The LA Clippers are headed into a season with expectations that are both internally and externally as high as at any point in team history.
The offseason prior to the pandemic, the following summer, and the first two seasons with Doc Rivers were likely the only instances that are comparable. But those teams, none of them, were this deep and laden with a group that was so notably on the same page.
The Lob City iterations were always weighed down with underlying questions about how much they actually got along, whose team it really was, or how two bigs could co-exist without a true perimeter threat among them. The 2019 summer was surreal, but it was also new. A year later the truncated season and unknowns of a quick turnaround amidst the pandemic made expectations almost seem secondary.
Now, with normalcy (somewhat), upon us. The Clippers emerge from the NBA’s first full offseason in 24 months to enter 2022-23 with a healthy core and a tunnel vision-like focus on the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“We know the hype around our team,” guard Norman Powell said after scoring 34 points in Wednesday’s preseason finale. “We know how our roster is built. We know the expectations and everyone around the league knows.”
After four preseason outings, including the first home game with Kawhi Leonard in the lineup since June 2021 the Clippers (2-2) showed both what makes them one of the title favorites and why they’re still a work in progress.
Here’s a rundown of some keys to watch, what could make, or break, the Clippers’ season, and a few more tidbits heading into next week:
According to FanDuel Sportsbook…
Title Odds (+700) – third in NBA
Western Conference (+330) – second in West
Regular Season Win Total (52.5) – tied second in NBA
If the Clippers are seeking the top seed in the West, getting off to a fast start is paramount. They play 13 of their first 22 games at home and two of their nine road games are in California.
According to NBA.com, 192 of the last 211 teams (91 percent) that have won 12 of their first 20 games have gone on to make the playoffs. The Clippers play the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, and Jazz, all teams widely expected to be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, a combined nine times in their first 20 games.
Overall, the Clippers have a league-leading 15 back-to-backs, but do not have any stretches of five games in seven nights.
In the annual NBA General Managers survey, 21 percent of league executives pegged the Clippers to win the title with 48 percent selecting them to win the Western Conference. Still, there are a few pundits who have cast down on the favorable outlook.
Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo were not feeling it on their over/under podcast this week. They questioned everything from Leonard’s ability to play more than 55 games, Paul George’s long-term health, the age of the roster, and whether or not John Wall can play any more.
The Athletic’s John Hollinger questioned whether or not the Clippers have enough secondary shot creation and said the “rub” with the Clippers is that we can’t quickly identify their third-best player behind Leonard and George.
After Wednesday’s preseason loss to the Nuggets, Head Coach Tyronn Lue inferred that he still wasn’t sure who would start at point guard come opening night against the Lakers. There are three candidates: Reggie Jackson, who is the incumbent; Wall, who is the newcomer and former All-Star; and Powell, who is the wild card option.
For the sake of continuity and a proven, albeit not always efficient, catch-and-shoot threat, Jackson seems like the best natural fit. Wall is the flashiest option and could supercharge the offense, which stagnated at times over the past season, even with George available. Wall’s a threat to score and make plays for others, but he requires the ball. With George and Leonard sharing the floor, that might be more problematic than it would be if he entered off the bench. Powell makes the Clippers more versatile defensively and still has the ability to create his own shot off the dribble or catch-and-shoot (45.4 percent from 3-point range in those scenarios over 45 games last year in Portland and LA).
Who will be the opening night starter at point guard? We’ll find out soon enough.
There is a real crunch when it comes to lineup depth. As mentioned, ad nauseum, there are 11-12 guys who have real qualifications to be top 8 NBA rotation players. That means, especially come playoff time, there are 3-4 guys who think they should be on the floor and will not be. Luke Kennard exemplified that “problem” during the preseason when he made 8 of his 11 3-point attempts and continued his ascendence into the league’s best shooter conversation.
There are nights when Kennard will likely get a DNP-CD during the regular season. He certainly deserves to play, and was vital to the Clippers gutty performance last season. But who does he replace? Terance Mann, someone the Clippers will surely count on to defend multiple positions and needs minutes to continue his development as a young player? Nicolas Batum, who understands the mission, but still provides a savvy, versatility, and needed frontcourt depth? Powell? Wall? Jackson?
It’s definitely a challenge on nights when they are fully intact.
1. The coaching.
2. The depth.
3. The singular mindset and motivation.
1. The strength of the Western Conference will not allow for many “nights off.”
2. The lack of a backup center (Yes, we all saw Moussa Diabate end the Nuggets on Wednesday).
I am going to be accused of being a homer. I’ll own that and say, the Clippers have all of the ingredients to win their first championship; 52 years in the making. They finish second in the West, win 55 games, and make the Finals… Clippers over Bucks in 7.