Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, right, gives instructions to forward Daniel Oturu and guard Jordan Ford during a preseason game against the Lakers on Friday. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)
Approaching nearly 160 pages, the NBA’s health and safety protocols were designed to address nearly every scenario possible. They even cover that annual preseason tradition, the team dinner, which was prohibited by the protocols until after Dec. 11.
Those restrictions, along with others set by the county that have limited restaurants to take-out only, meant that despite coach Tyronn Lue’s wishes during training camp last week, the Clippers could not gather at a Beverly Hills steakhouse and introduce themselves around a long table, as they did two seasons ago.
Lue might get that dinner one day, but in its place his coaches and players instead met during last week’s lead-up to their first preseason game on the court inside the practice facility, spread apart at an appropriate distance.
“We just kind of asked each other some simple questions, just favorite musical artists and stuff like that,” guard Luke Kennard said. “There were a few interesting answers, that’s for sure. One of our coaches, I’m not going to call him old, but one of his favorite rappers was Lil Baby.”
“… It was a really cool thing. Never done anything like that before. But yeah, it was cool to sit down and talk face to face with a few guys and get to know them a little bit.”
Though the core of a roster that lost a 3-1 lead in the second round of the postseason remains the same, there are six new players, Kennard included, and a coaching staff that is almost entirely new. COVID-19 restrictions had limited the group’s interaction before the start of training camp only days earlier. Introductions, then, were necessary.
“It was fun, actually,” Lue said. “Didn’t know how it would go, but I know all the guys liked it, I liked it, the coaching staff, they loved it as well. It was nice little thing we had.”
When he coached in Cleveland, Lue liked to cancel practice and load players onto buses for a bonding exercise. If the coronavirus forced him to change old methods, his intent of the exercise remained the same, hoping the group would learn “things you don’t know about each other that you would find interesting.”
“There were some things that guys had no idea about other guys and it was something that was very personal,” Lue said.
Beyond that, the Clippers opted to stay tight-lipped on the meeting or its setting. Lue, only half-jokingly, said reporters would need to ask team President Lawrence Frank for more answers.
“We just got together,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “The details, that’s above my pay grade so, if the big guy didn’t tell you necessarily what we did, then I can’t. But just know that we had a good time hanging out and getting to know each other.”
In any case, the Clippers know well what was said is less important than the follow through.
Last season, the Clippers departed a preseason team meeting at a Vancouver, Canada, hotel believing they’d established clear-cut roles and nonnegotiable buy-in to pursue a shared goal of a championship. After their season finished, however, players, including Lou Williams, said the team’s chemistry was lacking and that holdovers and new additions had not always meshed.
The team skipped steps throughout the season, star Kawhi Leonard has said. Forward Paul George has criticized the team’s lack of practice time.
Lue’s desire to indicate that things would be different was evident when he scheduled two practices for the first day of training camp earlier this month. The team then held another two-a-day session later that week, Lue said. Multiple people in the organization couldn’t recall the team holding two mandatory practices on the same day last season.
Williams said Lue “has done a great job of setting the tone.”
“That’s really where chemistry is built, in practice,” George said. “Learning one another, learning coverages. … [It] puts you in a lot of uncomfortable situations, you have to learn to play through it. The saying where they say practice makes perfect, it’s not cliche. Practice makes games easier.”
When Jackson dropped into the Clippers locker room in the middle of last season following his buyout in Detroit, he found himself next to a close friend in George and a former teammate in Marcus Morris, but immediately found himself in lineups with others he barely knew personally.
Jackson viewed starting off with a better understanding of his teammates as important to establishing trust, even if it amounted to just that — only the start of a much longer process.
“We’re trying to come together as a collective whole and the best part is you get to know somebody beyond basketball so that you have more of an emotional tie once you actually get on that court, you care more about the person,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to coming up with ways to get to know each other and I’m looking forward to continue to do it throughout the season.”
After missing the preseason loss to the Lakers on Sunday because of an excused absence under the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Jackson said he feels good physically and called himself proud that the league has taken its protocols as seriously as it has. “I feel perfectly fine and I’m ready to go,” Jackson said. … Nicolas Batum will continue to start at forward as long as Morris continues to sit because of knee soreness, Lue said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.