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The Clippers look like a title contender, but they won’t play this NBA season on paper

No team is better prepared to match their lofty expectations heading into this season than the Clippers. But smooth sailing is hardly a guarantee.

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It couldn’t have been easy, deciding on who or what will grace the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated. It especially couldn’t have been easy when the cover was on one of the now-fully-digital magazine’s season previews for any of the three major sports leagues — NBA, NFL and MLB.

Those covers, for the most part, often served as showcases for the magazine’s best photos of the subjects of its loftiest predictions for whatever they were previewing.

You might recall the editor’s undying faith in the Chicago Cubs’ ability to win the World Series, not just in 2004, but again in 2008. Or maybe you remember the 2003 cover that predicted that the Sacramento Kings would win the NBA title; or in 2007, when SI told us all that Luis Scola would beat out Kevin Durant for Rookie of the Year.

There are many more covers where these come from, but perhaps the most memorable is the one that, at that time, felt like it should’ve been the surest thing. The cover art – Dwight Howard and Steve Nash clad in the purple and gold of their new home with the Los Angeles Lakers – is memorable enough. Memorable too, perhaps even more so, are the words sandwiched between their excited bodies: “NOW THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN”.

The accompanying story, written by then-senior writer at the magazine, Lee Jenkins (who is now the Executive Director of Research & Identity for the Los Angeles Clippers), detailed the high expectations the Lakers were saddled with, but how their starting lineup – an in-his-prime Howard, Nash, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant – was built to meet expectations loftier than those the team was met with to start the season. On paper, it was a can’t-miss.

Of course, they finished the regular season 45-37. By the time the playoffs rolled around, injuries had sidelined Nash, and Andrew Goudelock was starting games against the eventual Western Conference champions, the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers were swept in the opening round for the first time since 1967, and Dwight Howard called the whole experience “a nightmare, like a bad dream. We couldn’t wake up out of it.” Not so fun after all.

For my money, no team in the history of sports has been as on paper-ed as the Lakers of Los Angeles. It’s fitting, given that it is a destination franchise, often finding itself with money to burn and roster spots to gift to anyone who properly bats an eye. But championships – hell, games – aren’t won on paper. They are won in the trenches, in pregame rituals, in execution, in camaraderie. That’s (part of the reason) why the Lakers of 2022-23 might as well already be a cross-off team for title contention.

And it’s why the 2022-23 campaign for the Los Angeles Clippers will be anything but a cakewalk.

Understandably so, the Clippers are considered one of the prohibitive favorites entering this new NBA season. The team is the deepest team in the league, boasting dozens of lineup combinations that middling squads would kill to have as their starting groups. John Wall, who has seemingly been waiting for an opportunity to contribute to a contender since leaving Washington in 2019, was their premier addition this offseason. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard – emphasis on the latter – will both be fully healthy opening night, a statement that hasn’t been true in almost three years.

It seems as though everyone has bought in: ESPN’s Zach Lowe ranked the Clippers in the top half of his must-watch teams this season; five of The Ringer’s NBA writers picked the Clippers to be the West’s representative in the NBA Finals, and four of them picked them to win it all; Tyronn Lue is one of the favorites to win this season’s Coach of the Year award, if not the favorite; across almost all sportsbooks, the Clippers rank as the third or fourth favorite to win this year’s NBA title and are universally the second overall favorite to win the West (behind the reigning champion Golden State Warriors).

It all looks and feels almost too perfect, but by all accounts, this should be an unprecedented combination of great basketball meeting the great expectations that preceded it.

With that in mind, just imagine it all goes according to plan. The Clippers, in that world, would be a juggernaut – a terrifying 14-man all-around onslaught of basketball IQ and playmaking prowess that coasts its way to a playoff appearance, if not a Conference Finals berth, if not further.

In that world, Kawhi Leonard returns to form as an All-Star, All-Defense, All-NBA caliber force; Paul George serves as a perfect number-two, a score-first All-Star who can take over games in his own way, however he pleases; Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, John Wall, Robert Covington, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac, and the like all back up their superstar tandem, each bringing a new, unique attribute to a team that is as complete as it is borderline perfectly constructed to win. It’s a match made in basketball heaven. It’s something that simply must work.

At least that’s how it seems on paper.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, with that in mind, try to imagine that, somehow, it doesn’t work. The rotation is too big, and because there aren’t enough minutes to go around, frustration ripples through the locker room, and by February, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr. have forced their ways to new homes.

The picture-perfect basketball scheme isn’t scheming; this roster, which everyone says should mesh, isn’t meshing. These cats should be scoring 120-to-130 on any given night, yet can’t seem to work their way above 110, and somehow, they’re giving up 115. Kawhi Leonard’s paper mache ligaments can’t seem to hold him upright for longer than 41 games, and Paul George’s laundry list of nagging injuries continue to hamper his ability to stay on the court. Suddenly the Clippers have gone from definitive Conference champions to probable play-in participants. It’s a disaster. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

What’s more likely? Probably some combination of a few of these variables mixing to create a perfectly normal, occasionally abnormal season. This team will, at times, blaze through the league like a bat out of hell, clobbering the teams that are supposed to be on their level. In their early November four-game homestand, the Clippers will go undefeated against competition that includes the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. By season’s end, they will be a playoff team, and they will be considered the biggest threat in the Western Conference bracket.

But that doesn’t mean that there won’t also be slip-ups along the way. I can already pinpoint a late-December road trip on which the Clippers will visit the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, all in a matter of eight days – 0-5 in those games isn’t out of the question. Just as there will be nights where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are combining for 73 points to eke out the Warriors in the game of the year, there will be nights where neither of them suit up. L.A. will embarrass the Memphis Grizzlies and get embarrassed by the Portland Trail Blazers. No team is perfect. No matter how perfect they look.

And that’s part of what makes this sport – this league, its players and coaches, all the stories and drama and highlights that ensue over the course of 82 games and a postseason each year – so wonderfully entertaining, as well as so baffling, all in one fell swoop. Teams that are made on paper don’t always succeed as they are projected to, especially when deemed a team that is “meant to” win.

The 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets – of Sports Illustrated cover fame; “Who Wants a Piece of Them?” turned out to reference every team in the league given Brooklyn’s poor returns – finished 44-38 and were bounced in the second round of the playoffs. That roster, comprised of veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry, never clicked. Maybe, had we taken a longer look, we could’ve figured that out from the jump.

Did I hear someone mention the 2003-04 Lakers, who had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on the early ends of their prime, but attempted to bolster their trio of early-2000s titles by bringing in Karl Malone and Gary Payton at the tail ends of their careers? Or the 1996-97 Houston Rockets – Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley were that squad’s big three – who were good, but never reached the peak of their powers, nor won King Charles that ever-elusive championship?

All of this is decidedly not to say that the Los Angeles Clippers of 2022-23 will be a failure, just that they shouldn’t be penned as an immediate triumph. Write it down in pencil and hope that your eraser can remain clean. But stranger things have happened.

Arguably, the strangest thing that could happen is the most optimistic: an on-paper team playing its season exactly according to plan. In cautious fans, that sort of success might cause the maximum amount of alarm – but it might very well be the most fun to watch.