Swanson: Clippers should speak it into existence; this is their year

PLAYA VISTA — Whether you’re a hater, a dismisser, or one of their wary, loyal fans, face it: When the Clippers open training camp on Tuesday in Las Vegas, it could be the beginning of their first championship season.

Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, ushered in the NBA new year on Thursday by speaking with reporters on the roof of the Clippers’ training center. We could have run his every measured statement through Politifact’s TRUTH-O-METER and gotten confirmation that it was, technically, either “true” or “mostly true,” because he said stuff like this:

“We all know how extremely hard it is to win a championship.”

Facts.

“(We) realize how fragile it is.”

Yup.

“A third of the league is a contender for a championship.”

Well, maybe.

Frank proceeded with caution, stayed humble, said nothing that wasn’t responsible and perfectly reasonable.

With all due respect, I don’t wanna hear it.

You’re the Clippers, you’re supposed to win.

Wait …

You’re the Clippers, you’re supposed to win?

Yes!

There’s no tip-toeing around it, no playing it off.

This team could be great. It should be.

2️⃣ comin' through. pic.twitter.com/cSdXda0TmD

— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) August 19, 2022

They’ll welcome back a repaired Kawhi Leonard, who was, by Frank’s estimation, “playing the best basketball of anyone in the world” in June 2021, when he suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in the second round of the playoffs.

Behind closed doors since then, Leonard has been running a comprehensive reboot. The Clippers are at all times respectful of his privacy, but Frank said Thursday that the five-time All-Star from Moreno Valley has reached a point in his rehab that’s “very, very encouraging, exciting and … inspiring.”

All that’s left is to break the seal and release him for five-on-five action at training camp, where he’ll join fellow All-Star Paul George, who Frank said is “100%” after an elbow injury and other maladies limited him to 31 games last season.

But even without their headliners, the Clippers proved resilient, remained competitive and fun to watch.

The Clippers went all season without Leonard and finished 42-40, including 24-27 without George, and missed the playoffs, but they at least reached the play-in, unlike their neighbors down the Crypto.com Arena hallway.

And the Clippers’ understudies who took on bigger roles seized those opportunities, improved and gained confidence. Now, with the exception of backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, they’re all back – if they ever left, because most of the team stayed in L.A. to spend the summer working out together. All of that gives the Clippers crucial continuity and so much depth they might have to squeeze into a submersible to get to their games.

Or they can just fly because they’re especially stacked at the position that matters most in the modern NBA – on the wing.

And it’s Tyronn Lue in the pilot’s seat, the Sully Sullenberger of mid-series and mid-game adjustments.

Last season ended early, but by Lue’s own admission, finding ways to keep the Clippers on course despite so many major injuries made him a better coach – and he’s already led Cleveland to its only NBA title and two other Finals appearances before bringing the Clippers to their first Western Conference finals in his first season here.

The only box the Clippers still need to check heading into this 2022-23 campaign (besides proven depth at center) is the one for attitude: Mild? Medium? Hot? X-Hot? Howlin’?

Frank described this seasoned, stellar roster as something that’s “been four years in the making for us.” But past torment has taken a toll: “Does that guarantee us anything? No, nothing.”

The Clippers caught plenty of flack in 2019-20, in Leonard and George’s first season with the team, for acting like they’d won something when they hadn’t won anything – before they crashed and burned in the bubble, coughing up a 3-1 series lead against Denver.

And then there was Leonard’s injury the next postseason, and all of last season’s trials …

And that’s just since Kawhi and PG teamed up.

It’s no mystery why Frank wouldn’t want to skip to the end: “What I enjoy is what do we look like in January? What do we look like in February? What are our habits daily? That’s kind of how we evaluate things.”

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The granular, live-in-the-moment approach is admirable if you’re trying to avoid making eye contact with the 15,000-pound elephant in the room.

Because, sure, actions ring louder than words, but words matter, and if the Clippers are going to finally ditch the decades of disappointment and dejection, they’re going to have to shout down those demons and doubts.

They’ve got to go into this with appropriate gusto, with a champion’s swagger.

Lean in, own it, yell it from the roof.

Because the Clippers can say all the right things all season, but if they’re not competing for a championship at the end of what is set up as the organization’s clearest look at a title in its 53-year history, the last word will be that they failed.

They should want to speak that out of existence.