The LA Clippers resume play Wednesday against the Orlando Magic, the first of three exhibition games they will have before the eight seeding games. It’s unreasonable to expect one matchup against Orlando — especially one in which the Clippers will be without key players — to reveal anything about the team, but there are some more big picture questions about the Clippers heading into the restart.
Here are a few lingering questions we have about the Clippers holistically now that they’re about to take the court again:
What impact did the layoff have on the Clippers?
The Clippers didn’t take this time off lightly. The organization immediately sent training equipment to every players’ homes so that they could work out during the break. They met regularly on Zoom, and Doc Rivers brought in guest speakers like Chris Rock and Michael Phelps to speak with the team. Other players around the league like Austin Rivers and Seth Curry (each of whom has a close personal line to Doc) noted that the Clippers were doing far more than their teams to stay in touch and in shape.
Patrick Beverley went to work out with Kawhi Leonard at his home in San Diego and came away in awe of Leonard’s work ethic. It’s crazy to think that Mr. 94 Feet, who calls basketball a year-round sport, could learn about hustle from someone else, but Beverley said the experience changed his life.
Perhaps more importantly, the hiatus gave Leonard and Paul George time to recover from their nagging injuries. George is finally able to focus on practice instead of simply rehabbing, which means Doc Rivers and the Clippers can expand their playbook. Neither Leonard nor George was able to participate fully in the training camp at the start of the season, but they are both ready to go now.
The break was also beneficial for Joakim Noah, who signed with the Clippers before the suspension even though he didn’t appear in any games. After injuring his Achilles in September, the additional time off means that the Clippers can probably count on Noah for meaningful minutes during the NBA restart.
The Clippers set out to “win the wait” during the shutdown. They even trademarked the phrase. This isn’t a team worried about regaining its momentum.
Will the lack of homecourt advantage affect the team?
The Clippers crowds at Staples Center are unfairly maligned. They may not be on the level of some of the more historically successful franchises in the league, but the fans get too much grief. Clippers games are a fun time, especially during high-profile regular season matchups and the playoffs.
But the Clippers homecourt doesn’t give them a noteworthy advantage, per se. They also don’t have an altitude advantage like Utah or Denver to give them some extra home cooking. Because of that, the lack of homecourt advantage shouldn’t worry the Clippers. It would have been nice in the opening rounds to start with two home games, but this team, by virtue of being a little bit older, will probably benefit more from the lack of travel. Furthermore, a neutral site in a potential series against the Lakers most definitely benefits the Clippers.
What will the frontcourt rotation look like?
There aren’t a lot of questions in the backcourt or on the wing for the Clippers. Beverley, Lou Williams, and Reggie Jackson will soak up the guard minutes along with George, who will also slide over to the wing along with Leonard and Marcus Morris. Landry Shamet had already fallen a bit behind the others in recent games, and his absence due to the coronavirus won’t help him earn additional minutes.
The real uncertainty lies in the frontcourt. The Clippers have been starting Ivica Zubac and Morris and using Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green as backups, but Harrell is the only big who has been guaranteed crunchtime minutes. Morris figures to feature prominently in closing lineups, but he too is playing catchup after arriving late to the Orlando bubble. The Clippers have been dominant defensively with Zubac in the game, partially because his minutes are tied to those of Leonard, but he hasn’t been able to displace Harrell in the fourth quarter. Back in March, it seemed fairly clear that Rivers would ride with Harrell or even go small rather than play Zubac down the stretch.
But the team is in a different situation now. Zubac hasn’t yet reported to Orlando, and Harrell is out with a family issue. Meanwhile, the team added Noah, who is a former Defensive Player of the Year and adds an entirely new presence in the middle. Noah has been the starting center throughout this training camp, and the rave reviews about his performance suggest that he has earned a role. It’s easy to find minutes for him now, but when the roster is whole, that will be a new challenge. It also leaves less time for the Clippers to play center-less lineups, which have been lethal considering the quality of wings on this roster.
More talent is always a good thing, but Rivers will have to keep a lot of egos in check to manage his rotations.
Do the Clippers have any weaknesses?
Not really, especially not at full strength. They have arguably the best player in the game, one who put together a postseason run for the ages last season en route to a title. They have formidable perimeter, wing, and interior defense, and depth to spare.
Rivers would like his team to pass more, but that isn’t a huge concern when Leonard and Harrell are so dominant in isolation. Shooting could be a slight issue if Beverley slumps, Morris doesn’t bounce back, and Jackson’s hot stretch as a Clipper proves to be a blip. This team was put together nearly flawlessly, and it shows.
Is anything short of an NBA title a success for the Clippers?
This team was designed to compete for a championship the minute Kawhi Leonard and Paul George put pen to paper. They have sacrificed years of future assets (both in the George trade and the one to acquire Marcus Morris) for the ability to contend now. On paper, this is the best roster in the league, even if the team’s record, fourth in the NBA before play suspended, doesn’t quite reflect that.
Barring some sort of injury, the Clippers have to get to the conference finals, something the team has never done in franchise history. Otherwise, the season is an unmitigated disaster. There is no reason any non-L.A. team in the West should be able to hang with the Clippers in a seven-game series, because the Clippers are simply too talented at the top and too deep.
The only way this season is successful short of a championship is if the Clippers lose in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had a historically great regular season. Considering the season Giannis Antetokounmpo has had, and the margin by which the Bucks blow out other teams, that would be an acceptable outcome, especially because it means that the Clippers probably beat the Lakers in the process.
Is there anything else you’re wondering about the Clippers as the games begin again? Let us know in the comments.