombards the nose. Memories of early childhood morning practices are both comforting and jarring at the same time, when touching the hardwood’s baseline on countless suicides was a necessity. But unlike those dusty gyms most of us had to play in, this is the premium hardwood. Manically maintained, painted in blue and red, it’s of the highest quality.
Extra rims are stacked in a corner close to the entrance. They must go through rims quickly around here with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George punching dunks. A long-stretching dresser constructed for giants covers an entire wall, holding well-worn official NBA balls. Staccato dribbles randomly echo through the still relatively empty gym. They’re being bounced by staff members getting the rocks ready for Leonard, George, John Wall, Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Norm Powell, Marcus Morris, Robert Covington and Terance Mann. A big cubby system that houses the squad’s practice sneakers comes right after that dresser. A few PG6 boxes sit on the floor underneath pairs ranging from Kawhi’s signature New Balances to standard issue flagships from the Swoosh and the Stripes. The ensuing weights and advanced ellipticals have been left untouched by the Clips’ staff. They’ve transformed the rest of the main area into a circuit of photography and videography opportunities. Green screens, towering lighting rigs, microphones and an army of camera lenses can be found all over the place.
But the valid NBA rims and backboard that Leonard and George have spent the previous three seasons shooting on can’t be hidden, not even by this arsenal of documentary equipment. Under the facility’s mighty ceiling, those hanging rims and backboards have gotten the chance to see more of Leonard and George than most of us have ever seen since the ridiculously talented duo first teamed up in the summer of 2019. Injuries and the pandemic have cut our viewing time and their playing time drastically short.
It’s a big deal that both Leonard and George are finally healthy. In the 226 regular season games that the Clippers have played since the start of the 2019-20 season, George has played in 133 of them, while Leonard has only played in 109. In the 32 playoff games they’ve participated in, it’s been George who has played in all of them, while Leonard has only laced up for 24. And unfortunately, they’ve only been on the court together in 80 of those tilts. Predictably, they’ve won over 70 percent of those battles when they’ve both been available.
Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP, missed all of last season, though. He went under the knife on July 13, 2021 to fix up a partially torn right ACL. George, a seven-time All-Star, only got to play 31 times in 2021-22 because of a torn UCL in his right elbow.
So a few hours after we had the breakfast of aromas and of sights and of sounds, we feast on our lunch, a visual treat that has proven to be way more rare than expected: an opportunity to finally see Kawhi and PG back together again.
Everything goes down fast. Numero dos has been floating around the gym for a little bit. All of the players have to sign balls, hats, jerseys and photos that will get auctioned off for charity. Leonard has been taking his time with the signings. Reggie Jackson, who was selected nine picks after Leonard in 2011, loudly announces that he’s lapped numero dos in the signing line. It makes Leonard laugh. He actually does more laughing than anticipated, a welcomed sight that breaks the stale and corny reputation internet trolls assigned to him many years ago.
Somehow, Leonard was never given a fair shot by the fairweather fans. The casuals saw him lead the Spurs to the 2014 championship as a much more reserved 22-year-old. His 23rd birthday was just two weeks after he raised his first Finals MVP trophy, but they’d already made up their minds. He was, to them, always going to be the quiet and robotic type. Why they couldn’t understand that the youngster was still maturing has always said more about them than about him. Though his game didn’t need much time to adjust to the glaring spotlight, he did. Today, the truth is closer to him being a mixture between calm, peaceful and confident that mostly doesn’t feel the need to always be the center of attention. Leonard has grown up. And though he’s not bombastic, he’s also not what people assume of him.
That’s why PG’s young daughters greet him with hugs upon first sight. While Kawhi was finishing his way through the end of the autograph station, the ever-smooth 32-year-old was making his grand entrance as one of the final Clips to appear. His kids ran out ahead of him and found their way over to Uncle K.
George, now fittingly playing in L.A., has always thrived with the spotlight shining on him. From his dribble combos into stepbacks to his coolness in front of a mic, he always seems comfortable. He’s been a warrior who’s had to stare down some horrific injuries and some disgusting words from the court of public opinion. Most of the loudest members of the basketball viewing fandom are incapable of looking at his larger body of work, at the truth that he is damn close to being the ideal basketball player. They hold on and hold on and hold on to what they count as failure. But their definition of failure isn’t shared by George. Those moments they continue to bring up are just steps forward.
Though they’ve each had their individual journeys, our cover stars have now hit yet another crossroads, arriving at the signs together. They could follow one of them back to safety, which would be a season of mediocrity and a first or second-round exit. Or they could tread the dangerous and long trail to basketball’s promised land.
They’re not gonna turn around. They want to walk the path to the championship.
The similarities that they share with each other are abundant.
Defensively, they’re nearly identical as on-ball stoppers. They sit and they sit and they sit. They’re both about containment. They’re both able to force turnovers. Their defensive discipline comes from their preparation. They study and they retain who likes to pump fake, who likes to attack their chests and who won’t dare dribble against them. They each share a desire to lock people the fuck down. That’s an unteachable want.
Their appetite for defensive destruction is part of why they’ve seen such great success in the 80 times they’ve played together.
Another part of it is that their offensive efficiency is all but a guarantee whenever they lace up. They’re both able to and qualified enough to go out and shoot 25-30 times. But they don’t. George rains down threes, Leonard dials in from the midrange. Off the bounce, off the catch, stationary or on the move, their jumpshot forms should be taught to the youth. Leonard went to the Chip Engelland School of the Two-Handed Follow-Through and George sets his feet with great elegance and speed. Bigs at the rim have historically been in trouble when either one of them parades down the lane. They can each set up their other teammates at will, and they’re knockdown free-throw shooters.
And lastly, the way they complement each other, illustrated in George’s willingness to step up to the media and in Leonard’s willingness to step up to the most difficult clutch moments, is the final piece of what could end in the ultimate success.
After PG’s kids greet Kawhi, the duo pops over to flick it up. The entirety of the gym closes in on us. Now it’s really a big deal that they’re back together. Showtime. Other cameras go off while our photographer, Alex Woodhouse, details what we want to capture.
Boom, boom. Snap, snap. Alex takes a few shots.
Then the good stuff happens. Alex has Leonard and George pose back-to-back for just a split second. It’s enough time for us to get a glimpse at a joke that must stretch back several years.
Kawhi, all of a sudden, stands up on his tippy-toes. He says that he’s taller than PG and then he repeats it. It doesn’t look to be true. Sorry, Kawhi. PG shakes his head with a laugh. Alex, who stands at 6-8, like PG, also seems to be taller than Kawhi.
Alex gives the pair direction on the last flick we want to get, which is when he cracks a joke about Kawhi making up for that one inch difference by being way more brolic than either himself or PG.
They both erupt with laughter. Alex captures the photo of them, joyously smiling, standing at the precipice of what could be a historic season for the Clippers.
Though we hadn’t eaten anything all morning long, the moment is food for the soul.
They’re off after that, responsible for taking even more photos and signing even more autographs.
About 20 minutes later, Leonard sits in front of the media and says, of his time with George, with the deep bass in his voice, “It seems like it went by so fast. Obviously, the first year was the COVID year, which nobody knew was going to happen. Going into the next season, we made it to the semifinals, I think. Then I tore my ACL, and then last year I didn’t play. So, now it’s our fourth year. Me missing last year and then that COVID year probably made time go by quick. I felt like over the years, with us first being here, you see the gradual improvement of the team. Hopefully we can take another step.”
Another 20 or so minutes pass before PG takes the same stage and talks about his All-Star teammate.
“I’m more excited, honestly, of him being healthy,” George says. “That’s first and foremost. I’ve seen his whole work, [from] the second he got injured to the work he put into this offseason going into this season. I’ve been in that position of being out and having to rehab a whole season. I got to watch, from the outside, to see how much work he put into this year. Really excited for him to get a chance to do what he loves to do and get back on the court.
“Obviously, after that, it’s [the] excitement of getting to play with the best two-way player in the game. It’s
just excitement, stepping back on the floor, being full strength, both of us healthy again.”
There’s a focus that George talks about. He wants his squad to “honor” their shot at winning a chip, to “embrace” the pressure that comes with walking that long, long, long road to the end of the path.
“I think both of us, kinda internally, had a promise,” George says to the media about himself and Kawhi. “I know I did, for myself, to bring a championship here. When you look at how close we were two years back, the year Kawhi got hurt, how close we were, I didn’t want to leave anything on the table that I could’ve done more. I thought it was very important this summer to keep guys connected, stay together, get workouts together. It was more just off-the-court stuff. I didn’t really care about the on-court stuff. We’ll get to that when camp starts.”
Portraits by Alex Woodhouse. Action photo via Getty Images.