The Los Angeles Clippers have a unique problem. They are one of the deepest teams in the league — if not the deepest — and they have more proven veterans than they do up-and-comers. Need a versatile, bucket-getting wing? They have Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. How about a relentless defender in the backcourt? They have Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley. There’s also a pair of starting-caliber centers — Marcin Gortat and Montrezl Harrell — and a pair of rookie guards — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson — and a pair of stretch forwards — Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Scott — and all of these guys have distinct strengths and weaknesses.
On one hand, this roster has been constructed to eliminate any chance of Los Angeles winding up where it was in 2017-18, throwing G Leaguers into the starting lineup when injuries got the team off-track. On the other, coach Doc Rivers can’t possibly play everybody. Lou Williams, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year, has to get his fair share of minutes, but that might not be true for Wesley Johnson, a starter for 40 games last season; Milos Teodosic, the team’s best passer; or Boban Marjanovic, the giant fan favorite.
Harris, 26 and entering a contract year, told CBS Sports that Rivers has spent training camp preaching defensive intensity, 3s, layups and free throws. He then added that “pretty much every team in the NBA is saying that now.” If the Clippers are going to differentiate themselves from the hodgepodge of playoff hopefuls they’re competing with in the West, they essentially need to embody the Warriors‘ cheesy “strength in numbers” motto. On the phone on his way to their open practice, Harris sounded certain that this will happen.
“We expect to be a playoff team,” Harris said. “We look at our group and our unit and we have a lot of talent. I think one of the biggest things about our team is we have very good depth at a lot of different positions. We got a team full of guys who know how to play the game of basketball the right way, smart players, and we’re going into the season striving to be a playoff team. That’s our goal as a unit, and that’s what we’re going to continue to progress on each and every day.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: As someone who started last year in the East and got traded to the West, do you ever look at this conference and go, ‘Whoa, this is different’?
Tobias Harris: Yeah. I mean, it is. I remember when I got traded to the Pistons coming in and we were making that playoff push and it was a couple teams but eventually we [separated ourselves from] the pack and were able to get the eighth seed. And coming in last year, it was like four teams fighting for the eighth spot. It’s a battle every single night, but it makes every game even more important than it already may have been. That’s why I think a big thing for us is getting off to a really good start in the beginning of the year.
CBS: I know getting traded is a part of the business, you know how it works, but is it weird to get traded in the middle of the best season of your career?
TH: Yeah. I mean, it is. But, like, for me, people say, ‘Oh, I was shocked with the trade.’ The only shocking thing about it was the timing of it because most trades happen at the end of the deadline. This one happened before the deadline, a little bit earlier than most trades are expected to happen. But for me, I look at all the trades as an opportunity — you can’t really dwell on the past about it. You’ve just gotta keep on moving and you gotta be ready for the next opportunity and the next situation. It was a great trade, I think. For me in my career, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been able to go in good situations with a trade. I’ve been blessed for that.
CBS: If I had told you when you were a rookie, ‘At some point you’re going to average five or six 3-point attempts a game and you’re going to have some games where you take 10 or 11 3s,’ what would you have said?
TH: Um, probably not! But because, the way the game was when I came into the league, if you were shooting four 3s a game, you better be a knockdown shooter. Like, the best shooter the team has, you know what I’m saying? And the way the game is now, more and more 3s are being shot, so I would probably tell you no. Ten threes in a game? Probably not. But it’s been a good progression for me to be able to go out and work on my jump shot and get it to the point where it’s at now.
CBS: How’d you improve that shot to the point where you now take off-the-dribble 3s comfortably?
TH: Honestly, it really came down to, No. 1, just getting those repetitions up, getting more and more reps. And then on top of that was having confidence. I worked a lot on it, but I had the confidence — last year with coach Van Gundy, he told me in the beginning of the season, “Look, I need you to shoot five to seven 3s, and there’s gonna be nights where you’re going to go 5-for-7 or 4-for-7 but there’s also going to be nights where you have to live with going 1-for-7 or 0-for-7.” With the work that I have put in on my jumper and that type of confidence, I was able to really let that fuel me.
If you have that confidence in yourself and your coach has instilled that in you, your teammates know, that’s what’s going to be expected. For me, that’s where the majority of the success has really come from: the confidence of being able to say, OK, I can make these shots, I’m going to take these shots and I know they’re going to go in. So that’s where it’s at. The confidence is there, but on the backside it’s a lot of hours in the gym, a lot of film that I watched on myself of kind of finding that rhythm into these shots.
CBS: What should people expect in terms of different lineup combinations that this Clippers team can play?
TH: I think you see the game is being more suited towards smallball, as many call it, so just being able to have a different type of versatility on the floor while we’re playing and being able to have different mismatches that we can go at. Gallo’s a player who can play 3, 4, 5; I can play 3, 4, 5. So, just being able to have interchangeable parts, and then with our guards being very good defensively, being able to switch and play different positions, I think that helps us out a whole lot also.
CBS: How does the game change when both Patrick and Avery are out there?
TH: More times than not, you see a lot of guards get off the ball, which helps our defense because it puts teams in a different position of getting out of their little flow and running their offense different. Those are two guys who are pests on the defensive end and who bring it every night. For a player, it’s also motivating just to see the way they work and the pressure that they bring. It brings the whole group’s defensive effort up even more.
CBS: What are your early impressions of Shai? Does he remind you of anybody?
TH: No. 1, he’s a very hard worker. He’s a focused kid. He knows what he wants to get better at, knows that he’s playing this game at the highest level and is just going to continue to push himself every single day. He’s very focused in his craft. And he has a great demeanor on the floor, how he plays, great pace to his game. It reminds me of, I mean, I played with Shaun Livingston — you see how effective he is still to this day, but obviously before the injury I saw him play. Even now, just the pace that he plays at and how he’s able to be effective on a great team like the Warriors. But also he reminds me a little bit of a taller Rondo. He’s always being able to get to the paint. You don’t find that many guards like that. The sky is the limit for him.
CBS: What is the last thing Boban did that made you laugh?
TH: He’s always making somebody laugh, but, shoot, probably when he came up to me the other day. We were talking about something and he was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s dope!’ And I was like, ‘Where’d you learn that word from?’ He was like, ‘I hear everybody say it.’ So I was like, this guy is crazy.
CBS: You and Boban are going to be free agents together at the end of the season. Are you guys a package deal?
TH: Man, I mean, we would love to be a package deal here in L.A., staying in L.A. You never know what can happen, but, just us being friends, we wish the best for each other. So if the right opportunity comes for him and it’s elsewhere without me, you know, I’m not going to hold his hand. But, I mean he’s a great teammate, great player. I would love to continue playing with him, and hopefully it’s here in L.A.
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