We’re close. Perhaps the most hyped season in LA Clippers basketball history is on due course. We’re only 14 days away from the first preseason game, taking place in Hawaii — where the Clippers have started training camp the last two summers — against the Houston Rockets and then China’s Shanghai Sharks on October 6th. While the Clippers have been getting in a good amount of team runs this month, this will be the first time that the entire roster will be under one roof, with the coaching staff, in an official capacity. It’s the first time that players will get the opportunity to prove their worth on a congested roster and the first taste of Kawhi Leonard leading the Clips. There are definitely reasons to be excited for Clipper fans, and the attention on training camp and preseason will be high. Buckle up!
What should we truly expect from this team? While sky-high preseason expectations tend to result in broken hearts and disappointment, especially when it comes to the Clippers, this is a different squad. Joining the team, you have a defending champion, who had one of the better single player playoff runs in NBA history in Kawhi Leonard. Someone who is no nonsense, about his business, excited to be home, and hungry for more rings. You also add one of the best two-way players in the league coming off the best statistical season of his career in Paul George. You add these guys to a roster that snatched two games off the Warriors in the playoffs, in Golden State, nearly won 50 regular season games. and defied every single preseason expectation they had. That’s big.
The Clippers have complete opposite expectations from last summer. Now, they’re the favorites. For the first time ever. Will the weight of this championship forecast be too much? That outlook seems to be doubtful: this is a veteran led team with players who’ve had multiple deep playoff runs. However, the full 82 game NBA season is a fickle one. Surprises abound, injuries occur, trades are demanded, etc. While I think it would be silly to expect many surprises from this strong Clippers culture created over the past two seasons, you never know.
While the Clips are in the drivers seat of the franchise’s first potential Finals run, there are some questions that will need to be addressed and hopefully, answered before the season starts. On paper they look to be every NBA fans’ dream, but nobody’s perfect. Let’s take a look at four questions the Clippers have heading into training camp.
It’s no secret that Paul George struggled late last season and in the playoffs (by his standards). The source of these struggles? Shoulder issues — he had surgery on both of them this offseason. But another reason? He played a ton of minutes. Yes, he had his best statistical year ever, but it came at a price: an embarrassing gentleman’s sweep at the hands of Damian Lillard and the Blazers.
On the flip side, you have Kawhi Leonard. After a lower leg injury limited him to nine games in 2017-18 with San Antonio (and caused much friction with the franchise), Leonard knew that to be healthy for the playoffs he needed to manage his regular season usage. We all know what happened next. 60 very efficient regular season games. No back-to-backs. A dominant playoff performance. Ring.
The way Kawhi played the game last season could perhaps change the way stars think about the regular season. Even with all the load management, Kawhi was still slightly hobbled by a leg injury in the playoffs and finals. Could we see stars only playing 2/3 of the regular season to save their bodies for the playoffs. I think it’s fair to expect that from the Clippers this season for sure.
Rational Clippers fans shouldn’t expect a one seed out of this team, given this load management potential, but this is a classic Alonzo Mourning gif moment. Do you want the one seed and to push your stars in the regular season for there to be the potential that they break down later? Of course not. Old heads say this generation of players isn’t tough. I think they are getting smarter. For both George and Kawhi — although he seems fully healthy for the regular season — it seems like the smart thing is to load manage given what we saw last year. It’s the new NBA; players need their rest. For the sake of a championship, it will be best to make sure PG13 is fully ready at the beginning of the season, Kawhi is resting properly, and that both will be 100% in April and May. We will see how Doc and company determine proper load managing throughout the season, perhaps starting as early as preseason.
What’s the situation at center?
This has been a much talked about concern for the Clippers. Re-signing Ivica Zubac this summer was necessary as he showed growth in his game and elite rim-protection in his first half season with the Clips. Getting him for four years ensures that he will continue to grow under LA’s roof but the question remains…can you win with Zu as your starting center? While the ever-reliable Montrezl Harrell will be getting tons of minutes and finishing games over Zu, the lack of depth at center is cause for apprehension. Harrell is only 6’8” and has had trouble over the years guarding bigger centers. While he always gives 100%, his lack of height works against him. That’s why he’s better off the bench instead of starting. While Zu gives you size in the middle, he’s still young and is still very much a work in progress offensively. So what do you do?
Well, fans have been calling extensively for the Clippers to sign Joakim Noah. While he had one of the worst contracts in the NBA with the Knicks, he re-transformed himself into a workhorse, glue-guy, do-everything type of player in Memphis. In 42 games, Noah averaged 7.1 points (highest PPG since his Bulls days in 2015) and 5.7 rebounds in only 16.5 minutes per game. He also had a positive net rating (1.8) and had a defensive rating of 101.7. While the Grizz weren’t playing for much, those stats are nothing to scoff at and Noah would be a good fit on a scrappy Clips team.
Secondly, the drafting of Mfioundu Kabengele could help a bit. At 6’10”, Fi is more of a fit at the PF position, given his proclivity to stretch the floor and handle the ball. However, he is first-team all hustle and showed his inside-out game well in the Summer League. While it’s unlikely he gets a ton of minutes this year, Kab is there to balance some of the big depth.
Third, the Clips will need to figure out if small-ball rotations will be their staple. While it was a small sample size, inserting JaMychal Green as center in the playoffs helped LA immensely: that lineup had an 18.5 net rating and an offensive rating of 124.3. You add PG13 and Kawhi to that mix, and goodness. I fully expect a closing lineup of Lou, Bev, Kawhi, PG13, and Harrell to often be used, but that’s hard to maintain all game. This is something they hopefully can figure out early, preferably this fall before games start, but will more than likely be a work in progress throughout the year.
Who will fill out the back half of the rotation?
The starting lineup will be a tad in flux at the beginning of the season, as PG will more than likely be out to start and the addition of Kawhi might move Landry Shamet to the bench. I expect Mo Harkless to step in for PG early, but we just don’t know right now. We also know that Lou Williams and Trezz will always be the first two off the bench. However, for the majority of the season, I anticipate a good amount of change from 8-12 on the roster. A lot of the rotation will hinge on early season play and even preseason and camp. Just like last year, when Jerome Robinson had trouble cracking the rotation or Ty Wallace played inconsistently along with Mike Scott, Doc will throw different rotations out there depending on play - very little after the first five-six guys will be set.
Once Harkless returns to the 2nd unit, you have guys like Robinson, Rodney McGruder, JaMychal Green, Terance Mann, Kabengele, Patrick Patterson and even Shamet that will be vying for time. Most of them will probably deserve it too. Figuring this out will be one of a few tests for Doc this season.
One of the wrenches in this group will be the playing time of Jerome Robinson. There is a world where JRob gets traded this season or just never pans out in a Clipper uniform. Everybody in the organization (and fans) wants to see him succeed — as just last year he was a lottery pick and has some solid potential — but with a jammed backcourt and championship aspirations, this team might not be the best fit for him. I hope Robinson will get a chance early in the season to prove himself as a shooter and show improvement as a defender, but his leash will be short. While we hope he doesn’t join the Reggie Bullock’s and Brice Johnson’s of the Clippers world, finding time for him might be difficult.
Who is the backup point guard?
If we had to rank positions based on strength on this Clipper roster, right now the point guard spot would probably rank dead last. That’s absolutely no disrespect to Pat Bev, because he is going to be a monster this year. That’s more a sign of the lack of depth there. There isn’t a “true” point guard on this roster right now. Even Bev played off the ball last year with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander manning the one. With SGA now in OKC, more than likely we will see a point guard by committee. The good news? Every guard (and most wings) on this team can handle the ball. Bev, Lou, Landry, Jerome and Mann are all capable handlers. George, Kawhi and McGruder all are guards at heart, so no qualms with them handling it either. However, who will be the main ball handler in the 2nd unit? More importantly, does it even matter?
Last season, Lou Will was the guy bringing the ball up the court when the starters were off the court. It’s probably where he is the most comfortable, as his isolation skills are great and his pick-and-roll chemistry with Trezz is literally historic. Having the ball in Lou’s hands as much as possible with the 2nd unit next season is smart. However, there is a definite possibility that Landry Shamet runs some point as well. A point in college, Shamet will add wrinkles to the offense as the dude up top due to his super shooting. While he’s better served moving off the ball and jacking up three’s, when needed, Shamet should be a solid option at the point.
Lastly, we can’t forget about the rook Terance Mann. He showed surprising ability (given that he almost exclusively played off the ball in college) to man (pun intended) the one in Summer League and showed great chemistry with Fi and two-way player Amir Coffey. He’s big, athletic, and a tenacious defender. He will be solid as a two-way dude and could also see some time at the one. Coaches were confident to throw him into that role immediately this offseason and he shined, so don’t be surprised to see him there again this season.
Are there any other questions you all are curious about heading into training camp? What else might the Clippers need to prove or show early on this season?
All stats compiled via stats.nba.com