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Kawhi Leonard impressing in comeback, but will Clippers pair him with Kyrie Irving?

Andrew Greif, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

LOS ANGELES — Eleven months after Kawhi Leonard underwent surgery to repair a partially torn knee ligament that sidelined him for the 2021-22 NBA season, Leonard's longtime trainer fired off a tweet in early June that did not go unnoticed.

"I felt like I was in the lab with MJ today," wrote Clint Parks, adding a hashtag with Leonard's initials and number. A photo posted the same day showed Leonard in San Diego State's practice facility where his "KL2" banner blanketed much of one wall behind him.

Leonard's health is the linchpin holding together the Clippers' hopes to raise their first championship banner as soon as 2023. Lawrence Frank, the team's president of basketball operations, did not quite reach for a Jordan-level comparison when describing Leonard after selecting Michigan's Moussa Diabate in Thursday's NBA draft. He acknowledged that even though the two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals is not playing five-on-five games, Leonard "continues to do great."

"He's maniacal in his work ethic, it's fun to see," Frank said. "I'm glad we can afford the light bill because he's putting in the hours. But yeah, he's doing great, and he continues to progress and it's great seeing him on the court.

"I think he's on course where he's developing really well but, like, five-on-five isn't something I think that he's doing at this point."

Leonard will be 14 months removed from surgery when unofficial team pickup games begin in September and training camp opens the last week of that month, timing that should offer chance to evaluate how he and Paul George fit with a supporting cast including midseason additions guard Norman Powell and wing Robert Covington, after injuries made that impossible last season. Unless the Clippers shake up that core.

As free agency approaches June 30, the Clippers like their current roster. Their priority is to retain free agents, such as wings Nicolas Batum and Amir Coffey, center Isaiah Hartenstein and guard Jay Scrubb. Though there is interest in finally seeing how the pieces fit, they approach offseason transactions with open minds.

"We continue to assess, OK, how can we continue to upgrade, how can we get better?" Frank said. "You know, some of those things, you may have to do without the benefit of seeing the group together, and you just have to take some educated swings."

One of the biggest — and for now, hypothetical — swings would be Brooklyn point guard Kyrie Irving, who was linked to the Clippers, Lakers, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas and New York, as destinations he would reportedly prefer should talks to remain in Brooklyn on a long-term extension sour.

 

Of that group, none has cap space to add him outright and only the Lakers, led by Irving's former Cleveland teammate LeBron James, know Irving's tantalizing talent as well as the Clippers. Their ranks of executives and coaches are dotted with those who overlapped with him in Cleveland, Boston and Brooklyn. Irving's sheer technical skill with the ball makes him unique. So is the difficulty in predicting how much he would play or how engaged he would be, with past reports describing him at times as unresponsive to others within the organization.

Irving was willing to cost himself reportedly $17 million in salary last season for games missed while unable to play in New York because he was unvaccinated. In his last three seasons, he has played just 103 regular-season games.

Though Leonard and George will command the bulk of the offense next season, league observers believe the Clippers will attempt to bolster their ballhandler role in some manner. They also, however, questioned the Clippers' appetite of adding Irving to a team that feels strongly about the internal chemistry it has rebuilt during the last two seasons under coach Tyronn Lue, the former point guard who coached Irving, James and the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA championship.

Asked how important leadership and availability are when considering roster additions Thursday, Frank said he weighs carefully a player's "basketball character."

"Basketball character may be a little bit different than what you hear of in terms of character," Frank said. "Basketball character is like, can you be counted on every single day to do what you do at the highest level, and are you — how committed are you to those habits? The bond that you form with your teammates, like that's part of basketball character. Like, can you be the same teammate when things are going bad for you as well as when things are going good for you?

"And I think all those things are leadership skills. Innately, regardless of the types of players, your best players are always your leaders one way or the other because that's what the other player is going to look to. We are really, really fortunate in that our two best players [Leonard and George] really, really, really enjoy each other. Like they have a great bond with each other, which is, I won't say unique, but it doesn't happen everywhere."

Etc.

Loyola Chicago guard Lucas Williamson, 6-foot-5 Georgia Tech guard Michael Devoe and 6-7 Utah State forward Justin Bean will sign Exhibit 10 contracts with the Clippers, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed. The signings are with the intent of allowing them to compete for a two-way contract.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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