Can the Clippers finally become title contenders?

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina wonders if this is the season the LA Clippers will finally contend for an NBA championship.

LOS ANGELES – Once again, the LA Clippers enter the NBA playoffs uncertain about a star player’s health. Once again, the Clippers enter the NBA playoffs intrigued about their depth.

Which broader theme will prevail? Will the Clippers miss Paul George for significant time when they begin their first-round matchup against the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns? Or can the Clippers offset that possibility by relying on another star (Kawhi Leonard) and a handful of dependable role players?

Will any of those possibilities matter considering the Suns boast the NBA’s best scorer (Kevin Durant), another dominant scorer (Devin Booker) and a proven point guard (Chris Paul)? Or will attrition and injuries inflict the Suns more severely than even the Clippers have experienced in recent years?

This does not mark the first time the Clippers enter the postseason filled with both optimism and dread. When George and Leonard first teamed up for the 2019-20 season, the Clippers thought they were championship bound only to squander a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets. They struggled with on-court chemistry due to limited practice time and with adapting to the NBA campus bubble during the pandemic. After replacing Doc Rivers with Ty Lue the following season as head coach, the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. What soiled that milestone: Leonard had already torn the ACL in his right knee and would stay sidelined for an entire year. The Clippers stayed competitive without Leonard last season, but they lost their final play-in game vs New Orleans partly because George tested positive for COVID-19.

As for this season? The Clippers have become encouraged with George’s progress since missing the last nine regular-season games with a sprained right knee. George completed shooting drills before Wednesday’s practice, and the Clippers have added he is “undergoing exercises and therapies to rehabilitate his sprained knee.” Nonetheless, the Clippers have conceded “there is no timetable for his return,” a potentially harmless or ominous admission for a player that has appeared in only 189 out of a possible 318 regular-season games through four seasons.

No doubt, the Clippers don’t feel fully comfortable entering a playoff series against Phoenix without George. He could help the Clippers keep pace with the Suns’ prolific offense. He could slow down some of the Suns’ dominant scorers. But even if the Clippers aren’t downplaying George’s importance, they appear remarkably encouraged with every other development.

After once again showing masterful brilliance with his play and frustration with injury-related absences, Leonard has lately become both dominant and available. In the past four games, Leonard has averaged 40 points on 50.6% shooting, 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Expect Leonard’s workload to increase. The Suns don’t have a legitimate defender that can slow Leonard down significantly. He also has enough skills, strength and stamina to become one of the primary defenders on Durant.

The Clippers did not exactly envision Russell Westbrook would have a primary role. They became amenable toward signing him partly because they did not need to depend on him as much as the Lakers did. With George out, Westbrook surely can increase his scoring and ball-handling responsibilities to mitigate his absence. Perhaps he can offer some competitive gamesmanship against Paul, too.

Unlike during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, Westbrook plays on a Clippers team filled with dependable shooters and wing defenders. Beyond Leonard, the Clippers don’t have definitive go-to scorers. But the Clippers could offer a combination of Nicolas Batum, Terrance Mann, Norman Powell and Eric Gordon for secondary scoring. Beyond Leonard, the Clippers don’t have defensive stoppers. But the Clippers have plenty options on the wing (Batum, Mann, Gordon) and at the rim (Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee) to wear down the Suns’ four stars (Durant, Booker, Paul, Deandre Ayton). Just as he has for the past three seasons, Lue has mastered discovering effective lineup combinations both to account for in-series adjustments and injuries.

Of course, the series would dramatically change if one of the Suns’ core players suffers yet another injury. But the Suns have fully rested their players recently and appear unlikely to experience attrition this early in the playoffs. In the Clippers’ case, George could return just as other teams are wearing down. As much as the Clippers have questions about their own durability, so do the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. Who’s to say the Clippers don’t appear fresher as the playoff progresses? Then again, who’s to say the Clippers won’t experience more turbulence?

Should the Clippers fail to win the NBA championship, let alone lose in the first round, the organization surely will feel disappointed. They had already hoped to win multiple titles by now. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has invested an expensive payroll to make that happen. He also has said he expects the Clippers to win an NBA title before leaving Arena for the privately financed Intuit Dome for the 2024-25 season.

The Clippers do not view this season as championship or bust, though. They remain patient and invested in the 31-year-old Leonard and the 32-year-old George. Despite the uncertainty their stars convey about their health, the Clippers have found them productive in their prime years. And they could create new problems with breaking up that duo just because of imperfect results.

All of which brings the Clippers back to a familiar setting entering the postseason. As they strive to field a fully healthy roster for once, the Clippers will find out once again if they truly have enough depth to compete against the other league’s title contenders.  

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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