The way that the Los Angeles Clippers started this season was far from ideal, but that now feels like it was ages ago after the strong December that they just had.
Following the acquisition of 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden last November 1, the Clippers suffered a six-game losing streak which pushed them down the Western Conference standings to 12th place. Los Angeles held a 3-7 win-loss record at that point and Harden proved to be an easy scapegoat for their struggles.
Once the Clippers eventually won a game with Harden though, it was as if a major burden was lifted off their back. They proceeded to win five of their next seven games to wrap up November and this momentum carried over to December where they went 11-3 over the month.
At one point in time during this stretch, they were the hottest team in the league as they rattled off nine consecutive wins. This run included landmark victories against the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets, the Sacramento Kings, and the Dallas Mavericks.
Los Angeles has now rallied up the standings where they are now in fourth place in the West behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Nuggets. Harden, despite putting up his lowest scoring average (17.7) since 2012 when he was still a reserve for the Thunder, has been a major reason for this turnaround. He has given the Clippers the playmaker that they have long sought after and the team’s form over the past month is early proof that their decision to trade for him was the right one.
With the variable that is Harden now sorted out, the biggest question mark–and obstacle–for this team has once again gone back to their collective health. If this team can stay healthy, there is no doubt that they are legitimate title contenders. However, this is a major “If” and there are already some reasons for concern surrounding Kawhi Leonard who is both their best player and biggest health risk.
Leonard has played his usual brand of elite basketball this season and he surprisingly suited up for each one of Los Angeles’ first 27 games. Unfortunately, a hip contusion snapped his streak and has prevented him from playing in their last four outings. While Leonard’s injury is considered day-to-day, his checkered history of ailments gives the Clippers and their supporters more than enough reason to be uneasy with the uncertainty of this current situation.
There is still a long way to go before the postseason and now that Los Angeles has resuscitated their campaign, it would not come as a surprise if they took it easy with regards to Leonard. They have enough firepower to survive occasional absences from him during the regular season and it may also serve them well if they took a similar approach with their other superstar Paul George.
This may ultimately be the make-or-break season for this edition of the Clippers given how expensive it is to keep this team together. The five-year anniversary of this Leonard-George pairing is fast approaching and it would not come as a surprise if their ownership group hits the reset button this offseason if they do not win the title. The early signs are quite encouraging though and if they are lucky enough to remain healthy come the playoffs, this could very well be the year that they finally get over the hump.