First half summary: Humbled by a disastrous experience in the playoffs, the Clippers returned with a new coach and new outlook, and once again are looking very much like a title contender. Paul George, who was the face of that playoff experience, is healthy physically and mentally and shooting the ball at high efficiency (and is flirting with a 50-40-90 season). Likewise, Kawhi Leonard is at peak performance and the Clippers are getting quality deep shooting from Marcus Morris, who rates among the best in the league beyond the arc. The club is fifth in NBA team scoring.
There are some nitpicking issues, though. Lou Williams began the season in a slump, yet broke free in February. Patrick Beverley missed scattered games with nagging injuries. But the Clippers were encouraged by Nicolas Batum, who arrived and compensated for much of those holes with quality minutes at small forward. In doing so, he’s served the Clippers well and revived his career.
Biggest question going into the second half: The Clippers were certainly hoping for more from Luke Kennard after acquiring him in the offseason and giving him a four-year, $64 million extension. Kennard was supposed to help with ball-handling and 3-point shooting, but his motor was suspiciously low. He’s appeared timid and unwilling to step into a meaningful role by passing up too many shots. This has frustrated the coaching staff, which wanted Kennard to reduce the load on Leonard and George.
Is Williams’ slow start well behind him? He has been one of the league’s premier sixth men for almost a decade now. He’s also in the final year of his contract and this is the right time to make a statement and play for his next deal. There’s word the Clippers were exploring a potential trade of Williams, perhaps for point guard help.
Speaking of that, the Clippers could address the point guard position either in the buyout market or with a trade. Beverley and Reggie Jackson are giving mixed results, and at this stage of their careers, both are better suited as backups. Should the Clippers find someone better — Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, perhaps, should the Raptors put him on the market — such a player could be a difference-maker come playoff time.
Playoffs or lottery?: The Clippers are focusing their sights on the top seed in the West, which is obtainable provided their stars stay healthy and their veterans don’t suddenly grow old in a hurry. Much will depend on Beverley’s health, Williams’ shooting touch, Batum’s pace and Serge Ibaka’s ability to defend at the rim.
Everyone in the franchise is well aware of the past, and also how the regular season, in the big picture, doesn’t mean much to a team with plenty to prove. Also, consider that this could be Leonard’s walk year (he has a player option for 2021-22). A strong finish by the Clippers, coupled with a deeper playoff run, will be needed to secure his services beyond this season.
This is yet another championship-or-bust season. Remember, the Clippers’ Draft future belongs to OKC, and there isn’t much young talent on the roster to be developed. This team is built to hoist the trophy, and if it doesn’t, the hefty bill for failure will be due soon.
— Shaun Powell