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Lawrence Frank confident Clippers will be a ‘legitimate title contender’ next season

The Clippers president reflected back on what he called a “special” season and looked ahead to what the team can do next season.

Milwaukee Bucks v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

PLAYA VISTA — President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank spoke for an hour on Wednesday morning, giving insight about the direction and thinking of the LA Clippers as they head into the offseason.

The Clippers, who missed out on a postseason berth by failing to win either one of their games in the NBA’s play-in tournament, finished with a 42-40 record, which is something that can be seen as a successful season for the franchise considering all the extenuating circumstances.

“We’re not going to allow two games where we came up short to overshadow that it was a special regular season,” Frank said.

Despite Kawhi Leonard missing the entire season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, as well as Paul George being absent for 51 games in part because of COVID protocols and a tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the Clippers were competitive and finished with the franchise’s 11th consecutive winning season which extended the NBA’s longest active streak, a fact not lost on Frank.

“To be able to have our 11th consecutive winning season under these circumstances, it does make it a special regular season,” Frank noted.

The Clippers now begin an offseason where they’ll let their stars rehab from ailments, and hopefully bring back some of the key free agents that they have. Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Rodney Hood, and Isaiah Hartenstein are all slated to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, with Amir Coffey eligible for restricted free agency.

Retaining Batum and Covington seem like no-brainers for a Clippers team that values the versatility that both veteran forwards can bring, especially with their seamless fit around both Leonard and George.

“From a roster construction (standpoint), we wanted to surround (Leonard and George) with size, length, shooting, defensive versatility and IQ,” said Frank.

Both Batum and Covington bring those qualities to the team. Batum played 59 games for the Clippers this season, starting 54 of them. This came a year after leading the team in total minutes. Batum averaged 8.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists while shooting 40% from deep this season. He holds a player option, and while there’s no word on if he’ll pick it up, Batum should be a priority for the Clippers this summer.

Covington, who was acquired in early February alongside Norman Powell, was extremely valuable to the team in his 23 games. He averaged 10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks in 22.1 minutes while shooting 45% on 3s. With Covington on the floor, the Clippers were 11.9 points per 100 possessions better after his arrival.

After the team’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday ended their season, Covington mentioned that he’d “like to return” to the Clippers. It was a sentiment echoed by Frank on Wednesday.

“I’m excited to hear that he likes it here and we’d like to be able to keep him here,” Frank added.

But, as you would expect, a lot of what was discussed on Wednesday had to do with the health of the team’s two stars, George and Leonard.

George, who missed the team’s play-in finale last Friday due to COVID protocols, is expected to be fine, according to Frank. As for Leonard’s rehab, well that becomes a popular topic yet again.

The entire season felt like a will-he-or-won’t-he situation with Leonard. There was talk during the season that he might return before the end of it, and then that talk moved to the actual play-in or postseason. But it never came to fruition. When asked about Leonard’s status on Wednesday, the Clippers once again toed the line of giving you just enough to keep you wondering.

“He’s a maniacal worker,” Frank asserted before adding, “He puts a ton of time, effort, focus into his daily rehab, so he continues to make progress.”

Frank did say that the team is “encouraged by the progress he’s making,” but also said the Clippers aren’t going to get into the business of “timetables” as to when Leonard might be able to step back on the floor. The opening of the 2022-23 NBA season would be 16 months from when Leonard first suffered his torn ACL in Game 4 against the Utah Jazz in last year’s second round.

It was a day in which Frank praised the likes of Reggie Jackson, Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein, Marcus Morris Sr., et al. He outlined a path to the Clippers getting back to title contention, fueled by the steady improvements that the likes of Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and the other youngsters have made, so long as the health of their two stars remains on the fortunate side.

George hurt his UCL in early December during a meeting against the Portland Trail Blazers, an incident that Frank described as a bout of “flukiness.”

“(Paul George) is literally against Portland diving on the floor for a loose ball, (Jusuf) Nurkic falls (on him),” Frank stated. “Like the odds of that, that’s not anything preventative you could do.”

Perhaps the Clippers just need a little injury luck on their side. Perhaps that happens as early as this coming season, but what can’t be changed is the success of this past season for them, even without a trip to the postseason.

Coupled with George and Leonard returning, hopefully at full strength, the Clippers should be amongst the title contenders when the new league year kicks off in a few months.

“I think it’s really, really going to help us going forward that one of the silver linings of the season despite falling short of our goal — (which is) winning a championship — despite falling short of being in the playoffs, that there was significant progress made that when we layer on top of this group, (adding in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), we feel we’re a legitimate championship contender when fully healthy.”

It does seem like the building blocks are in place for a successful few years, but Frank is always quick to point out just how quickly things can change in this league.

“A team that may not be a contender today, next year can be,” Frank said.

“And other teams that are a contender, one transaction can change it. That’s how delicate sometimes things are.”