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Here comes the toughest stretch of the Clippers season

The Clippers are without their best horses as the schedule starts to turn.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Last year, the Clippers were back-to-back masters, winning 11 of 13 games on no rest. The combination of superstars and veteran play up and down the roster allowed the team to manage its best players without sacrificing wins.

Now the Clippers are missing the superstar part of the equation, and are much younger, leading to difficulties on short rest. And unfortunately, they’re in the midst of a 5-in-7 stretch without their two best players plus Reggie Jackson, who has been the only other driver of efficient offense this year. There is much respect in the power rankings for what the Clippers have done so far, but this is where they really start to get tested.


This week: 12th | Last week: 10th

The biggest issue for the Clippers is their health. They came into the season without Kawhi Leonard, whose return from ACL surgery looms in the background. But the Clippers have lost Paul George for at least the next month, but likely longer, due to a torn ligament in his shooting elbow. Reggie Jackson remains in health and safety protocols, though Marcus Morris Sr. just got cleared and is nearing a return. Tyronn Lue has shown he can extract more than people think out of a cast of role players, as he did last season. Now he has to keep the Clippers within striking range of a playoff spot until George, and possibly Leonard, return.

This week: 14th | Last week: 10th

As noted last week, the Clippers have been better offensively in their games without Paul George (109.5 points scored per 100 possessions through Sunday) than they’ve been in their games with him (104.8). But, with George now out an extended period so his elbow can heal, it sure seems like they’re going to have to grind out some ugly wins. They turned a 17-point deficit into a nine-point lead against Denver on Sunday, but then scored just nine points (shooting 3-for-16 with five turnovers) over the final nine minutes, falling to 3-4 without their star.

It didn’t help that Reggie Jackson (Health and Safety Protocols) was out, but Jackson can’t be asked to carry too much of a load, and the Clippers’ offense isn’t necessarily built to spread the wealth. Jackson ranks 41st in isolation efficiency (0.71 points per possession) among 44 players with at least 50 iso possessions (George is also in the bottom 10), according to Synergy tracking. And the Clips rank in the bottom 10 in ball movement (22nd), player movement (21st) and assist percentage (21st). There’s no substitution for talent, but this is an opportunity for Ty Lue to show off his coaching chops.

The loss to Denver on Sunday began a stretch of five games in seven nights, with the Clips’ two games against Brooklyn this week being the second games of the two back-to-backs. They’re 0-4 in the second games of back-to-backs thus far.

Sports Illustrated

This week: 12th | Last week: 10th

With Paul George out for at least 3-to-4 weeks with an elbow injury, things are getting serious for the Clippers, who are entering a road-heavy January slate and are short on quality rotation options. Then again, so is a large chunk of the NBA. Still, this could get bad quickly.

The Athletic

This week: 16th | Last week: 14th

Key three: Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Ivica Zubac | 508 minutes | +0.1 net rating

Unfortunately, we won’t get to analyze any trio involving Paul George for quite some time. He’s out with this elbow injury for some weeks, and the LA Clippers will have to survive without PG, Kawhi Leonard and whichever role players end up going in and out of availability. The reason this grouping for the Clippers is so significant despite being just barely a net positive is it’s one that’s played over 500 minutes this season. The Clippers have had so few available regular rotations not involving Leonard. Guys are dropping like flies, and yet for a while, this one endured and kept finding its way onto the court. Not anymore. Once again, the Clippers need to find a way to survive another injury.

Booster player: Luke Kennard | 136 minutes | +7.9 net rating

A lot of people bristled at the four-year, $64 million deal the Clippers gave Luke Kennard, but he’s turned out to be so key for them. Ideally, he’d be someone whom they don’t need to rely on as much. He would be able to handle the ball a little and just knock down shots. The Clippers have needed him to be a key offensive weapon because of their injuries. We won’t see these four together for quite some time, but when they’re back, it might be the difference between the Clippers having a good offensive night and looking like they don’t know how to score.