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Don’t shovel dirt on the Clippers yet

Many were quick to write off the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard due to miss most of it not all of the season. However, they keep fighting and may yet give themselves a shot at the holy grail.

Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers
The Clippers show of unity before their Phoenix Suns win.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s always a point in a season where it feels as if enough time has passed to start making some more definitive calls about what’s to come. It’s around this time that I start to think about what the next championship-winning team will look like. It’s a question which very few people can definitively answer come playoff time, never mind before Christmas. However, my mind will really start to dig into what sort of team has the perfect makeup to get themselves some hardware at the end of it all.

Last season, for example, I thought it would merely be the team with the most stars — the Brooklyn Nets were the most obvious name to my mind — that would be the one to be parading round their town, hanging up a banner and collecting their rings. Maybe that would’ve come true had things gone just a little differently, but that’s the beauty of sport and the reason it is so hard to predict.

And that’s the thing: of course luck and factors out of a team’s control are always going to come into it. To take on an example this season, if the Golden State Warriors were to lose recent record-breaker Steph Curry to an injury, are they still going to look like the best team in the league? I’d struggle to see them even operating at a playoff level without their main guy, but maybe Steph’s greatness is skewing my view of the other guys on their roster.

Although parity in the NBA has shifted in arguably a negative direction in recent seasons, and some will argue that it started with the Warriors and is now being embodied most by the Nets, the virtue of just having a lot of stars won’t always necessarily guarantee you a championship. You also need guys who can step up when needed, with the mentality to not let setbacks get to them, and the unity to make it consistently click on the court. It may feel wildly optimistic to be tipping the Los Angeles Clippers for a championship this campaign, but they definitely have the above attributes which will serve them well as we get deeper into it.

They’ve shown over and over again that they have guys who can step up when needed, a spirit which came to the fore last season and has come up time and again in the 2021-22 regular season. Marcus Morris Sr. feels like the guy who has taken on the biggest load in terms of carrying the team’s offence in recent games, but on any given night you can expect big scoring games from Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, and even the rookie Brandon Boston Jr. That’s without even going into the intangibles that players like Ivica Zubac, Terance Mann, and Isaiah Hartenstein are bringing.

That spirit has developed because this team has become so good at embracing adversity. Any setbacks seem to be taken in stride, as the guys continue to push for their end goals in spite of things going against them. In all honesty, with the 21-4 Phoenix Suns heading to Los Angeles to face a Clippers team with no Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Serge Ibaka (four of the five starters from last season), I was feeling apprehensive about what we’d see. The Suns having no Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton did arguably level the playing field to some degree, but it was such an impressive performance and win for this Clippers team, and it showed the edge they have over other teams around them in the league.

The biggest advantage they seem to have is unity. This team has truly become a brotherhood and it is on display, from the blossoming friendship between veteran PG and rookie Boston to Zubac saying he’s rooting for fellow center Hartenstein — except when he’s going at him in practice, obviously. It’s been a spirit which the Clippers have harnessed to good effect for a while now, but it seems to have gotten stronger since Ty Lue took over, with those relationships extending into the coaching staff now too.

It’s not all spirit and mentality that has this team ticking though, they’re of course still executing really well as a basketball team. Their offensive numbers are down this year, currently sitting 25th in offensive rating, which could be attributed to a number of factors including the ongoing injury issues. However, their defensive rating remains right up there with the best in the league at number four. Holding Chris Paul to just one second quarter flurry of nine points is a seriously impressive feat for a shorthanded team, especially when CP3 was the opponents’ go-to guy.

It remains to be seen how far the Clippers can go this season, and of course it’s still early, but there have been so many positive signs already, and things should only get better as this team progresses. They may not have as much star quality as other franchises, but they still have a guy waiting in the wings who could come back at some point later in the year with it all to play for. The way things are going right now you wouldn’t bet against these guys to have got themselves into the best possible position.