It is officially NBA player ranking season, and this week, two of the bigger outlets in NBA media — Sports Illustrated and ESPN — performed their annual ritual of ranking the top 100 players in the league.
Although it’s foolish to place too much stock into individual rankings, they do provide an interesting look in to how the national landscape views the Clippers. This is a team that made the Western Conference finals a year ago, going 4-4 in their last eight playoff games without Kawhi Leonard, and yet, there is shockingly little respect for the team’s overall depth.
The expectation was that Leonard and Paul George would each make the top 100 rankings within the top 15, and then we’d see how the rest of the roster landed. Sports Illustrated only had one other Clipper in the top 100, however: Ivica Zubac, all the way at No. 99.
Outside of a three-point shot, Zubac checks every box necessary for a modern big. On offense, he’s an expert offensive rebounder and a sturdy screener with soft hands as a roll man. On defense, he’s smart as a rotating big and he won’t get bullied by the game’s biggest behemoths. Zubac is perhaps the least flashy player on our Top 100 list, but don’t let that detract from his value in Los Angeles.
There were only seven teams with fewer players in the top 100 than the Clippers. Even after sterling playoff runs for Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, and Terance Mann, none of them are as revered as other role players around the league. The level that Jackson in particular hit during the playoffs is much higher than several of the players at the bottom of this list, but perhaps there is an opinion that his performance was more fluky than sustainable.
George slotted in at 12th and Leonard at 10th, the latter dropping a few spots due to health concerns. Both of those placements feel reasonable, but the absence of other Clippers was surprising.
The ESPN list was even more stunning. They chose to omit Leonard altogether — a defensible decision if his status for the season is in doubt — but were left with only one Clipper, George, who came in at No. 12 again.
Playoff P lived up to his self-assigned nickname and then some last spring when he led the Clippers to their first Western Conference finals after Kawhi Leonard was lost for the season with a partially torn ACL. George averaged 27.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists in nearly 42 minutes a game in the Clippers’ series loss to the Phoenix Suns, earning respect across the league. He’ll have to carry the Clippers without Leonard for much of this season as well, but his playoff performance — particularly as a playmaker — gives L.A. a lot to build from.
Admittedly, the difference between Zubac coming in at No. 99 versus No. 101 or later in the ESPN poll isn’t glaring; but it is strange to see a team that was in the final four of the playoffs last year have no other players beyond George, especially on a list that includes rookies. Am I alone thinking that there is no chance Jalen Green in year one will be a better player than Mann?
There are only four teams on the ESPN ranking with one or zero players: the Magic, the Spurs, the Thunder (miss you, Shai), and the Clippers. One of those teams is clearly not like the others.
The Clippers will definitely not be as good during the 2021-22 regular season as they were during 2020-21 because of the absence of Leonard, but they’re going to be competing for a playoff spot, something those other three squads have no real prayer of. And LA’s success won’t simply be a result of George’s individual brilliance — it will be because of quality efforts from throughout the roster. These rankings seem to be a misevaluation of how good this team’s depth is. It won’t matter what the top 100 lists were when the regular season ends, but it’s still odd to see how the Clippers are perceived heading into the year.