Clippers might lack dominant vocal leader but have plenty of veteran voices

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Los Angeles Clippers' Paul George (13) and Nicolas Batum (33) celebrate going into a time out as Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith, center left, walks past in the first half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Dallas, Sunday, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Clippers forward Nicolas Batum (33) and Paul George interact during a timeout. The two veterans will be more responsible this season for vocal leadership on the court without Patrick Beverley on the team. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

It hardly mattered that Minnesota’s lead had grown to double digits, or that the animated man in the sweatshirt passing along instructions was not even a coach, but a teammate.

Leandro Bolmaro, an Argentinian wing, didn’t dare look away from Patrick Beverley. In only the few short weeks since the former Clippers guard had joined his new teammates, they had already learned to heed Beverley’s communication style.

“No wasted words,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch said. “He’s very direct. He’s right to the point. He’ll tell you why. The best thing about it is he goes out and does it himself.”

Beverley spent the entire preseason game Monday like this, popping out of his sideline seat when he saw a correction to be made. This did not surprise Clippers center Ivica Zubac. In two-plus seasons as Beverley’s teammate, he had been in Bolmaro’s position too many times to remember.

For basketball and roster-building reasons, the Clippers stood to benefit by trading Beverley and Rajon Rondo to Memphis — which in turn sent Beverley further north — in August. They removed a pair of older, expensive guards on expiring deals from a crowded backcourt and offloaded little-used center Daniel Oturu in return for the paint-probing Eric Bledsoe, whose strength filled a weakness and whose perimeter defense, the team believes, will approximate Beverley’s.

Yet, it left a void not so easily filled as swapping out one shooter for another. By a wide margin, Beverley was the most voluble Clipper, an on-court extrovert as fiery for a midweek game in January as for prime time in the postseason.

Without that “big voice,” as coach Tyronn Lue put it, the players that remain have been characterized as “a quiet team, by nature.”

“It’s not a bad thing,” Lue said. “It’s just that’s who we are by nature. But to be a good defensive team you definitely have to talk and communicate. It doesn’t mean you have to go around yelling and screaming like [Kevin Garnett] but you still got to communicate what we’re doing in our coverages and things like that.

“Not a lot of talk. Just the right talk. We just got to get better at that.”

The challenge befits the Clippers’ current situation. Until Kawhi Leonard returns from injury, the title-contention buzz surrounding this team will remain at low volume. Yet, with no incentive — i.e., draft picks — to be bad, and the bulk of last season’s conference-finalist roster back, the Clippers expect the Western Conference to hear from them nonetheless.

“Last year wasn’t the end, it was just considered the beginning of something, not because of Western Conference finals, ‘OK we did it,’” forward Nicolas Batum said. “No, we start from here now.”

With a roster full of veterans and a trusted coach in Lue, the Clippers could be uniquely positioned to quietly thrive. Communication is widely considered Lue’s biggest strength, moreso even than in-game adjustments, because without first establishing buy-in from players asked to adjust their roles on the fly, none of it would work. Still, not enough talk presents challenges for any coach.

“When you don’t have that as a coach,” Finch said, “just generally you have to fill that void yourself and just hope [players] don’t stop listening.”

Talk can be cheap but becomes especially valuable if it prevents points. The Clippers were repeatedly a step slow defending in transition during the preseason, and though all caveats apply to four matchups in which the Clippers never played their full projected starting five, there were mistakes made that shouldn’t have happened, Zubac said.

“Effort, communication, transition defense, rebounding,” Zubac said. “We got to get better at that stuff.”

Lue’s 23 years in the NBA have taught him that a single, domineering personality can lead the locker room to tune out the message, no matter how loud. With the Timberwolves, Finch said, Beverley has been “a catalyst for conversation … he’s getting others to talk and talk in a meaningful way.” Lue, too, prefers multiple voices calling out mistakes. The Clippers are not short on candidates.

All-star forward Paul George felt he had gotten better last season “from the standpoint of being a little more vocal, and just wanting to be involved, wanting to put things together.” Lue lauded both George and Leonard, injured though he is, with their willingness to share their analysis and expertise with others.

“Talking to those guys, letting them know what he sees, things they can get better at, that’s a huge lift,” Lue said of Leonard, in particular.

By all accounts, forward Marcus Morris Sr. spent training camp doling lessons seen in his decade in the NBA. Batum, now 14 years in the league, is the team’s wise uncle.

“He’s quiet like everybody else,” Lue said, with a chuckle. “But when he needs to speak up, he does. When we’re not playing the right way and we’re not sharing the basketball, he definitely steps up and makes sure his voice is heard.”

Several identified point guard Reggie Jackson as the loudest voice — before practice.

“But then once the game starts, he’s quiet, too,” Lue said, a point that illustrated what he wants the Clippers to hear most clearly. It’s not about timbre. It’s about timing.

“Our whole team is quiet,” he said. “But we've got to change that on the floor.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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