‘The stage is set for us’: Why Paul George spent his offseason preparing for a Clippers breakthrough

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HIGH ABOVE THE Bay of Naples, Paul George stood in his white paisley tuxedo jacket and black pants with the breathtaking Amalfi Coast behind him.

As Daniela Rajic, George’s bride, walked down the aisle past a star-studded NBA guest list that included Kawhi Leonard, Ivica Zubac, Karl-Anthony Towns, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams at the majestic Villa Astor, Reggie Jackson witnessed something on that cliff in Sorrento, Italy, that he couldn’t recall seeing before. (And it wasn’t the Fun Guy getting on the dance floor like Leonard did with the other LA Clippers while a Serbian singer performed.)

“He probably won’t tell anybody, but he teared up as she was coming down the aisle,” Jackson told ESPN of George, his best friend and teammate. “I was already joking with friends, betting if he was going to cry or not.

“… He doesn’t wear his emotions too much on his sleeves. Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen my man tear up.”

As one person close to George pointed out, he didn’t even cry when he suffered his gruesome leg injury in 2014. Whether it was George shedding tears at his wedding or putting his nice guy demeanor aside to bark at teammates after a lackluster preseason defensive effort, Jackson has seen a new side of George over the past few months.

“He’s definitely coming into his own,” Jackson said. “He is comfortable with who he is.”

George, who at 32 years old is in his 13th season, says he’s in his best “place mentally with life.” Admitting his “window is shrinking to be a [NBA] champion,” George calls the run-up to the 2022-23 season his most focused and determined offseason yet.

Outside of the two weeks he spent in Italy in July, George says he didn’t take any time off this summer, coming into camp in the best shape of his career at 230 pounds with designs of being a stronger version of the 228-pound player he was when he was an MVP candidate during his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018-19.

The food and wine were plentiful in Italy, but George remained disciplined, not wanting to cancel out what had been the most productive summer of his career according to those closest to him.

“I put a ton of work in that I didn’t want it to go to waste and gain extra weight,” said George, who entered the offseason at 238 pounds and went to Italy at 231. “And so I was very conservative on what I ate.

“I came back and didn’t gain anyway, so I was mad at myself for not eating more pasta.”

He also strengthened his voice in the locker room, organizing offseason minicamps to solidify chemistry and set an unsolicited tone for sacrifice for the Clippers’ deep roster. In Year 4 of the Leonard-George era, George doesn’t want to leave anything to chance with what is the Clippers’ greatest opportunity to win a championship.

It’s why the seven-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist put ego aside, why he pursued good friend John Wall for over a year to join the Clippers and why he barely allowed himself to splurge during his wedding in the pasta capital of the world.

“I’m more focused than I ever been,” George told ESPN. “You talk about locked in, I am locked into this year. I mean that’s what you’re going to get, a leader and just whatever it takes. That’s always been my attitude and the spirit I carry.

“I’m prepared and understand what the assignment is this year.

“Winning it all.”


IT WAS A summer of commitment for George, who has been driven to fulfill another vow — one made when he and Leonard joined forces in the summer of 2019.

“I think both of us kind of internally had a promise,” George said last month at Clippers media day. “I know I did for myself, to bring a championship here. Then when you look at how close we were two years back — the year Kawhi got hurt — I didn’t want to leave anything on the table that I could have done more.”

With Leonard sidelined all of last season due to a torn right ACL and George missing three months due to a torn UCL in his right elbow before coming back late in the season only to miss the Clippers’ second play-in loss with COVID-19, the guard has been motivated to make this season an unforgettable one.

The Clippers’ blueprint for contending this season got a big assist from George over a year ago at a dinner in Los Angeles where he began selling Wall on teaming up while the point guard was stuck in limbo with the rebuilding Houston Rockets.

George’s persistence paid off; Wall signed a two-year deal with the Clippers after reaching a buyout with the Rockets in late June.

“We kind of just opened up to each other,” George told ESPN of his conversations with Wall. “Had a talk, what it could look like if he came here, how could we make it work. And we were fortunate to make it happen. He’s here, he’s been special.”

As for the returning Clippers, George was busy trying to solidify the team’s chemistry and bond off the court. He was active on the players’ group text, organizing minicamp outings in San Diego and Santa Barbara. He even paid the expenses for some of his younger teammates.

Chemistry was an issue for the team at the end of Leonard and George’s first season together in 2020 when the Clippers unraveled inside the Orlando bubble after Beverley, Williams and Montrezl Harrell all left the Walt Disney World Resort for stints, eventually blowing a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets.

“I thought it was very important this summer to keep guys connected, stay together,” George said. “It was more just off-the-court stuff. I didn’t really care about the on-the-court stuff.

“… When you look at the teams that win and are very successful, it’s teams that have been together, gel and connect.”

This current team’s core has been together for three seasons and is much tighter than it was in the bubble. It’s no coincidence that Leonard and George, who were seen at Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Padres games together, are too.

“They seem like they got a great relationship,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. “I feel like all of us, for the most part, the camaraderie around the team, especially this year, has been a lot better than previous. [Leonard and George], they’re genuinely friends so it’s not really a competition thing. They’re both getting paid max money, so, s—. On paper, it should be straight.”


AFTER THE CLIPPERS’ third preseason game, George was asked if there are any other recent championship wing duos that serve as a guide for his partnership with Leonard.

George quickly pointed to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s union in Miami, but almost as soon as that answer came out of his mouth, George stopped to clarify.

“I’ll publicly say, I’m the 2. Kawhi’s the 1. I’m the 2,” George said. “So that part we nipped in the bud. Like there’s no ego when it comes to that.”

George washed away the bad taste from the bubble by averaging 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the Western Conference finals without Leonard. And despite George becoming the Clippers’ go-to guy last season after Leonard went down in Game 4 of the second round against Utah in June 2021, George knows his team is most dangerous with clear roles up and down the roster.

“I believe in my talent and what I can do and I believe on any night of what I am capable of. But I feel my job is to make everybody better,” George said. “So I think we will go a long way if everybody just knows their role and what we bring to the table.”

Leonard credited his relationship with George for keeping the two stars connected even when they were injured last season. The two occasionally traveled with the team and broke down what they were seeing in games and shared ideas. Their partnership got stronger this offseason with Leonard traveling to Italy to attend George’s wedding.

“We have a genuine relationship,” Leonard said. “And it just carries over [to the court].”

When Lue was told that George had no issues with being the No. 2 option, the Clippers coach looked a little surprised. Lue praised his star guard for setting a tone of sacrifice, especially with a roster loaded with veteran former starters. But Lue also wanted to make sure George still plays with the aggressive mentality of an alpha superstar.

“I think it is not one-two, it is one-and-one,” Lue told George before the season started. “… Do what you do.

“You can’t take a backseat. You got to be aggressive.”

After having 15 points and 10 rebounds but shooting 4-for-12 with five turnovers and five fouls in the Clippers’ season-opening win over the Lakers, George was in attack mode two nights later at Sacramento.

Upset with the officiating, George took things out on the Kings defense, exploding for 40 points, six rebounds and six assists with Leonard and Wall sidelined on the first night of a back-to-back. He unleashed several blurring spin moves on a drive and in the post on the Kings.

“Kobe!” George said postgame when asked about the Bryant-esque spin moves. “I still can surprise.”

George was surprised that he was still being asked about his comments about Leonard being the top option after Lue said he wanted to make sure he remains aggressive.

“It’s really not that serious,” George said. “… I’m fine being in attack mode. I’ll always hang my hat on being able to do everything on the floor.

“He’s 1A, I’m 1B.”

With the Clippers having 10 more back-to-backs before Feb. 1, Leonard and Wall likely will be sitting out more games as the team tries to keep its stars healthy for the postseason. (Leonard experienced stiffness in his right knee on Wednesday and the team sent him back to Los Angeles for treatment.) George missed Wednesday’s loss in Oklahoma City with a non-COVID illness. But when he returns, the Clippers will once again lean on George, who spent the entire offseason preparing for this.

“It’s a big season for him,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “We all know Kawhi is back but we all know who PG is. I know he is going to have a great season.

“And for us to go all the way, we are going to have to have a great PG.”

If that happens and he fulfills his vow after joining Leonard, George might shed more tears again next June.

“Honestly, we haven’t quite gotten that opportunity to go out and do what we came here to do,” George said. “… Knowing that Kawhi was returning this year, the stage is set for us.

“This is what we came together for and we got a chance to do it.”

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