Clippers Begin Pursuit of NBA Championship by Building Brotherhood Off the Court
PLAYA VISTA, California -- The Los Angeles Clippers caught one of the NBA’s most coveted free-agent fish this past July, and reeled in another superstar on the same line. But during the team’s actual fishing trip this past summer, neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George snagged the biggest catch of the day. In fact, none of the players came away as the top angler.
“I grabbed the smallest,” Lou Williams, the NBA’s two-time reigning Sixth Man of the Year, confessed during Clippers media day. “They threw mine back in the water. That's how small it was.”
Instead, the honor went to Denise Booth, the Clippers’ vice president of community relations, who has been with the organization since 1998.
“It was crazy,” said Landry Shamet, who joined the Clippers this past February.
Though things got a bit competitive—as is to be expected among professional athletes on a boat—what mattered most was the fun the Clippers seemed to have on the water as a group.
“It was a good time,” Kawhi confirmed at media day. “It was a good day for everybody.”
There will be plenty of time to obsess about winning and losing in the months to come. The Clippers crossed an ocean for their training camp in Honolulu, where they prepared to embark on what may be the most promising season in the franchise’s 50-year history. And while the players don’t have to be the best of friends off the court in order to fulfill that championship promise on it, the team knows how much it can help all around to have built up some personal cohesion and chemistry off the court, even (if not especially) after a seismic summer like the one the Clippers just had.
Of the 15 players who made it out of training camp in 2018, only four—Lou, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Jerome Robinson—made it to Hawaii again this year.
This past February, just before the NBA’s trade deadline, the Clippers dealt Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers, then flipped Mike Muscala to the Los Angeles Lakers while sending Avery Bradley to the Memphis Grizzlies. The dust settled to reveal that LA had swapped out four key rotation players in exchange for Landry, JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and Michael Beasley, the last of whom was waived shortly thereafter.
Each of those moves came with its own hurdles for the people involved. But where players can get cold shoulders from teams amid such upheaval, the Clippers’ additions found (mostly) warmer welcomes.
For Landry, who had only just settled into his role as a sharpshooting rookie with the Sixers, it was a rude awakening to the reality of the business of basketball. But his relationships with J.J. Redick in Philly made slotting into a spot in LA, where Doc had previously coached J.J. with the Clippers, all the more seamless.
For JaMychal, it was an unfortunately timed pull away from his girlfriend, who “was due any day now” to give birth to their son, as he recalled from the podium at media day. And though he had to leave her behind in Tennessee during the final trimester of her pregnancy, along with their five-year-old daughter, Jada, the Clippers let JaMychal depart from the team in early April to tend to the birth of his son, JaMychal Jr.
“I just want to thank Doc for giving me the opportunity to get back home and be with my family during that time, during season,” JaMychal said. “We was trying to finish strong. The team, they did a great job of holding it down when I was gone.”
The switch was much easier for Ivica. All he had to do was walk down the hall at Staples Center and plug in a different address for the practice facility, after spending two-and-a-half seasons with the Lakers. The 22-year-old Bosnian did, however, draw a mild rebuke when Doc caught him fraternizing with an old friend near the Lakers’ locker room one night.
Despite that, Ivica, like the Clippers’ other deadline arrivals, found it easy to adapt to his new team in the thick of the playoff race.
“Just last year, we got to know each other really good,” Ivica said. “We're not starting like new players. We know how the team wants to play and how hard they play and we just...I feel like I've been here for a couple of years.”
JaMychal added, “I feel like last season, we got a good feel for each other, so coming into the summer, it's pretty much easy. We pretty much had to get used to like two players, Kawhi and Paul, but the core group we already had was already close.”
Those two established All-Stars didn’t need long to connect with their new teammates. For one, Paul was in Las Vegas at the time that word of his blockbuster trade to LA broke. So were Patrick and Lou. All three were spotted celebrating on social media.
Shortly thereafter, the Clippers’ returnees looped the big-name newcomers into a group chat. Through an extended series of texts, they shared jokes and laughs, along with words of encouragement and camaraderie. By the time the Clippers convened at their remodeled practice facility after Labor Day, they felt as though they knew each other well, even though Paul and Kawhi had barely spoken to their teammates in person.
“We fast forwarded all that getting to knowing each other, based off of us just already being in that chat,” Paul said.
From there, the Clippers started to get a feel for each other’s tendencies on the court through scrimmages and workouts. All the while, they got to know each other as people through group activities.
They popped over to the Coliseum to watch the Los Angeles Rams play, thanks in part to Montrezl's hometown connection with fellow Tarboro, North Carolina native Todd Gurley.
They went on a paintballing excursion that Ivica organized, but Pat dominated—for the most Pat reasons.
“He’s crazy,” Ivica said. “We had a lot of fun at paintball. It's great for team bonding. Pat was all over the place. He was shooting at everyone, even people on his team. That's what Pat does.”
“I still got scars to show mine,” Pat noted. “I was the only guy running around without a shirt on, so I guess I’m kind of psychotic.”
And, of course, there was the now-famous fishing trip, which Paul—an avid angler in his own right—helped to spearhead.
As hectic as the NBA schedule is, there will be time for more off-the-court bonding as the Clippers embark on their championship chase. Spending their training camp amid the natural beauty of Hawaii, far away from the hustle and bustle of LA, affords ample opportunity for fostering those connections. So, too, will road trips to cities across the country during the regular season, with team dinners and fun activities to fill the downtime between practices and games.
But these Clippers won’t have to rely solely on those stolen moments to get to know each other. By all accounts, they’ve already built those bonds, and aim to use them when they find themselves faced with the sorts of on-court challenges that define a team’s worthiness of an NBA title.
“Chemistry is a real thing,” Lou said. “I thought it was important for us to be in a room with each other as much as possible to start building that camaraderie, and understand what each guy brought to the table personality-wise. That way, once we get into the season, once we get into those fourth quarters where we need to communicate and our competitive spirits is high, your words won't be misconstrued. Your teammates can understand that you're coming from a positive place and you have a common goal of trying to win a basketball game.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.