The wheels came off for the Clippers in the NBA Bubble, but Los Angeles’ “other” team is still a legitimate title contender this season.
The Clippers entered the NBA Bubble as many people’s favorites to capture an NBA title. Instead, they crashed out of the Western Conference semifinals in an embarrassing fashion. Doc Rivers paid for that failure with his job and Tyronn Lue was hired to pick up the pieces in Los Angeles.
The good news for Lue is that he’s inheriting a roster with elite talent. Kawhi Leonard is still one of the league’s top players. Paul George can reasonably be expected to bounce back from his bubble nightmare. The supporting cast is also chocked full of high-quality role players.
Making those pieces fit will be Lue’s big challenge. Answering these five questions will go a long way towards determining just how this season will go for the Clippers.
1. From a pure talent perspective, are the Clippers better or worse than last year?
Effectively swapping Serge Ibaka for Montrezl Harrell is an upgrade at the center spot. That upgrade is arguably large enough to prove that the Clippers have upgraded their talent level this offseason all by itself.
The trade for Luke Kennard could prove even more beneficial. The Clippers need more creation on the perimeter to ease the offensive burden heaped on Leonard and George in the regular season. Lou Williams can do that, but his defensive issues become a real problem against high-level opponents. The idea is that Kennard can give the team 80% of Williams’ offensive production while giving them much more on the other end of the floor.
The only slight demerit for Los Angeles was losing JaMychal Green in free agency. They’ll miss his versatility in their frontcourt rotation. The Clippers’ front office deserves credit for upgrading their roster talent without a ton of resources this offseason.
2. From a fit and on-court chemistry perspective, are the Clippers better or worse than last year?
The Clippers’ front office did not make sweeping changes to fix the team’s chemistry issues from a season ago. Harrell was a part of the problematic old guard, but Williams and Patrick Beverley still remain. If they can’t get on the same page with Leonard, George, and the rest of the team’s new guard, they should be moved ahead of the trade deadline.
Add it all up and offloading Harrell for Ibaka should help smooth things over a bit. The Clippers didn’t do enough to fix their locker room, but it’s better than it was when last season ended.
3. Who is the Clippers’ third-most important player?
Most pundits would go with Ibaka here, but Beverley is the right answer. He’s not better than Ibaka in a vacuum, but his skill set is tailor-made for playing alongside Leonard and George.
The challenge for Beverley will be staying healthy for a full season. The Clippers desperately need his perimeter shooting to maintain offensive spacing. His ability to shut down point guards on the defensive end is crucial for their hopes of forging a top-tier defense.
If the Clippers are going to win the West, then Beverley needs to have a big, reliable season.
4. Why won’t they just blow another 3-1 lead this season?
The simple answer is that Paul George isn’t as bad as he played during the Bubble. His performance during the regular season was actually quite good. The Clippers would be happy to see him average 21.5 points per game and shoot over 41 percent from 3 again this year.
George wasn’t responsible for all of this team’s issues in the playoffs, but if he plays at an All-Star level it covers up a lot of the team’s supposed weaknesses. Getting him back on track is Lue’s most important task. It’s also the biggest reason why the Clippers should be able to avoid another postseason collapse.
5. What will we get from Ivica Zubac (responsibly) unleashed?
The arrival of Ibaka will permit Zubac to comfortably slot into the backup center role. That might disappoint some fans of the Croatian battering ram, but it’s likely where his NBA destiny lies. He still should get plenty of minutes since Los Angeles will want to keep Ibaka fresh for the playoffs. Expect to see him get touches with the second unit. Expecting him to be one of the league’s top 10 backup centers seems like a reasonable projection for Zubac.