Clippers fall short of pre-season expectations

Published May 1, 2023, 8:00 PMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

The Clippers came into the season as West favorites but injuries to their superstars doomed their season once more.

I’ve never seen a team ride their reputation quite like the LA Clippers.

Back in 2019, when they pulled off the league-altering moves to acquire Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they immediately became title contenders, despite not even making a single conference finals appearance in franchise history.

It made sense though. Leonard was fresh from leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship and George was coming off an MVP year. They were two of the best wings in the league, able to affect games in multiple ways.

In their first season together, the two led the Clippers to the second-best record in the West and were a couple of wins away from making their first West Finals appearance. So, naturally, they were one of the title-favorites heading into the 2021 season.

The two finally broke their West Semis curse and pushed the Clippers into the conference finals. But a massive injury killed their title run when Leonard tore his ACL in the West Finals. Leonard missed the succeeding season and even though the Clippers overachieved, they still ended up missing the playoffs entirely, getting eliminated in the 2022 play-in tournament.

Coming into this season, many analysts predicted the Clippers to once again make it out of the West. I didn’t understand why.

Last I checked, the defending champs are still in the West. The Phoenix Suns, the team that eliminated the Clippers two years ago, are still in the same conference. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks, two teams with an MVP contender leading the way, they’re both still in the West.

So why the Clippers? All because Leonard was coming back from an injury? Because George was supposedly fully healthy again? Because Ty Lue coached a bunch of role players to the play-in last season?

Well, the Clippers rewarded the faith in their team by having one of their most disappointing seasons in the hashtag-213 era. 

They load managed George and Leonard once again and because of that got off to a slow start. They hovered in the play-in area of the West with their two stars in and out of the lineup. In January, the team finally ramped up the activity of their stars and they looked like they were finally ready to meet the preseason expectations of them.

George had his best stretch in January this year, putting up a 25-6-6 statline and assuming a bigger role creating for his teammates. Leonard got it going in February, averaging 27.7 points on 54.6 percent shooting. More importantly, he only missed one game and played more than 35 minutes a game during that stretch.

With the two playing like All-Stars, the Clippers rose to as high as fourth in the standings and were a couple of games away from being a top three team in the conference. But in true Clipper fashion, they just couldn’t keep their stars on the court.

George sprained his knee and missed the final nine games of the season. Even though he alluded to coming back on social media, he never got to suit up in the playoffs. Leonard also injured his knee in the first round. And while he admirably tried to play though the pain, the injury proved to be too severe and was shut down midway through this year’s playoff run.

The Clippers had to rely heavily on their waiver pick-up Russell Westbrook to lead the way. Against the Suns who had two nuclear scoring devices in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the undermanned Clippers just couldn’t keep up, getting the boot in the first round.

During the time Leonard and George have teamed up, the Clippers have been tagged as contenders in three out of the four years. In that same span all they have to show is one West Finals appearance and a combined 304 games played for the team. 

Maybe it’s bad timing. Maybe it’s just rough injury luck. Maybe it’s ownership protecting the long-term future of the team. Or maybe the Clippers just aren’t as good as they’re made out to be.

George’s numbers as a Clipper have never reached the same level as his final year with the OKC Thunder. Leonard’s production still pales in comparison to his first year with the Clippers. The supposed two-way threats are now bleeding points. George is giving up 113.3 points per 100 possessions. Leonard isn’t far behind at 113. Both those numbers are the highest of their careers.

The performance of the team has also slipped. After being a top four defense in 2021, they’re now a middle-of-the-road defensive team, ranking 12th in Defensive Rating. They’re giving up 113 points per 100 possessions this season, five points more than last season when they played without Leonard.

By all metrics, the Clippers are a mid team. They haven’t shown anything in the past four years besides their load management skills and the failure to make adjustments in the playoffs. But because they have brand name stars, a champion coach, and an active winning streak against the Lakers, I fully expect them to be favored to win the championship coming into next season.