Can the Clippers hold down the fort without Kawhi Leonard?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Kawhi Leonard was innocuously bumped by Joe Ingles in the closing minutes Game 4 against Utah, little did we know that it would put the next two playoff runs in jeopardy for the Clippers superstar.

Kawhi Leonard underwent successful surgery today to repair a partial tear of his right anterior cruciate ligament. There is no timetable for his return.

That was the team's statement in a July 13 press release. Three months later, we still don't have any insight regarding the nature of the procedure. As Law Murray of the Athletic described, partially torn ACLs can follow two separate recovery paths — depending on how the fibers inside the knee are impacted. The operating assumption is that Leonard will miss the majority, if not all of the regular season.

While the Fun Guy has never been known as the swiftest healer, a nine-month timetable would fall squarely during the 2021-22 play-in tournament. Steve Ballmer and the rest of the organization have too much invested in the present to simply chalk this up as a lost season. The question is: Can the Clippers hold down the fort without Kawhi Leonard?

We currently have two seasons (over 6,000 possessions) of evidence that the Clippers are approximately a .500 team sans the Klaw. However, the final eight games in the 2021 playoffs cannot be discounted. They dispatched the mighty Jazz in the second half of Game 5, and then shocked the world to the tune of a 25-point comeback in the clinching Game 6. In the Western Conference Finals, Ty Lue's group mustered a valiant effort against the Phoenix Suns (admittedly with a less than 100% Chris Paul) — losing Games 1, 2, and 4 by a combined total of 11 points. By the end of their run, it was clear that this was no 41-41 team.

Unfortunately, you don't just get to run things back and expect similar results. Not in this league. Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow are interesting reclamation projects, but the odds of either truly moving the needle for this franchise are slim. So how sustainable was the success of the 2020-21 LA Clippers without Kawhi Leonard?

Last season, the Clippers shot a ludicrous 41.1% from three as a team, the fourth-highest mark in NBA history. It's no hyperbole to say this was the greatest corner-three squad ever — setting a record for most makes per game (4.8), while also leading the league in percentage by a mile (47.2%). Seven of the 10 playoff rotation players shot at least 40% from deep, the other three being Leonard (39.8%), Patrick Beverley (39.7%), and Ivica Zubac (1-of-4 overall). Board Man or no Board Man, these numbers are bound to regress.

Keep in mind that most of the Clippers' main players haven't necessarily been fixtures in the rotation — aside from Zubac, who's an ironman. Paul George and Serge Ibaka used to be, but they've missed 42 and 48 games in the last two seasons, respectively. Marcus Morris Sr. appears to have chronic knee problems at this point. Banking on repeat Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum performances is a risky proposition.

Speaking of Jackson, last year's story cannot be told without mentioning him in the first chapter. Before returning to L.A. on a veteran's minimum, the 31-year old was reportedly contemplating his basketball future. It was for good reason, too. Despite having a few moments against Dallas in the Orlando Bubble, Jackson's most notable play was getting dotted by Luka Dončić, and by the end of the Denver series found himself on the fringes of Doc Rivers' rotation. He performed well in 2021 — filling in as the starting point guard for 43 games when Beverley was sidelined with knee/hand injuries — but nobody expected him to feature prominently come playoff time.

And then Reggie Jackson had an out of body experience. It all crested in the second round versus Utah, when "Mr June" had 22 points and 10 assists in the closing Game 6 in the second half. The Jazz perimeter defenders simply had no answer for him — overall for the series, Jackson canned 50% of his threes and 68.7% of his twos. With other rotation players hobbled for much of the Clippers' journey to the Western Conference Finals, Reggie Jackson proved himself more than capable as a third, and even second, option. And while he wore down towards the end of the Phoenix series, the idea that Jackson could pose as the Robin to Paul George's Batman was awe-inspiring.

I looked back throughout history to figure this out: how unprecedented was this stretch of basketball by Reggie Jackson? In other words, have we ever seen a player this close to washing out of the league come back and become a legitimate weapon for a great team? We've seen young players break out such as Reggie Lewis (R.I.P) in 1992, Mike Bibby in 2002, or Bradley Beal in 2014. Sometimes veterans happen to go on crazy shooting streaks, like Jason Richardson in 2010 or DeShawn Stevenson in 2011. There's also been the old heads busting out throwback games like Tim Duncan in 2015 or Dwyane Wade in 2016. But nothing quite like this that comes to mind. Here are a few examples that I found:

Two of the most prominent occurred at the hands of Steve Nash. In 2004-05, a 34-year old Jim Jackson (now a Clippers analyst!) was offloaded by both Houston and New Orleans (where he refused to report), until he eventually landed in Phoenix. He then stepped in admirably for an injured Joe Johnson during the playoffs, averaging 16 per game in Games 3 through 6 of the conference semifinals against Dallas. The following year, a rejuvenated Tim Thomas parlayed a huge playoff run into a 4-year, $24 million contract with the Clips. Both were never impact players again.

The same goes for Latrell Sprewell, who was cast aside by the Knicks in 2003-04 offseason before turning out to be the second-leading scorer during Minnesota's run to the Western Conference Finals.

On the flip side, we've seen a few cases of guys using such a performance as a springboard for a second act, such as Derek Harper in 1994, Eric Williams in 2002, and George Hill in 2019.

Perhaps the most notable example is Boris Diaw with the Spurs in 2011-12 — who was cut by the worst team in NBA history. Within months he was starting in monumental playoff games. Now we remember him as the fun-loving Spur, an integral ingredient to the "Beautiful Game", and an NBA champion, rather than the overweight malcontent toiling in the Queen City.

Other than Diaw, none of these players was ever completely *back*. So can we count out on Jackson repeating this postseason performance in 2021-22? The precedent of mid-career veterans suddenly resurfacing into impact contributors is pretty bleak. But parts of it felt real, particularly when he was attacking closeouts on the backside in 5-out.

That leads us to another question: What will Ty Lue's offense look like this season? That's what I see as the swing factor. Although this group has solid personnel with the capacity to switch between positions, above-average seems to be the defensive ceiling, and Lue has always leaned offense-first as a coach.

I'm of the belief that the Clippers should fully embrace "center-less" ball. Not to shelve Zubac (and Ibaka, whose status is still in question heading into opening night) from the rotation, but this team feels at its most potent with interchangeable pieces who can all drive and kick, can threes on the move, and get buckets in a pinch when the shot clock is ticking.

Zubac provides a much-needed rim pressure dynamic; his presence on the offensive glass is big as well. But Terance Mann (and possibly two of the new additions, Bledsoe and Winslow) offers this plus more juice as a playmaker on drives -- an area that Zubac has somewhat stalled in.

(If the shooting is for real, then watch out.)

Lue is a brilliant offensive mind. As we've seen time and time again, he's ruthless about attacking opposing weak links, and will always spam sets that work. But this Clippers team is prone to long malaises with lots of self-created pull-up jumpers. It was maddening — even with Leonard. Now the margin for error for is that much lower. They simply can't afford lackadaisical possessions like this:

Which is why I hope LA unveils a no-center identity right out of the gate. The proof is obvious that George can't shoulder a Leonard-level load on offense, and playing conventional basketball will only compound that.

Between the questions about the roster (injuries, declining performance of the veterans) and play style, I believe the Clippers are in big-time danger of falling down the standings. The trip to the Western Conference Finals obscured how valuable Leonard is. The under at 45.5 wins seems like a good wager to me. I'm skeptical that LA can hold down the fort without the Klaw, but that's why they play the games.

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