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Paul George is out for a few more weeks: Time for these three-ish Clippers to step up

With George shelved for a bit longer than expected, the time is ripe for players like Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, and more to shine.

LA Clippers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

In case you were wondering, no, the Clippers don’t just make everything harder for themselves by playing to the level of each and every opponent. They also happen to be the victim of unfortunate circumstances. I mean, it’s literally not every day that your star, let alone any basketball player, tears their UCL.

According to Dr. Luke Nicholson, who spoke with Clips Nation this week, “the type of mechanism that causes tension on that ligament is more common in overhead athletes, like javelin throwers and baseball pitchers. Nicholson said that basketball motions like jump shots don’t stress the UCL to the same degree because the elbow isn’t being subjected to an outward motion.

“The timetable to return, that is unknown because it’s a non-common injury in basketball players and it requires monitoring his symptoms, which in his case are pain, which is the main clinical indicator of ligament healing,” Nicholson said. “And so if he still has pain, it’s not healed yet. And so they need to basically monitor for when his pain is resolved, which indicates healing, which typically takes on an average about three months.”

That final proposition — that the average complete recovery time can take up to three months — is a scary one for Clipper fans, but it doesn’t have to be totally dispiriting. There has been plenty to like about this season, from fresh discoveries to something as general as a report that Kawhi Leonard may be back sooner than we originally thought. But in order for everything to fall into place by the time the playoffs roll around (which is certainly a possibility), there has to be some extra oomph in the performances of the team’s most prominent role players. Consider the following as some of the more capable options on hand.

The Terance Mann/Luke Kennard combo

It’s entirely possible that there’s greatness hiding somewhere within this duo. We’ve just yet to see it fully realized. In an ideal world, it happens soon, seeing that beyond the likes of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris, this iteration of the Clippers lacks consistent offensive firepower. Mann and Kennard are almost certainly the two most capable scorers if given the proper time and a considerable chunk of attempts.

Part of the problem, particularly as it pertains to Mann, is that he has had plenty of playtime, minutes that he’s yet to capitalize on. When George was shelved around Christmas, it seemed as though Mann would be the one to fill his shoes on both ends. Alas, Mann has failed to reach his maximum potential. The worst-case scenario? That what we’ve seen over the last few weeks is the best Mann has to offer.

Since Dec. 26, the first inactive of George’s current stretch of missed games, Mann has played 31.1 minutes per game and scored just 11.1 points per game. Although he’s been efficient — maintaining 49-42-62 (well, they can’t all be winners) shooting splits — he’s failed to turn his best flashes into consistent productivity. He’s scored fewer than 10 points in half of his 14 outings since George went down, and the team has gone 5-9 during that stretch.

As for Kennard, he’s still regaining his sea legs having just returned from a stretch on the COVID-19/reserve list, followed by a stint of reconditioning. He shot 2-for-9 from the field and 1-for-6 from three, good for a seven-point performance against the Nuggets in his first minutes since New Year’s Eve. It’s hard to say how long it may take him to return to his typical marksman form, but once he does, it’ll be vital for both he and Mann to take on an increased offensive load. In all lineups where the two have played together and without Paul George this season, the Clippers’ point differential has been a meager minus-2.6. That’s nothing short of unsustainable. If they’re not careful, the Clippers could lose a spot in the playoffs should such poor returns continue.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers
The youngest Clipper won’t replace George, but he can at least play an instrumental part in the collective effort to do so.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Brandon Boston Jr.

If we’re supposed to wallow in the misery left by George’s absence, why not have some fun and develop a young whippersnapper in the process? Brandon Boston Jr. is easily the most exciting of the Clippers’ electric bunch, and he’s far from fully realized as an all-around talent. But the potential is there, and it’s something that Ty Lue and the Clipper brass need to strike while the iron is steadily heating up.

Speaking of heating up: I sweat when I watch Boston play. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but I suppose it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just indicative of his chaotic returns that sometimes make me feel like I’m overheating. Sometimes, he’s a 16-point swingman, flourishing in the lane and producing devastating results from deep. On his best nights, he has a quick trigger, a high release point, and a veteran’s sense of when he’s open.

What I’m particularly drawn to about Boston is plays like the one below, where he is able to react appropriately to exactly what the defense is bound to do. He sees Monte Morris flying in from his right side, and instead of rising up for a lob like other youngsters may have a penchant for, he resists, stops, and rises up for the simpler layup. Guaranteed points vs. style points. Always take the former.

Other times, however, he’s a much shakier prospect who attempts shots at an incredibly high rate to poor percentages, the types that would force your 2k MyPlayer rating to plummet. His outings of two or four or even eight points, often on shooting percentages of 20-30, should tell you that.

He’s as raw as they come, but he’s also incredibly athletic, the kind of talent that is boom or bust in today’s NBA. Should Boston be able to string together a few more performances of the mature variety, like what he offered up against the Nuggets, he should be a mainstay in Lue’s rotation, providing a lift unlike many others on his squad can.

Ivica Zubac

So, you’re telling me it took staring down the reigning MVP for Ivica Zubac to put forth a career-best offensive effort? You’re telling me that he was capable of this along?

Okay then. Where has it been?

The story that came out of Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets was the 49-point performance from Nikola Jokic, and understandably so. When last season’s best player drops almost 50 in a dominant win, it starts a conversation/adds to the ever-evolving conversation about whether or not Jokic should contend to win the league’s top individual honor in back-to-back seasons (he should). But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Zubac dropped 32 of his own, the first time he’s scored more than 30 points in his career, all while pulling down 10 rebounds and doling out three dimes. Did I mention he did so against the reigning MVP? No?

He did it against the reigning MVP.

Now, it’s not like he did it against Draymond Green, or Rudy Gobert, or any prolific defender, for that matter. Anyone who has turned on a Nuggets game this season knows that if Nikola Jokic comes up short in one aspect of his game, it’s his defense. He’s serviceable, sure, but he’s hardly popping up on any All-Defense ballots. Although most players know they’re likely to be embarrassed by his shifty play on the offensive end, they can at least find a silver lining in the mere possibility of having a career night with him lined up across from them.

Perhaps that’s what came over Zubac, or maybe it was just time to take advantage of the opportunity to be the primary scorer, no matter the opponent. “Felt fun,” said Zubac of the added responsibility on Wednesday. “Didn’t have that much fun since, I don’t know, before I got to the league. Just being focused on the offensive end and not only on the defensive end. But it was good. Unfortunately, we lost the game, and got another coming up soon, try to get that one.”

Jokic gave Zubac his proper due after their duel. “He was really good. I think he’s really good,” Jokic said. “He accepts his role, and he’s doing that role on a really high level. He was really good tonight: he had a couple post-ups, he’s got that right hook, he was attacking the offensive glass. So he played really, really good today. He’s not the main guy. You know, it’s really hard to play like that. Some nights, you’re going to score two. Some nights, you’re going to score 32. What I like about him, is that he’s accepting it. And that’s why I think he’s a good player.”

The absences of George and Leonard shouldn’t suddenly inspire Ty Lue to make Zubac his offense’s focal point. But perhaps there can be more of those nights for the Clips’ top big in the future. It’s clear that he’s capable of it. Hell, they don’t call him Zu Alcindor for nothing, I guess. (Ask Basketball-Reference, not me.)

In terms of the overall narrative, the Clippers’ potential has always hinged on the success and availability of their two stars. Yet in order for this team to even come close to contention, whether that first postseason matchup comes in the playoffs, the play-in, or even at all, they need to become a sum of their parts, not dependent on their two best. It’s a tall order for players like those listed above to take on the responsibilities of perennial MVP candidates. But that’s not their job. As long as they can come together to come close to mastering their individual jobs, this team can be a winning one despite what it’s missing.