The Los Angeles Clippers should have all the momentum in the world. They’re coming off the first conference finals appearance in franchise history, having exorcised the demons of years of horrific playoff collapses in the process. The NBA’s resident playoff goat, Paul George, forced people to start using “Playoff P” unironically with a brilliant postseason. Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, veterans virtually given up on by the rest of the league, regained their status as useful and productive role players.
But nobody is talking about the Clippers as a serious title contender due to the indefinite absence of Kawhi Leonard, who suffered a partially torn ACL during the Western Conference semifinals, and has no timetable for a return. Leonard and his camp are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, and this edition has been no different.
“Just working with the staff day-to-day, and then when that available date comes, we’ll be ready for it, and it’ll be out in the public,” Leonard said on Clippers media day.
Very helpful stuff.
It’s hard to gauge the Clippers’ championship prospects for this season without knowing if and when Leonard will return, but they proved during the postseason that they don’t need Leonard to be an excellent team, dispatching the Utah Jazz and taking two games off of the Phoenix Suns without their best player.
In order for the Clippers to be successful this season, however, a few players need to step up. Here’s a quick look at the roster, and four players who will go a long way in determining the Clippers’ regular season.
Los Angeles Clippers roster
Well, duh. George needs to be every bit of the alpha that he was in the postseason, when he averaged 29.6 points, 11 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.4 steals in eight games after Leonard’s injury. His 47/41/87 shooting splits from last regular season could suffer with more defensive attention, and he’ll need to take on additional playmaking responsibilities with Leonard on the shelf and still no true point guard on the roster (no offense, Eric Bledsoe). The good news is that George has proven himself more than capable of running the half-court offense, in the 84th percentile last season as a pick-and-roll ball-handler including assists, according to Synergy Sports.
If George can be an All-NBA candidate during the regular season, the Clippers should be in decent position to make a playoff run if and when Leonard returns. If he gets injured or struggles for a prolonged period, things could go downhill.
I recently listed Mann as the Clippers’ most likely breakout candidate for this season, and his $22 million extension clearly shows that the Clippers agree. Instead of attempting to summarize myself, I’ll just copy and paste my reasoning here:
Mann became an excellent role player for the Clippers last season, but he’ll be asked to do much more with Kawhi Leonard out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Mann proved he could perform on the big stage, averaging 11.2 points and 3.1 rebounds on 42 percent 3-point shooting after entering the regular rotation in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Jazz. His 39-point, seven 3-pointer performance as the Clippers closed out Utah was one of the signature moments of the playoffs. Mann is an essential member of the Clippers defense, and he’ll have more opportunities to increase his 3-point volume and aggressiveness toward the rim, which could lead to a breakout season.
“The game has slowed down for him. He understands, picks and chooses his spots,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of Mann. “He’s really improved as a player.”
Mann, along with George, will also draw the toughest defensive assignments night in and night out with Leonard on the sidelines. Therefore Mann’s contributions on both ends obviously become even more important, and he could be a crucial X-factor for the Clippers this season.
Constantly predicting the Luke Kennard breakout season feels like Gretchen Wieners futilely trying to make “fetch” happen in Mean Girls.
Kennard is already an elite shooter — he made a blistering 45 percent of his 3-pointers last season — but he’s also showcased tantalizing playmaking ability that the Clippers desperately need with Leonard out of the lineup. In limited opportunities last season, Kennard was in the 72nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler including passes, per Synergy.
Back in 2019-20 with the Pistons, Kennard averaged over four assists per game, so he’s certainly capable of being a playmaker. He’s just yet to do it consistently with the Clippers.
Ibaka gave the Clippers a new dimension last season — a center who could protect the rim and also stretch to the 3-point line. Unfortunately, he was only able to play in 41 games and missed all but 18 minutes of the Clippers’ run to the conference finals. The Clippers were better on both ends of the floor last season with Ibaka on the court, with the offensive rating improving by over two points per 100 possessions.
After back surgery in June, Ibaka has yet to progress to 5-on-5 work, but he’ll provide an important element for the Clippers when he does return, particularly if Leonard is still out. The Clippers found success in the postseason with small lineups, but those might not be sustainable without Leonard, one of the best perimeter defenders of all time, or a center to protect the rim. Enter Ibaka, who can stretch the floor well enough on offense to simulate a small lineup while also providing some semblance of shot-blocking and rebounding.
If Ibaka can return healthy, he’ll go a long way in keeping the Clippers afloat until Leonard comes back.
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