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Checking in with the Clippers after the first third of the season

Just over 30 games into the season, we assess the good, the bad and the ugly for the Clippers to this point.

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Los Angeles Clippers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

As we have now passed the quarter mark and near the halfway point of the 2022-23 NBA season, we are starting to gain a more detailed picture of what each and every team looks like and portends to be. At 17-13, good for sixth in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers have offered up a distorted conclusion about what they should be able to accomplish this season.

What have their early results shown about their potential? Who has been the MVP to start the year? And what needs to change in order for the Clippers to improve over the course of the rest of this season? Let’s take a look.

Best win: 113-93 over the Boston Celtics, Dec. 12

Honorable mention: 119-117 over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nov. 7

A tight victory over the Cavaliers is nothing to scoff at. But a big, unprecedented win over the Boston Celtics is something that feels like the sort of result that can define a stretch of a season. And even if it ends up feeling like a flash in the pan, it was an excellent indication of what this Clippers team can accomplish when all things fall into place.

L.A. held Jayson Tatum (21 points) and Jaylen Brown (20) in check, by the All-Star duo’s typical standards, and the Clippers' own tandem of stars had their best combined effort of the season. Paul George scored 26 while Leonard added 25 on 10-for-12 shooting, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. It was an electric performance, the likes of which have become far too rare for those who have expected Leonard to return to form once back from his long, injury-laden absence.

Worst loss: 123-96 to the Sacramento Kings, Dec. 3

Honorable mentions: Two straight to the Thunder — 108-95 on Oct. 25 and 118-108 on Oct. 27

I mean... yeesh. Hardly anything this season has been as embarrassing as the effort the Clippers put forth against the Kings back at the beginning of December. Sure, Leonard and George were missing in action — literally, as they both sat. Domantas Sabonis scored 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting; the Kings had a 28-point lead by the second quarter and eventually led by as many as 31 en route to a blowout win.

“We have to hold it up until they’re back, and then when they’re back, hopefully soon, we can build some chemistry out on the court and some consistency,” Ivica Zubac said after the loss, echoing a sentiment that might as well encapsulate the entirety of the Clippers’ season to this point. There has yet to be consistency, maybe because the team’s chemistry has yet to set in. This loss, more than the 13 others, showed that in the worst ways.

MVP not named Paul George: Marcus Morris Sr.

Honorable mentions: Ivica Zubac

As a longtime Celtics fan, I’m quite familiar with Marcus Morris Sr. I spent two years watching him in Boston, seasons in which he averaged 13.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, wanting him to shoot less and defer to his teammates more. It happened rarely; I often found myself frustrated, if not at a complete loss. But at no point did I doubt Morris’ ability to contribute to a contender.

Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is exactly what he’s done for the Clippers this season. While he’s averaging just 13.7 points per game, the sixth-best mark over the course of his 12-year career, it’s his reliability that stands out. It directly enhances how valuable he is to this iteration of the Clippers, far more than he has been in his three years with the team.

This season, he’s put together 24 double-figure outings in 27 games; not all of them have been wildly exciting efforts, but they have been efficient. That should be an encouraging enough trend for anyone familiar with Morris’ past tendencies to over-shoot, even overreact in all facets.

Sure, he’s no Paul George — team-high 23.8 points per game — nor Ivica Zubac — 10.1 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest, all 30 of which he has started — but Morris has been this season’s most consistent, reliable contributor on both ends. Zubac relies on his paint presence to buoy his efficiency, but at roughly 62 percent shooting, he has carved out a spot in the Clippers’ rotation, with nothing off limits. But it’s Morris whose contributions have been most notable, particularly because of how uncharacteristically consistent they’ve been. He’s arguably never been this reliable before. And on a team that can’t rely on anyone to stay healthy and available, that makes him invaluable.

Minnesota Timberwolves v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Biggest disappointment: Kawhi Leonard

Honorable mention: John Wall

Many may point to Kawhi’s performance against the Hornets as a turning point for his season. But few recall that his game-winning jumper to thwart an upset bid by the Charlotte Hornets came late in an ugly game in which Leonard scored just 16 points and finished a -8 on the night. He was far from the team’s worst player that evening — Ivica Zubac was -19 — but even further from the best — Nicolas Batum was an efficient +23. But his game-winning jumper clouds the fact that he was hardly great against Charlotte. Clutch, sure, but great, hardly.

This season, Leonard hasn’t even been able to even border on clutch; he’s appeared in just nine games and currently averages a mere 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. Was Leonard expected to return to All-NBA, MVP-candidate-level play directly out of the gate: Of course not. But for his season to begin so inconsistently is cause for concern — and not just because he can’t stay on the court.

As for John Wall, his efforts have left much to be desired in the inspiration department. Sure, he reveled in his opportunity to return to Washington. But his supposed return to prominence has otherwise been a rather muted, 12.3-point-per-game campaign. Just twice this season has Wall scored more than 20 points in a game; he’s lost a step, something everyone except for Wall is willing to accept.

Biggest surprise: Ontario Clippers

Honorable mention: Marcus Morris Sr.

Moussa Diabate and Jason Preston very well may be studs. As long as they continue to show out in Ontario — which is currently tied for the best record in the G League at 12-4 — they should garner a chance to do so in Los Angeles. Diabate, who is averaging 19.2 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, is quite possibly the player the Clippers should be the most excited about. At 6’10”, he represents the sort of backup size the team has lacked of late. Relying too much on Ivica Zubac could cause a great deal of harm come playoff time. Maybe Diabate becomes the ideal sort of reinforcement should the Clippers get to the postseason... a sentence no one thought they’d be reading in December.

Preston has long been a project to which the Clippers have remained loyal, so it’s nice to see him thriving on the G League level, showing that he can contribute should the team elect to call him up at some point this season or next. He’s averaging 12.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, showing signs of being the complete asset he hinted at being while starring with the Ohio Bobcats in college.

It’s far from ideal that these are the successful Clippers in the NBA universe, but at least it proves that the farm system is working. There are worse things for a G League affiliate to be doing than dominating the opposition on a nightly basis.

Overall assessment: So far, so mid

It’s hard to gauge whether or not the Clippers will ever be a success given their current construction and their current approach to going about an NBA season. This is partly no fault of their own. Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are consistent presences on the team’s injury report as they endure nagging ailments both short and long-term. But names like Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and others frequent said reports as well.

For so many integral pieces to be missing in action so often would essentially amount to a death sentence for the Clippers’ title aspirations if they persisted later in the season. Perhaps they’re getting them out of the way now, though given the fact that they’ve gone on for so long doesn’t inspire much confidence in that idea.

At 17-14, the Clippers are currently the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and if things continue at this rate — injuries, off nights, inexcusable losses, baffling efforts galore, etc. — they likely won’t rise much higher than that as the season continues. But nothing of that sort is a guarantee. They could feasibly rebound, the final two-thirds of their season unfolding as it was expected the entire season would. That is, successful and seamless, thanks to their top-level talent and relentless depth.

Should it not, however, this Clippers’ season may end up as one of the most disappointing campaigns in recent memory. By any team, in either conference, in any year. Needless to say, that’s not something these Clippers can afford.