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Los Angeles Clippers betting a different approach to regular season can lead to title contention

LOS ANGELES — The clock seemed to tick away when the Los Angeles Clippers only had 12 seconds to cross halfcourt. The clock seemed to tick slowly when they scrimmaged for seven-minute spurts before taking a break.

“They don’t like it,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said laughing, before revealing the reason for chuckling. “But I like it.”

Lue implemented a training-camp drill called “blowout” for reasons beyond his amusement over his players laboring through a drill that he once struggled with during part of his NBA career under former Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins.

Lue oversaw a training camp this year that put more emphasis on the court than in the trainer’s room, more focus on running than on resting and more priorities in sharpening an edge than avoiding burnout.

Instead of enjoying multiple championship runs with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers have spent the past four seasons underachieving because of overlapping injuries, disjointed chemistry and inconsistent play. So, with the Clippers reporting Leonard and George to be fully healthy at least entering the 2023-24 season, they changed their approach with training camp.

After spending past seasons prioritizing health even at the expense of regular-season results and on-court chemistry, the Clippers have conceded the importance in valuing the regular-season more in hopes that they finally achieve postseason success.

“The biggest thing is having a camp where everyone goes 100% and goes full speed and not have restrictions,” Lue said. “When your two best players like PG and Kawhi come into camp and they’re in shape and are able to set the tone every single day, they’re also able to go a whole camp without missing parts of practice and being in and out. They’ve done a great job with setting the tone with this camp every single day, and that’s what you need from your best players.”

Will that be enough for the Clippers to win their first NBA championship with Leonard and George, let alone in their franchise history?

Related: Updated NBA Playoff and Finals predictions

The Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers have may a rebuttal to that question. Philosophically, though, the Clippers determined this approach will give them their best chance to win an NBA title in their final season at Crypto.com Arena before moving to their privately funded arena in Inglewood, Calif. (Intuit Dome).

The reason? Nothing other than the Clippers’ recent playoff failures that included squandering a 3-1 series second-round lead to Denver in the NBA bubble, failing to make the playoffs in 2022 and losing last season to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

Los Angeles Clippers ditching load management?

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers can’t ever discount their injuries most notably to Leonard and George. The Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns in the Western 2021 Conference Finals after Leonard injured the ACL in his right knee in Game 4 of their second-round series against Utah. They missed the playoffs the following year while Leonard stayed recovered from off-season surgery. Yet, the Clippers have lamented that the lack of practice time and on-court chemistry also contributed to their inconsistency throughout the regular season and playoffs.

“We have to get back to honoring and respecting the regular season,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations said following the team’s first-round exit to Phoenix. “We have to compete harder more consistently, and we have to earn it.”

On the surface, this may sound like the Clippers confirmed the outside perception on a few topics. That they conceded wrongdoing for obsessively prioritized “load management.” Or that they are conforming to the NBA’s new resting rules. Or that they previously fielded a roster unwilling to embrace the grind of a traditional season.

There’s much more nuance to those narratives. On the “load management” narrative? Leonard countered, “I’m trying to play the games that I can play. If I’m hurt, I can’t play basketball.” On the NBA’s new resting policy? Well, the fine print will make exceptions for players such as Leonard and George because of their recent injury history, anyway. And on the Los Angeles Clippers’ previous disinterest in regular-season competition? Last season, Lue and players occasionally lamented the team-imposed minutes restrictions and limited practice time.

“I’ve been on the forefront of saying we need to practice more,” Paul George said. “It needs to feel like we’ve done everything that we could have to get to where we’re at and not have any regrets … I’m all in. I’m all in with the process of going for a championship this season.”

All of which shaped the Clippers’ training camp priorities. Lue made his players run sprints anytime they missed free throws or if Lue made some on his own. Lue added an extra minute of running for the whole group following any turnover.

“Getting the conditioning is very important,” Lue said. “You see with older teams, they always try to ease their way into shape once the season starts. A lot of young teams take advantage of that. When you play young teams early, they’re going up and down. If you’re not in good shape, you can’t keep up. So, we wanted to come in and be in the shape to run and so our guys can play extended minutes early on in the season.”

Read between the lines, and it appears the Clippers believe this strategy will pay off more than acquiring Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden. The Sixers don’t find the Clippers’ assets attractive enough considering they will only make a deal if they feel they still have a championship-contending roster around center Joel Embiid. Yet, the Clippers have also valued their depth that includes their backcourt (Russell Westbrook, Norman Powell), versatile players (Terance Mann, Norman Powell, Robert Covington) and frontcourt (Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee).

By acquiring Harden, the Clippers could become further vulnerable with having another player that has struggled with staying durable.

“I like the team that we have right now,” Lue said. “We have a great unit. I’m just focusing on our guys that’s in the locker room. They’re the same way. We’ve had a great camp.”

Even through all the running. The Clippers would much rather experience that initial fatigue than the injury-riddled seasons in 2019-20 (114 missed games), 2021-22 (387) and 2022-23 (171).  With Leonard and George further removed from their injuries that limited them in recent seasons, the Clippers will soon find out whether their tweaked approach will actually reduce a crowded trainer’s room.

To maximize his team’s chances for full health, Lue conceded in a serious tone that he relies on “prayer” considering his mom’s background as a minister.

“We need some luck to be on our side,” Lue said. “Our guys understand that we’re going to put the work in and we’re going to do all of the right things. If we’re healthy, we know we have a great chance.”

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider at Sportsnaut. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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