Entering this year, there was a multitude of questions hovering
over the entire Clippers organization:
- How will Kawhi Leonard look after missing the entire last
season? Did he put on too much muscle? How will load management be
handled with him this season?
- How will the acquisition of John Wall work after he missed
almost two years of action? Will the Clippers be getting the old
John Wall or just an older John Wall?
- How will Paul George fare after also coming off of an injury
that derailed what was a very productive season in 2021-22?
I caught up with two former Clippers greats, Darius Miles and
Maurice Taylor, to explore these questions and much more.
Etan Thomas: The Clippers really looked good in
their first few games. A lot of people are saying they could win it
all. How good do they look to you?
Darius Miles: "I don’t wanna jump out there too
quickly; it’s still early, but I think they look really good.
Seeing the pieces, the depth, having Kawhi back, PG. I’m so excited
for John Wall. He’s always been one of my favorites. I saw him get
a little frustrated there at the end against the Lakers. This is a
different kind of role; he wanted the ball in his hands at the end
like he was back in D.C. So he is adjusting to the new role, and I
think it’s gonna be just fine."
Etan: One of the things with John Wall people
were wondering was if he can he get back to the Washington
Wizards-level version of himself on the court after sitting out two
seasons, but he looks good to me so far.
Miles: "He definitely looks good, I really want
John to embrace this new role because if he does, the sky's the
limit. And he’s been saying all the right things. I heard one
interview and he kept saying, 'I’m so excited that I don’t have to
do it myself.' So he has to really embrace the fact that, sometimes
down the stretch, you’re not going to have the ball in your hands.
You may have to go to the corner and spot up and let Kawhi and PG
run this two-man game like they were doing against the Lakers. And
sometimes, they may need (John) to speed dribble it up and initiate
the offense, but other times it may be something different. And he
just has to fully embrace the different times, whatever they are,
because really, he can — and I believe will — be vital for this
Etan: You know, I’m really rooting for PG to
have a great year. He has taken a lot of criticism really since the
Miles: "I think last season while Kawhi was
out, he really just put his head down and went to work. He wasn’t
saying much, wasn’t getting into too much, and, before the injury,
he was having a great season. I think this year is gonna be the
same thing. He came out and said, 'Yeah this is Kawhi’s team, so
I’m not gonna let the media play that game with us of whose team it
is.' He squashed all that. 'This is Kawhi’s team, and that’s going
to go a long way for us.' Because it cuts down on the chatter, you
Etan: Definitely, like how Magic Johnson did
with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Miles: "Exactly, just so there’s no discussion.
I’m very, very excited for the Clippers. I wanna see the Clippers
win a chip in L.A. Now, of course we don’t have the ridiculous
number of championships like the Lakers have, but this year, I
think this team could really pull it off. And we’re not talking
about the best team in L.A. — we already got that. We’re talking
about winning it all."
Etan: Let’s stay on PG for a minute. Why do you
think he receives so much criticism? He was really getting
criticized heavily I thought.
Miles: "That’s just this day and age. As soon
as someone sees a vulnerable spot, they jump on it. That’s just how
it is unfortunately."
Etan: It’s interesting though because PG talked
about struggling with his mental health while in the Bubble, and it
was like, people got mad at him. Other players like Kevin Love and
DeMar DeRozan talked about their mental health, and they were
praised for their courage, given awards and sitting on panels. I
mean, PG just announced not long ago that he was giving away $3 million in free
I just co-wrote Emerald Garner’s book (Eric
Garner’s daughter), "Finding My Voice," and she talked about how
costly therapy is and how much her entire family should’ve had it
for their mental health, and he is giving away $3 million of free
mental health therapy for people!
Miles: "Yeah, how could anyone be mad at that?
I don’t know. I never really understood it myself. I’m happy when
any athlete has the courage to talk about their mental health
because them saying that gives other people the comfort that they
don’t have to be ashamed. So yeah, I agree with you. It should’ve
been praised not mocked."
Etan: You mentioned Russell Westbrook earlier,
and that’s my guy. I played with him in OKC for a year, but they
got him in the matrix right now, nonstop criticism. It’s like he is
taking the heat for a poorly-constructed team.
Miles: "Man, I love Westbrook. And I’m glad
[Charles] Barkley said something about it. But people don’t
understand how the slander, the politics of the game, the wrong
situation or construction of a team, like you said, how that can
take away someone’s love for the game, and it looks like that with
Westbrook. His body language, that 'lion' that makes Westbrook,
Westbrook you know? Now, he’s second-guessing himself; not sure if
he should pass or shoot, just everything is off. I hate to see my
man go through this."
Etan: So last question, there have been
built-up expectations before for the Clippers. The year in the
Bubble and the season before the Bubble, everyone was waiting for
them to match up with the Lakers. It seemed like those years
could’ve been the Clippers' years as well. And I know a lot of
teams always say this, but this season, it does really feel like
this could be the Clippers year to win it all.
Miles: "I hear you. I just don’t want to get
too ahead of myself — especially with guys coming off of injuries —
but then, we came out the gate looking really good this year. And
we have a really deep bench, like 10-11 deep. I’m super excited for
this season, but I don’t wanna jump out there too soon. I
appreciate the support from Barkley, but not yet. But do I feel
like we could be a contender? Absolutely.
"Also, we gotta see what happens with Kawhi’s injury and his
load management, and if that is a plus or a minus. I love the team,
love the coach, Ty Lue; they have the team built to win the
championship. They have the ability to beat any team — Golden
State, Portland, Phoenix, Denver, anyone in the West or the East.
Of course a lot has to go right, but yes, I’m excited. (It's) gonna
be a great year for us."
Etan Thomas: How good can the Clippers be this
Maurice Taylor: "I think they could be really
good, top-tier even. If you look at how the team is constructed,
they really have everything you need in today’s game. They’re a
really good defensive team, they can run, they can shoot threes,
they’re athletic. They can play iso ball, but don’t have to rely on
iso ball in order to be productive. And they have an incredibly
deep bench. And they’re big. They had a lineup out there with [Nic]
Batum, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; those are 6-6 to 6-8 wing
players. And for Kawhi and Paul George to be the elite defenders
they are, what other team has guys that size who can all defend and
score at that level at the same time?
Etan: And how much do you think John Wall can
help this team? Here in D.C., we’re all rooting for him to do well.
I interviewed his former teammate
Marcin Gortat, who also echoed those sentiments, especially
taking into consideration everything he went through that he
detailed over the summer. But how great of an addition was Wall to
Taylor: "I don’t understand why there weren’t
more teams in line to get John Wall, especially contenders. The
only knock against him was that he hasn’t played in two seasons for
whatever reason — still not sure what was going on in Houston — but
he looks good so far. He looked quick. He didn’t look like he lost
a step at all, which was what so many people were worried about.
But I was definitely impressed. If he can be that for us, I don’t
see anyone in the East who would be able to stop us if we make it
to the Finals.
Etan: Yeah I saw Charles Barkley picked the
Clippers to win it all and doubled down after the game against the
Lakers. So he is sticking with his pick. He may have even said,
Taylor: "Well, I’m not going that far
(laughing). But remember, I was with the Clippers during the down
years. The bad old days (laughing). So for us, the guys I talk to
from my era, it’s amazing to be discussing the Clippers in terms of
championship favorites. But yes, they could definitely win it all
Etan: I agree, and does T-Lue get enough credit
for his coaching? Especially the way he was able to keep the team
together last season when Kawhi was out. I know he was my former
teammate, so I may be a little biased, but I do think he doesn’t
get the recognition he should for the job he has done
Taylor: "I think he is definitely underrated.
In today’s NBA, the notion is almost that you don’t really need a
coach because of the level of talent. We heard that when he took
over in Cleveland and was coaching LeBron [James]. You heard that
in Brooklyn with Steve Nash..."
Etan: Well, that may not be the best example
because of how disgruntled it seems Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
are with Steve Nash, but continue.
Taylor: "Yeah that’s true. But, point being, I
think good coaches sometimes fall through the cracks because
players are so good now. But in reality, coaching is the X-factor
for each team. That’s why Miami was so good, that’s why Boston with
Ime Udoka overachieved the way they did last season. But to answer
your question, no, Ty Lue definitely doesn’t get the credit he
deserved, and for the very reason you mentioned. He held everything
together while his star player was out for the entire season. And
he really pieced together a team. Like, they have a great unit. If
you look at the Lakers, they just have a bunch of guys who got
signed together. That’s a pickup game, what the Lakers have."
Etan: And no proven shooters. They have some
developing shooters, but they need proven shooters who can
contribute immediately, right?
Taylor: "Absolutely, I don’t know what they’re
thinking over there, but that’s not my problem. We’re constructed
as a complete team, and you have to give credit to Steve Ballmer —
when you have a team governor who goes all out for his team? I
mean, the Clippers haven’t had that in history, at least not while
I was there. We’re in arguably the best market in the league, so to
have an organization that’s willing to invest in their players and
open their checkbooks the way Steve Ballmer is, it’s going to be
attractive to free agents to come to the Clippers. And they’re
making moves to win the whole thing. They’re not penny-pinching or
trying to spend the bare minimum. They are investing the way a team
is supposed to."
Etan: If only someone could’ve recorded Donald
Sterling earlier while you were there (laughing).
Taylor: "Man, don’t get me started (laughing).
It’s a night and day difference, but that’s why they are in the
position they are in. People always say players make the team, and
that’s true, but the ownership, the way the organization is run
makes all the difference. So a lot of this credit, like I said, has
to go to Steve Ballmer."
Etan: I hear you, so last question: Kawhi
Leonard. I don’t know how they’re going to do with the load
management for the entire season. Against the Lakers he came off
the bench well into the second quarter. I’m sure that’s not going
to be the strategy for the entire season, but how good did Kawhi
Leonard look to you?
Taylor: "He looked really good. He moved well.
With wing guys, when they come back from injury, you wanna see how
their lateral movement is, if they have that pop back, and he had
all of that. He definitely looked strong. And he’s only going to
get better as the season progresses. But the thing I am a little
concerned with is the very load management (subject) you
"A team can load management themselves right out of the playoffs
if they’re not careful. Is it going to get to a point where he’s
back and he’s at full strength and he is their main guy this
season? Or is it going to be an ongoing situation where, 'Okay, we
have a back-to-back, we’re going to rest him this second game?' If
you do that enough times, that could change the dynamic of your
playoff run or position. Because Golden State doesn’t have any load
management players, and that’s who you have to be eyeing on the way
to the Finals. So I am a little concerned, to be honest. But, other
than that, things look very good for the Clippers this season."