We, as Clipper fans, don’t need more stress in our lives. Fans of this long-troubled franchise have become more and more cynical with the passing years as disappointments have mounted. The 2010’s have been nice to us, kind of. We’ve been rich in regular season success, but execution down the stretch has been nil. Of course, this is now a time to celebrate. The Clippers just got two of the best two-way players in the league. Two first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Two players with deep playoff experience. Two players who can turn a franchise around on their own. Two players that have the ability to deliver RINGS to a franchise habitually destitute of championship hope. However, the elephant in the room is the health of one of these superstars. And not the one you might be thinking of.
Paul George just had the best statistical season of his career. He also just had surgery on both of his shoulders. According to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, league sources say George is projected to miss the first six weeks of the season. With the schedule unveiling yesterday, if six weeks is accurate, that’s around 22 games. That’s not the end of the world by any means. Rational Clippers fans don’t (and shouldn’t) expect a one seed out of this team with the load management expected for their two new stars, and the amount of time it usually takes for superstars to coalesce. However, this is the Western Conference we are talking about here. Anyone can beat anyone, and with more star power than ever concentrated in the West, the Clips need health.
They especially need health because, as I’ve written before, the pressure is now immense in L.A., given the structure of Kawhi and George’s contracts. With only two years guaranteed in the red, white, and blue for both, a lack of chips could be devastating. The Clippers especially, ESPECIALLY need health because L.A. wagered a ton of their future to secure these two, sending away incumbent starting point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the most underrated player in the NBA in Danilo Gallinari, and just about all of their draft picks between now and the end of time. If this experiment goes bust, it could have ramifications that last for a very long time.
Now, of course, this is the hyper-cynic in me typing this right now. But it would be silly to discount the fact that one of the best shooters/defenders in the game just had back to back shoulder surgeries in one summer going into his age-30 season. Clippers fans should have all the faith in the world that Doc and company can insert George into the starting lineup, whenever he’s ready, and succeed. All signs have pointed to Kawhi and George co-existing well, and for the incumbent Clippers, they’ve been doing this “plug-and-play” dance the last two seasons to phenomenal results. However, to win the Larry OB this season, the Clippers have to wade through what is perhaps the most talent ever assembled in one conference. The Clips are deep and experienced, but without a true second star next to Kawhi, or an ailing one if George is hampered, they could be really good but still fall short of their goals. Again, the timeframe for these Clippers to succeed is limited, so one missed season would be brutal.
During the introductory press conference back in late July, George was asked about his recovery. ”There’s no set date. I’ve been progressing really well. I’m at a great point in my rehab. We’ll take our time and look forward to returning whenever that day is.”
I’d place that quote at about net neutral as far as assurances. Progression is a nice word, but provides no promises. The biggest worry here with George is the lingering effect that an injury to a highly-used area of the body can bring. Partial labrum tears in his left and right shoulders is scary to hear. Not only is he using these parts of his body to shoot, you also have to factor in all the banging and bumping on drives and on defense. When you go back to the Thunder’s disappointing first round playoff exit in April, George was noticeably hampered. His shooting numbers took a dip (granted, he still scored well, just not at his normal efficiency) and he had a large amount of tape on his shoulders at all times. He just didn’t look like his normal self. It makes sense, given the amount of playing time he received during the year and the production expected of him — but he just wasn’t the same heading into, and during the playoffs. That kind of late season tailoff is concerning.
Look, it’s a great thing that George and the Clips medical staff are taking their time. They will obviously make sure he’s 100% ready before sending him back on the court. When he is consistently playing, he will more than likely load manage to make sure he is ready for the late season grind. However, George is a physical player who shoots a lot. His shoulders get a ton of work — if an injury lingers or re-triggers and it effects performance, the Clippers could be in trouble.
In reality, George is going to make sure he’s all the way fine before stepping on a Clippers court. Yes, the Clippers early season schedule sucks and Kawhi will more than likely start load managing immediately. This doesn’t bode well for a stellar early season record. That’s not the goal in L.A. though. It’s rings or bust. Paul George will probably be the leading scorer on this team by the end of the season. However, the injuries he had surgeries for need to be discussed, and there is a world where they badly effect the Clippers’ season. A healthy PG-13 is tantamount to L.A. winning it all. Let’s hope he is spry.