Will the Clippers finally win an NBA championship?
Not only does that hinge on if Kawhi Leonard or Paul George can ever stay healthy. It also depends on another factor the Clippers pushed aside amid their quest to keep their star players durable for an expected title run.
“We have to get back to honoring and respecting the regular season,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said following the team’s first-round playoff exit to the Phoenix Suns. “We have to compete harder more consistently, and we have to earn it.”
Will that result in the Clippers fundamentally changing their load management priorities from the past four seasons? Will Leonard and George stay out of the trainer’s room? We’ll see. For the sake of this exercise, however, let’s take them at their word. Assuming the Clippers have a full roster at least for the marquee games, below are the five most interesting matchups to monitor.
Clippers vs/at Philadelphia 76ers (March 24/27, 12:30 pm/7:30 pm PT, ABC for March 27)
By this point, who knows which uniform James Harden will wear. Maybe he’s still on the Sixers’ roster. Maybe Philadelphia finally relented and dealt him to the Clippers. Maybe he’s not at the game amid his refusal to play and the Sixers’ refusal to trade him. Either way, the Harden backdrop will be captivating for this game. That could especially be the case for the Clippers-Sixers game on March 27, considering that former Sixers coach Doc Rivers could serve as one of the analysts for the ABC telecast. I’m sure he’ll have an opinion or two about Harden.
Just like with the Ben Simmons holdout in the 2021-22, Harden’s expected absence will likely create a daily distraction that Philadelphia will have to manage. That storyline will be more pronounced, however, against the Clippers given Harden’s preference to play there. Harden’s absence could also reinforce the Clippers’ views that they would much rather have a strong supporting cast than a third star.
Clippers at Lakers (Nov. 1, ESPN)
Lakers fans may not feel as excited about this matchup for a few reasons but the Clippers should surely circle this game as they always have.
Not only do the Clippers have an 11-game winning streak to extend against their L.A. counterparts. This will mark the last season the Clippers share the same building with the Lakers before moving into Intuit Dome for the 2024-25 campaign. As it has been for the past four seasons, the Clippers’ regular-season dominance may not mean much in the big picture. But no reason not to flex a strength they have exerted against a franchise that likes to sneer at them.
Clippers at Phoenix Suns (Jan. 3, 7 pm PT)
The Clippers arguably could have beaten the Suns in the first round had George played and Leonard appeared in more than just Games 1 and 2. But this matchup can’t re-create any imaginary scenarios since the Suns dealt an aging point guard (Chris Paul), acquired another star point guard (Bradley Beal) and upgraded their bench on veteran’s minimum deals after Phoenix’s second-round flameout to Denver.
Nonetheless, it will be entertaining and revealing on if Leonard, George and depth can offset Suns’ top-heavy talent with Beal, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. So much can happen between then and a possible playoff matchup considering that each team has durability concerns. Therefore, this regular-season game won’t signal anything for the playoffs. Nonetheless, it should still be a meaningful game to watch assuming both teams don’t already have injury issues.
Clippers at Denver Nuggets (Nov. 14, 8 pm PT, TNT)
Not only will the Clippers face the NBA’s defending champions. The Clippers will also play against Denver in their second game of the NBA’s In-Season tournament. Ironically, the NBA created this setup partly to incentive teams to prioritize the regular season more. Should the Clippers make a serious run at it, though, wait for the punchlines from Lakers fans and elsewhere that the Clippers won “a meaningless” tournament instead of the real thing.
No doubt, the Clippers are entering championship-or-bust mode with Leonard and George. But as Frank stated after the season, the Clippers need to compete better in the regular season. No better stage to do that than in the NBA’s inaugural In-Season tournament.
Clippers at/vs Golden State Warriors (Nov. 30, 7 pm PT; Dec. 2, 1 pm PT )
The Clippers and Warriors no longer have the same animosity as they did ago decade ago when both franchises were title-contending teams on the rise. The Clippers have also since become used to Chris Paul’s return here after since playing for the Houston Rockets (2018-19), Oklahoma City Thunder (2019-20) and Phoenix Suns (2020-23). Yet, this game provides a new wrinkle with the Warriors and Paul forming an alliance.
For different reasons, the Warriors had their own issues last season with health and team chemistry. This game will give an early gauge on if a presumably healthy Clippers team is superior than a Warriors team still banking on their aging albeit proven championship-contending core.