The Los Angeles Clippers will begin their season without too much of the spotlight for the first time in the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era. After four years of hype and disappointment, it seems the general NBA viewing public (and the league’s media rights-holders) has made the collective decision to believe it when we see it with this Clippers team.
It’s hard to blame anyone for that, as they have made one Western Conference Finals in those four years with Kawhi and PG, and weren’t at full strength by the time they got there. Given we have literally never seen them end a year with both Leonard and George on the floor, it’s almost impossible to project that to happen. On the other hand, it’s also hard to blame anyone for wanting to buy in on this team given the talent assembled. They have questions at point guard behind Russell Westbrook and center behind Ivica Zubac, but all that wing talent is hard to ignore. When healthy last year, both Leonard and George looked like the best versions of themselves, and Leonard’s performances in Games 1 and 2 of the playoffs were unbelievable. However, those moments of brilliance have unfortunately been fleeting in L.A., and with player options to be decided on this summer from both stars, how this season goes figures to be critically important for the Clippers future.
Biggest Question: Will We Finally Get Close To A Full Season Of Kawhi Leonard And Paul George?
We have avoided the health question with most teams, because any injury to a top star at the wrong time will end a team’s chance of winning a title. However, in L.A. we’re entering our fifth year of the Kawhi and PG era and have never seen the two play more than 108 combined games. The good news is, the two are entering the season at full strength (with the understanding that full strength has a different meaning with two stars with their injury histories) and there is once again a bit of optimism that maybe this can be the year they can get to the postseason and have both available for a full playoff run.
That really is where everything starts for this team. That said, they also have to get to the playoffs, which isn’t a simple proposition now with the Play-In Tournament. Last year, they earned the 5-seed out West with Kawhi Leonard looking better than he ever has since arriving in L.A., but had his postseason cut short by another knee injury in the first round. Paul George was similarly sensational in his 56 appearances, but likewise missed the postseason with an ill-timed knee sprain at the end of the year. When those two are on the floor together, the Clippers play like a contender in the West. When they aren’t, the Clippers are a competitive but ultimately overmatched team. It really is about that simple. Before this experiment ends, it’d be nice to get one year where we see what they could do at full strength in the playoffs, but that’s a long way off.
X-Factor: Terance Mann
The Clippers have refused to include Mann in James Harden trade talks to this point, which is apparently one of the larger sticking points in negotiations. They’ve also elevated Mann into the starting lineup alongside Westbrook, George, Leonard, and Zubac, showcasing the faith they have in their fifth-year wing. There have been flashes of it all clicking for Mann in the past, but to this point the consistent impact on a game-to-game basis hasn’t been there. However, you can also point to an inconsistent role (a rather constant issue for the non-stars on this Clippers team) as a reason for Mann’s relative inconsistency.
If he’s given a long leash in this starting spot and given the time to establish himself in this new role, we should learn an awful lot about what he can be as a player. A year ago he averaged 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 51.9/38.9/78.0 shooting splits in 23 minutes per game, but should see his minutes load increase this season. He should get plenty of open looks from three given the attention paid to his co-stars, but that also brings pressure to be a solid (and willing) floor-spacing option. His versatility on defense likewise makes a lot of sense with this starting unit, which has a ton of length and could wreak havoc on teams without multiple strong ball-handling options.
Mann has always seemed like the Clippers best bet at having a young player pop on a roster otherwise filled with veterans, and it seems like this year they are finally going to take the governor off and give him the larger role many have wanted him to have. How long that lasts is likely dependent on how effective that starting group is early in the season, but it’s at least an opportunity for Mann to put his full abilities on display.