The LA Clippers enter the 2022-23 season — Year 4 of the Kawhi Leonard–Paul George era — with enormous expectations. They have a superstar two-way duo. They have perhaps the deepest roster in the league. They are loaded with veteran experience and interchangeable players at almost every position. And they have a master tactician in coach Tyronn Lue to make it all work.
But the most important thing when it comes to the Clippers is that they are healthy, something they hope lasts through June.
“Very excited for what’s to come this year,” George said. “Since I’ve been here, I think we have yet to put a full healthy season with everybody in uniform. A lot of optimism there of what we can accomplish when we’re all full strength.
“I think this year is definitely a great opportunity to win — and win big. And I think everybody feels and senses that.”
There’s a reason why owner Steve Ballmer, who has been known to rip his shirt while cheering for less talented Clippers teams, is ready to explode this season. The Clippers currently have the second-shortest odds to win the West, behind the defending champion Golden State Warriors, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the Clippers entering this all-important season:
1. Can Kawhi Leonard regain his dominant form?
It’s been a long time since Leonard played in a meaningful game. When he tore his right ACL in Game 4 of the second-round series against the Utah Jazz on June 14, 2021, Leonard was playing his most dominant basketball as a Clipper — averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.1 steals and shooting 57.3% from the field in the playoffs.
With a full season off to recover, Leonard visibly bulked up after spending 14 months in the gym.
“He looks sharp, explosive and quick,” George told ESPN. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger. It’s scary — he’s put more muscle on. He’s a scary matchup.”
The Clippers will be extremely vigilant, though, with Leonard’s health and minutes. LA’s schedule is front-loaded, as the Clippers will play 61 games before the All-Star break. They have 11 of their 15 back-to-backs before the month of February, so it is certainly possible that Leonard might not play complete back-to-backs early on.
Coming back from a torn ACL is difficult, especially for a player such as Leonard, who plays with such strength and power. But he knows what it is like to come off a major leg injury that required time off and win a championship. In 2018-19, Leonard returned and led Toronto to the title after playing in just nine games the season before because of a quadriceps injury with the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard played in 60 games in the regular season during his lone season in Toronto before leading the Raptors to the championship.
“I don’t play 5-on-5 in the summer,” Leonard said Monday after having 11 points and four rebounds in 16 first-half minutes in his preseason return against Portland. “I don’t play pickup basketball, I don’t play 2-on-2. Never have. Probably not going to. So everything seemed normal to me [in his return].
“Last time I was out with a knee injury, I didn’t play pickup. My first time playing [5-on-5] was against my teammates in 2018-19.”
The Clippers and Leonard’s goal is to get him to the postseason healthy and back to form by April. And then the two-time Finals MVP can do what he does best in the playoffs.
2. Is this the year that Leonard and Paul George finally deliver what they went to L.A. for?
While this is their fourth season together, Leonard and George have played only 104 regular-season and postseason games together — going 72-32 — because of health.
On top of that, they haven’t played together in a game since June 14, 2021. It’s going to take some time for the two to get back on the same page again, but they have been trying to stay connected.
George helped organize two offseason minicamp-like outings in San Diego and Santa Barbara and even paid the expenses for some of his younger teammates. Last season, when Leonard didn’t play and George was out for three months with an elbow injury, the two traveled with the team at times and would analyze together what the Clippers were doing.
When Leonard went down in the playoffs in 2021, George elevated his game and carried the Clippers, taking them to their first-ever Western Conference finals. He continued to play high-level basketball until he injured his shooting elbow last December. George averaged 24.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 31 games last season but caught COVID-19 and missed the team’s second and final play-in game.
George might have to shoulder the load for the team early on as Leonard ramps back up. But once Leonard is back to form, the two will share the burden of taking the franchise to a place it has never been. This was the goal when the two decided to return to their Southern California roots and team up as Clippers.
They just didn’t imagine their first three seasons would be interrupted by a pandemic and injuries.
“I think both of us kind of internally had a promise,” George said. “I know I did for myself, to bring a championship here. Then when you look at how close we were two years back, the year Kawhi got hurt, how close we were, I didn’t want to leave anything on the table that I could have done more.”
That is why George felt this offseason was so important and says he was more “focused” than ever before to work on his game, his body and camaraderie with his teammates. George is hoping it will help him and Leonard get to where they were planning to go when they decided to join forces in the summer of 2019.
3. Can John Wall be the final piece for the Clippers?
While Reggie Jackson has stepped up and provided scoring and some clutch shooting, the Clippers have needed a true passing point guard who can facilitate and help get Leonard and George easier shots when defenses are clamping down. Wall gives them the most decorated and talented point guard they’ve had since Chris Paul.
The five-time All-Star averages 9.1 assists for his career. But Wall comes in after not playing last season as the Houston Rockets opted to rebuild. He has played a total of 40 games in the past three seasons and had surgeries on a heel and Achilles in 2019.
While the Clippers say Wall has looked terrific in workouts all offseason, the veteran still has to show if he has the elite speed that once made him the fastest point guard in the game. There weren’t really opportunities for Wall to run in his preseason debut on Monday, but he had five points and three assists, flashing his ability to create easy opportunities for his big man and putting pressure on defenses at the rim.
“I could have shown off [the speed] in the halfcourt,” Wall said. “But I was just trying to run the sets and get used to being in the moment with certain guys but just trying to push the pace and keep the pace as much as possible.
“It will all come to me, it’s all easy, like I know I still got the stuff I need, but now I think for us it’s just trying to figure out different lineups.”
Wall is competing with Jackson for the only spot up for grabs in the starting lineup. He will start the Clippers’ next preseason game on Sunday. While Jackson could ultimately keep the starting job, Lue hopes Wall will increase the team’s tempo after it ranked 19th in pace of play last season.
The Clippers expect Wall to give them another player who can switch defensively on multiple positions and get teammates open shots. According to Second Spectrum data, the Clippers ranked first in the league the past two seasons on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, something that might get better with Wall’s passing.
Lue says he thinks Wall will bring a key intangible as well.
“The players don’t want to hear from the coach all the time,” Lue said of leading the team. “John, he’s a vocal leader. He talks and he engages a lot of guys.”
“… I just think when he came into our locker room, it was instant respect,” Lue added of why Wall can become a leader for the Clippers. “Guys respect him for what he’s done and how he plays. That was pretty easy for him.”
4. How will Ty Lue manage the deepest team in the NBA?
It’s a good bet that Lue spent several late nights this offseason concocting different lineups to employ the deepest roster in the NBA.
He has long envisioned a lineup of five interchangeable wings who can score, switch and defend any position. Lue now has the players to do that in theory. With the likes of Leonard, George, Marcus Morris Sr., Nic Batum and Robert Covington, Lue could potentially throw a lineup of all 6-foot-7 and taller wings on the floor.
“We can switch everything,” George said. “That’s the beauty and the scary part about our team now. We can switch everything and still not give up a basket.”
George added: “It’s going to cause some coaches — it really might transcend the league to where the game might go to five-out wings on the floor. We could be that kind of team that teams try to emulate because of the success, hopefully, we have doing it.”
Lue said he plans to start George, Leonard, Morris and Ivica Zubac and then decide between Jackson and Wall at point guard. But he tinkered in the team’s second preseason game with several of his main players on the floor, even using a lineup that included Wall and Jackson in the backcourt together. Lue says the versatile two-way Norman Powell could play some backup point guard, while George could also see ballhandling duties in certain lineups.
The difficult part of having such a loaded roster that could go 11 deep is that veterans used to playing bigger roles might not play as much.
But the Clippers have several players on manageable and attractive contracts and could be in position to pounce if any attractive players become available at a trade deadline that could be very active with several teams potentially jockeying to land projected No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama in the draft.
5. Will the Clippers develop championship chemistry?
The Clippers have the stars, coach, veteran experience and unmatched depth. So their title hopes very likely could come down to the intangibles.
Health is obviously the most important thing, leading with Leonard, George and Wall. But tied into that will be the team’s chemistry.
How will the Clippers’ chemistry be impacted if they have to monitor Leonard’s and Wall’s minutes to make sure both are at their peak for the postseason? Will the Clippers have enough time with all their players on the floor together entering the playoffs so that they are not still learning one another and meshing at the most important time of the season?
Powell and Covington will be in their first full season with the Clippers after moving over in a trade last season. And Wall has to learn his new teammates while trying to bounce back from his long layoff.
That is why George and Leonard got guys together in the offseason and why Lue held the team’s training camp in Las Vegas and Seattle. There has been ample time for the team to bond, which the Clippers hope will pay off in April, May and possibly June.
Source : Sky.com