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Paul George’s availability has defined the Clippers’ unique tale of two seasons

With the news that surgery is a real option for the Clippers’ second star, it’s worth looking at whether or not his electric start to the year was as vital as it seemed.

San Antonio Spurs v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

When we describe a team’s campaign as a “tale of two seasons”, we assume one of two things. Either it started off right and eventually took a turn for the worst, or the opposite. A recent example: the 2021-22 Miami Dolphins, who started their season 1-7 and closed it by winning eight of their final nine contests. Tua Tagovailoa proved that he can be one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks, despite his underwhelming surrounding talent. Jaylen Waddle enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, breaking the NFL record for rookie receptions in a single season. What started as a lost season ended one game from a spot in the AFC Wild Card.

Sure, the team’s brass decided to fire their extremely promising head coach, Brian Flores, just days after their season ended, essentially ridding fans of all hope left behind by winning close to 90 percent of their games in the second half of the season. But never mind that.

Although the Clippers have most certainly followed the “tale of two seasons” script this season, it’s hardly the kind with a narrative that feels cookie-cutter. In fact, if we were to determine its validity through the team’s record, it would hardly fit the mold. At no point has the team felt like one that was drowning, not even amidst multiple three-game losing streaks, and at no point has the team felt like it was ascending to join the league’s elite via some great run.

They’ve maintained position in the Western Conference, for the most part, hovering around the sixth, seventh, or eighth seed all year. But they’ve hardly been explosive nor threatening. Over the course of this season, the Clippers have just... been.

Los Angeles Clippers v Orlando Magic
There’s confusing, and then there are the 2021-22 Los Angeles Clippers, who have somehow stayed the course for this entire season, never peaking nor valleying.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

That they’ve done it both with and without Paul George is the interesting thing. And it could be even more interesting to watch unfold given that George may be sidelined for the rest of the season. Surgery reportedly remains an option for George as he tries to recover from a torn UCL in his right elbow, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “It’s almost like I’m waiting for bad news on Paul George because they just, you know — it sounds like surgery is a real option there, and if he has that, he’s done for the year,” Windhorst said on the Hoop Collective podcast earlier this week.

Which is a shame, considering how things started for the perennial All-Star this season. George went on a rather-immediate tear that made his case for an MVP bid an honorable, sensible one. Through 14 games, having carried the Clippers to a 9-5 record, he was averaging 27 points (third in the NBA at the time behind Kevin Durant and Steph Curry), and he’d maintained a PER of 22.6, the second-best mark of his career. At the time, I wrote, “You’d be running a fool’s errand if you tried to argue against him being in contention this season; in a league that didn’t include Curry and Nikola Jokić, he might have already locked [the MVP award] up.”

But even as his offensive tear continued, so too did Los Angeles’ relative mediocrity. In fact, until George was officially sidelined with his elbow injury on Dec. 26, his team was merely 17-16. Since then, they’ve gone 8-9 and presently sit at 25-25 — seventh in the West. They’re a step below the Nuggets and Jazz but are on par with the Timberwolves and Lakers.

Oddly enough, before Dec. 26 — with George available and scorching — the Clippers ranked 27th in the NBA in offensive rating (105.8) and fourth in defensive rating (105.3); that plus-0.5 net rating was 13th in the league. Once George went on the shelf, the team slipped, but not in the area you’d think. Offensively, they’ve improved ever so slightly, up to a rating of 107.9, 26th in the league. (The Warriors have the same rating since Dec. 27; give us a smile, Clippers fans!) As for their defense, however, the Clippers have slipped, and remarkably so: 111.8, dropping them to 17th in the NBA. That gives them a net rating of minus-3.9 since the 27th, 22nd in the league, and far from the number they’d need to maintain to prove themselves a contender.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers
The difference between Paul George in uniform and Paul George in street clothes? A minus-4.4 net rating.
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

And yet, despite this statistical slippage, the Clippers have continued to just... be.

And it’s... working.

They’ve won four of their last six games and two in a row, one of which was a 35-point comeback over the Wizards (the largest comeback in franchise history and second-largest in the play-by-play era). It was their third comeback from 24-plus points down this month alone. You might’ve heard about it. Heck, you might’ve heard it all the way from Washington, D.C.

The way the Clippers have been winning of late isn’t by relying on star play or by expecting big games from one or two guys. They’ve instead counted on capable, adequate performances from their complete, now-extended rotation. In their most recent win — a 110-102 dub over the lowly Magic on Wednesday — five Clippers finished in double-figures, though none scored more than 20 points. Amir Coffey led the team with 19 points, for crying out loud. In last week’s victory over the 76ers, every starter (Reggie Jackson, Coffey, Nic Batum, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac) finished in double-figures. Against the Pacers on Jan. 17, Batum scored 32, Jackson had 26, and Morris Sr. had 21. This is what dreams are made of.

The Wizards game was a bit different, and most comebacks are. You call upon one or two players to fuel a comeback, as the Clippers called on Coffey (29 points) and Luke Kennard (25 and the game-winning four-point play). But this group has played more together than ever, it seems. That’s not to say that the group has played a lot of minutes together, but that they seem to be playing as a team and not as a chaotic cluster of individuals, for better or for worse. Before the New Year, George led the team in scoring in 19 of 36 games; since then, eight different players have been the team’s top scorer: 14 games, eight different leading bucket-getters.

Being successful with this sort of shot distribution and overall scoring profile should help to put things in perspective for a team that may very well be star-less for the remainder of this season. Coffey seems to be improving with every outing. Kennard is proving himself as a viable offensive option, not merely a shooter. Even Morris Sr. has enjoyed his moment in the sun.

No, Paul George isn’t a problem, nor was he ever this season. This team has more problems than can be quantified, as proven by its inability to get over that proverbial hump. But the Clippers’ tale of two seasons can be perfectly summarized by that aforementioned note about leading scorers.

The first half of the season was the season where Paul George was proving himself as a leader, one who could still feasibly play top-dog on a perennial threat. The second half has been about everyone else. It’s been about development, distribution, and growth. It hasn’t all been pretty, but it’s been telling and encouraging, wins and losses be damned. The result, to this point, hasn’t changed. But in time, this approach and this team’s unfortunate circumstances could provide a clearer image of what these Clippers are capable of.