Clippers facing hard decisions after early exit

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina wonders what the future now holds for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the rest of the Clippers.

Once again, the LA Clippers showed their resilience because of great coaching and depth. Once again, the Clippers still ended their season earlier than expected partly because of key injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The Clippers fell in a 136-130 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday for all the familiar reasons that have plagued them ever since Leonard and George teamed up four years ago. Despite fielding a diminished roster against a top-heavy team that made double-digit runs, the Clippers competed to the very end. But eventually, the Clippers were left wondering what could have happened if only Leonard and George stayed healthy.

After missing 22 games for maintenance on his right knee and an additional six to treat a sprained right ankle, Leonard finally appeared in the postseason without any restrictions. Leonard only played in two postseason games before returning to the trainer’s room. After aggravating soreness in his right knee in Game 1 and 2, Leonard sat on the bench in street clothes for Games 3, 4, and 5. The Clippers considered Leonard’s injury serious enough that he never received clearance for any on-court work before the playoffs ended.

After missing 26 games for various ailments that also included the final nine regular-season games with a sprained right knee, George never appeared in any playoff games. George completed individual workouts that included shooting and running drills, but the Clippers’ training staff never cleared him for any contact practices before the playoffs ended.

Despite those setbacks, the Clippers showed plenty of fight.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue still motivated his players to compete. First, the Clippers held a 71-60 half-time lead. Then, the Suns dominated the third quarter (50-24) and led by 20 points with 11 minutes remaining. Then, the Clippers clawed back after completing a 15-2 run. Norman Powell (27 points) and Nicolas Batum (19) made timely shots. Ivica Zubac (16 points) and Marcus Morris Sr. (12) offered an inside presence. And Russell Westbrook provided the ultimate roller-coaster experience filled with his many strengths (14 points, eight assists) and flaws (3-for-18, five turnovers).

Ultimately, those efforts proved futile. The Suns’ top-heavy talent inevitably became too much with Devin Booker (47 points) and Kevin Durant (31). The Clippers eventually missed the two-way presence Leonard and George could have provided had they been with the team in an actual uniform instead of sitting on the bench in street clothes.

Once again, the Clippers will have to wrestle with an increasingly uncomfortable question. Can the Clippers ever win an NBA title with Leonard and George?

The Clippers would say yes with the familiar caveat: as long as they are healthy. The only problem: they never have been.

Consider their tortured history with the Clippers.

First season (2019-20): The Clippers squander a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the second round in the bubble. Afterwards, the Clippers replaced Doc Rivers with Lue and attributed the shortcomings to injuries and lack of practice time together. But it did not help that both Leonard (14 points on 6-for-22 shooting) and George (10 points on 4-for-16 shooting, five turnovers) struggled in a Game 7 loss to Denver.

Their second season (2020-21): The Clippers continue to prioritize health over practice time in a condensed 72-game season shortly following the bubble restart. The Clippers overcame an 0-2 first-round deficit against Dallas amid Leonard and George peaking at the right time with the right depth around them. The Clippers followed a similar script against Utah only for Leonard to injure the ACL in his right knee in Game 4. Thanks to George, Lue’s coaching and strong role players, the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history and challenged Phoenix to six games. Without Leonard’s presence, however, the Clippers fell short again.

Their third season (2021-22): the Clippers anticipated this would be challenging since they expected Leonard to stay sidelined for most if not all of the entire season following off-season surgery. The Clippers did not expect to miss the playoffs, though. But with too many injuries, the Clippers competed in the play-in tournament. With George testing positive for COVID-19 the day of their second play-in game against New Orleans, the Clippers’ season ended abruptly.

Their fourth season (2022-23): the Clippers still handled Leonard with care in his first full season following off-season surgery on his ACL. The Clippers did the same thing with George and other role players for the long haul. Amid inconsistent chemistry, though, the Clippers reshuffled their roster before the trade deadline to add new backcourt pieces (Bones Hyland, Eric Gordon), addressed some front-court needs (Mason Plumlee) and signed a former All-Star in hopes he can have more success than he did with the Lakers (Westbrook).

Even before the NBA playoffs started, the Clippers did not view this season necessarily as championship-or-bust. No doubt, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has wanted to win an NBA title since purchasing the franchise in 2014. It likely pains him he has spent so much money on a roster decimated with injuries. But the Clippers are still mindful of a few things. Leonard will likely face fewer limitations in his second full season removed from off-season surgery on his torn ACL. Leonard (31) and George (32) are still in their prime. George has two years left on his contract, including a player option for the 2024-25 season. Leonard remains under contract through 2024-25. Though the NBA landscape always seems fluid and subject to change, expect the Clippers to stay committed to them through the rest of their current deals.

Nonetheless, the Clippers have serious questions to answer.

They have made it clear that the Clippers medical staff have protected Leonard and George from themselves, and they would play more if they could. But even with the Clippers remaining aggressive with their treatment, cautious with their workload and calculated with their ramp up, Leonard and George still haven’t consistently stayed healthy.

The Clippers front office have made great roster moves to ensure depth around Leonard and George. They have struck a healthy balance with retaining key role players to maximize continuity, while upgrading on the margins to address positional needs. That approach has helped the Clippers absorb overlapping injuries. That has also given Lue various options to maximize roster combinations and adjustments. Despite boasting one of the league’s deepest teams, however, the Clippers are never going to have enough if Leonard or George can never stay healthy. 

The Clippers simply appear stuck between weighing two bad options.

If they stay committed to Leonard and George, they are likely to repeat the same tired journey with countless injuries and disrupted chemistry. If they deal them before their contract expires, they seem unlikely to receive anything of comparative value. For all the underachieving seasons so far with Leonard and George, the Clippers have succeeded far greater than the season before their arrival when they challenged the Golden State Warriors through six games in the first round. Nonetheless, the Clippers broke up Lob City prematurely by taking a step backward so they could eventually move two steps forward. Perhaps the Clippers may need to think the same way.

Those are all questions the Clippers will have to wrestle with all offseason. For now, the Clippers should feel understandably frustrated with their current dilemma. They have a committed owner. They have a resourceful front office. They have a smart and empowering coaching staff. They have skilled, versatile and motivated players. Yet, that still has led to underachieving seasons because Leonard and George have spent time in the trainer’s room and on the bench at the most inopportune times.

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

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