Being trapped in a holding pattern is a strange position for a contender, but welcome to the LA Clippers’ world. Until Kawhi Leonard returns from offseason knee surgery — and that might not happen this season — the ultimate goal for the Clippers seems unreachable without him.
Therefore, right from the start the Clippers are operating at a disadvantage compared to other contenders. They played admirably without Leonard for nearly two playoff rounds in 2021, yet fell short of The Finals. Perhaps, that journey will be copied this season. If nothing else, Paul George seems qualified to take the lead role in Leonard’s absence and deliver a stellar season that, like three years ago in Oklahoma City, could generate Kia MVP talk.
Restricted by the salary cap and facing a future without first-round picks (which they sacrificed to OKC to get George), the Clippers must refine the roster by taking chances. Their latest “find” comes in the return of former Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe, who hopefully can supply what the team lost after defensive stopper Pat Beverley was traded.
If Bledsoe needs a good example to follow while trying to prove himself on the court, he only needs to look around his new locker room. Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum were deep in the discount bin when they arrived in LA. After producing solid results for the Clippers, they’re now starters on a championship contender. Bledsoe quickly ran out of favor in Milwaukee and New Orleans and is on his third team in three years. It’s now or never for him in his second stint in LA.
Without Leonard around, it’ll take a collective effort from the Clippers to stay in the hunt in the top-heavy West and then see what the postseason brings. This team is deep and loaded with veterans who shoot very well from distance. Plus, George seems rejuvenated, which helps. But as long as their best player is mending, the Clippers won’t be trending. Predicted finish: 48-24.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Reggie Jackson: He rescued his career with a solid playoff run which resulted in a contract extension, and now is the team’s starting point guard.
Paul George: With the injury to Kawhi Leonard, George is back to being the solo star he was for several years in Indiana.
Nicolas Batum: No longer in his prime, but no longer being a bench player in Charlotte, either. He has reached a happy middle ground.
Marcus Morris Sr.: He brings toughness on defense and a gentle touch beyond the 3-point stripe, where he shoots 40%.
Serge Ibaka: A back injury cut short his season, but when healthy, Ibaka is the team’s most functional big man.
Eric Bledsoe: He’s aggressive on defense and at times a decent shooter from mid-range, but his decision-making can be questionable.
Terance Mann: An overnight success story, Mann is young and fearless and hopes to take another step in his development.
Luke Kennard: A good shooter from deep and decent playmaker, Kennard is lacking an aggressive mindset.
Ivica Zubac: His hard work and energy often compensates for his meager skill-set and tendency to collect cheap fouls.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Clippers have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
12.3 — In the regular season, the Clippers were 12.3 points per 100 possessions better with Kawhi Leonard on the floor than they were with him off the floor (-0.1). That was the third biggest differential among 233 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team. In the playoffs, the Clippers were better with Leonard off the floor (+5.8) than they were with him on the floor (+3.3) and outscored their opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions in Paul George’s 414 minutes on the floor without Leonard.
— John Schuhmann
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