On the first day of training camp — the official start of a 2021-22 season that, in light of Kawhi Leonard’s highly uncertain return from injury and the trading of team heartbeat Patrick Beverley, represents a massive question mark for the L.A. Clippers — owner Steve Ballmer, head coach Tyronn Lue and 12 players appeared for the cameras.
Not a one was anything but positive about the road ahead, and certainly no controversies were stirred like that surrounding Wizards superstar (and non-scientist) Bradley Beal, who pushed back at vaccination questions, or conspiracy-leaning Kyrie Irving, who continued to leave open the chance he could miss a bunch of games for Brooklyn by not getting the shot.
But by and large the most effusive of those Clippers who spoke were L.A.’s four returning free agents re-signed this summer: Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Leonard. (Forward Amir Coffey also re-signed, on his second two-way deal.)
Obviously, there’s nothing new about NBA players expressing early enthusiasm and hope for the season, and it stands to reason that these free agents would speak most glowingly about the organization given that they so recently decided to stay. But even so, their words seemed to go above and beyond the usual rah-rah sentiment found at the starting gun, and it’s not hard to imagine Ballmer and Lue swelling with pride as they listened in.
Here are a few quotes from the returning free agents about why they chose to stay.
Jackson (two years, $21.5 million) was easily the biggest surprise of L.A.’s postseason run last year — finishing behind only Kris Middleton for total 3-pointers made in the playoffs (58 vs. 60) — and some suspected the 10-year veteran would look for more years with a different team. But speaking to reporters Monday, alongside his good friend Paul George, who convinced him to join the Clippers in the first place, Jackson made it clear that there was never much of a choice.
I’m sure you all got to see last year I had some newfound energy. I’m excited to get back and just continue to try to leave it out there on the floor.
I didn’t want to go elsewhere. I was in the building working out constantly, training still, whenever Paul hit me up, make sure I was doing workouts with him.
Unless they didn’t want me here, I think I was going to be a Clipper. Even then, I was just going to bring my bags and sit on the front door and ask for anything. No, it was never really that much of a thought about me being elsewhere. It was please hurry up and figure it out and let’s get this on the road. I couldn’t wait for this day, really for tomorrow to get back to it, but I couldn’t wait for this day to be back.
Batum (two years, $6.5 million) was in an enviable position this summer. Still owed $18 million from his days in Charlotte, which ended poorly, the 6-foot-8 Frenchman, whose jovial demeanor, defensive versatility and excellent three-point shooting was a crucial part of the Clippers success and made him a quick fan favorite, didn’t necessarily have to follow the money this offseason. In short, he could be where he wanted to be, which made Batum’s choice to stay as straightforward as they come:
That was a pretty easy decision. When I played last year, to me, when I came in, I had no expectations about myself. Turned out that’s pretty great individually and collectively. So it was a pretty easy decision for me to come back. I know everything. I know everybody now, coaching staff. I’ve got more confidence about the new project. So all good, easy.
I got a great connection with the coaching staff, with my teammates. Like last year, somebody told me I got the most minutes played last year.
(Correct. Batum played 14 more total minutes than George.)
I mean, it was pretty crazy where I came from. So they let me be me. Nobody put pressure on myself about coming back.
I know the project. I know the goals. I know what we have at our core. We have the same group, and I liked it. Why go anywhere else? They gave me a chance to be a player again, so I want to come back and have fun and keep winning.
Ibaka (one year, $9.7 million) was technically not a free-agent signing since all he had to do was opt-in or out of his second-year player option, but the decision-making process was essentially the same. A three-time All-Defensive selection and an NBA champion with Leonard in Toronto in 2019, Ibaka, now entering his thirteenth NBA campaign, was viewed as a significant addition as a rim-protecting, 3-point shooting center for the Clippers before last season, but back troubles all but ended his year in March and resulted in June surgery.
The surgery, which will keep Ibaka from starting this season on time, likely played a big role in his decision to opt-in — after all, the market for a 32-year-old center with a surgically-repaired back isn’t exactly bustling — but Ibaka told reporters that it was more than just that.
I didn’t think twice because I’m the kind of person, I don’t give up. I feel like I have unfinished business here, and I want to show the Clippers fans what Serge Ibaka was looking for, what they want to see. I feel like I didn’t give that last year. I didn’t give them that last year. I was like, you know what, I’m going to — I have to finish the job I wanted to start.
It was not easy personally, but at the end of the day this is a great organization and a great team, so why not.
Leonard (four years, $176 million) was the cause of many chewed fingernails this summer. As one of the best players in the league but still lacking the massive centerpiece contract of his superstar brethren, Leonard had stated publicly, early in the season, that short of an injury, he would opt out of his third-year player option to maximize his earning potential.
Of course, an injury did happen — a partially-torn ACL in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals — and though some thought it might alter Leonard’s plans, the 5-time All-NBA forward still opted out in July. The big question then became if he would stay in his hometown of L.A. or venture elsewhere, followed by what sort of contract he would sign if he did stay. So while there was great relief when it was announced, on August 12, that Leonard had come to terms with the Clippers, it remained a mystery why he took a less lucrative four-year route over a two-year deal that would’ve allowed him to earn almost $100 million more in the long run.
“A big part of it was just winning; know what I mean? They want to win, I want to win, and I’m home,” said Leonard. “I’m comfortable with the guys on my team, and I just felt like it was a good situation still.”
Regarding the contract terms, Leonard had this to say:
I wanted to play. I mean, the best situation for me to me was to do it 1-and-1 and then opt out and sign a long-term five-year deal, but there’s a lot of concerns that that brings up for you guys and your job and it creates storylines that I’m going to leave the team. One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the 1-and-1, I probably would have not played just to be cautious and opted out and took a five-year.
I’m here. I’m here to be a Clipper. I’m not going to another team unless something drastic happens, but I’m here for the long run.
Now that the summer is over, it seems that Leonard never really entertained leaving, but that didn’t stop Ibaka from reaching out just to be sure.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, because I have to,” said Ibaka when a reporter asked if he texted Leonard about staying. “Especially I know I’m going to re-sign again here, so I know I would take my play option, so I had to make sure he’s going to be here, too. So I had to talk to him.
“Even during the season I already know he was going to stay. I already know. It was not that big deal because I already know,” Ibaka said.