While it might not yet be obvious to most, the Los Angeles Clippers’ window of opportunity to win a championship with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is slowly beginning to close.
The pair of NBA All-Stars arrived almost four years ago in a stunning sequence of transactions during the heart of the 2019 offseason. Back then, the two were considered among the best wing players in the league and it seemed like they were destined for success.
Unfortunately, things have not gone in their favor since.
Their first campaign ended with an embarrassing seven-game loss to the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals held at the NBA Bubble. What made their early exit even more frustrating was that the championship, which was eventually won by their crosstown rival Los Angeles Lakers, was highly winnable for the Clippers if their roster played up to its talent.
The following season, Los Angeles actually made it a round further. They qualified for the Western Conference Finals, but were without Leonard who tore his ACL in the prior round. The Clippers wound up losing to the Phoenix Suns in six games and the loss was especially devastating as the race to the title was wide open that year.
Leonard’s injury forced him to sit out all of last season and Los Angeles’ short-handed roster bowed out prematurely after losing two consecutive games in the play-in tournament. Once again, there was no clear frontrunner to win the championship and the Golden State Warriors surprisingly came out on top as they peaked at the right moment. A healthy Clippers team would have conceivably been a title contender, albeit luck was not on their side for the nth time.
This season, Los Angeles has been stuck in the middle of the pack in the West. It has taken Leonard some time to get back up to speed in the wake of his year off and George has already missed 17 out of their 68 games with various ailments as well.
The Clippers are currently in sixth place in the Western Conference with a 35-33 record, but their spot is far from secure. Los Angeles is only two losses ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, and Utah Jazz who are in a three-way tie for 11th place which has them on the outside looking in of the play-in tournament.
Although the Denver Nuggets have run away with the top seed in the West while the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics have set themselves apart as the cream of the Eastern Conference, the consensus around the league is that it is still too early to name a favorite in this year’s championship battle.
Los Angeles is clearly aware of this, as evidenced by last month’s gutsy acquisition of 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook from the buyout market. Though Westbrook is a polarizing player whose impact on winning has been questioned in recent years, this is the type of gamble that their front office has to make if they are to maximize their odds this season.
By the beginning of next season, Leonard and George will already be 32 and 33 years old, respectively. Neither of them have been close to durable over the course of their NBA careers and it is reasonable to expect that this will not get better as they progress towards their mid-30s.
Their recent results suggest that this team is beginning to piece things together. After losing each of their first five games with Westbrook, the Clippers have bounced back with two consecutive wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. They are currently two games into a stretch where they will play nine of 10 games at home which provides them an ideal situation to gather some momentum.
This looming stretch run will be crucial for this Los Angeles team, not just for the purposes of this season, but for the coming years as well. Their stars are now part of the old guard and they will have to contend with a handful of promising teams in the West. This group will have to maximize the opening that they have right now before their rivals mature into perennial contenders.
On top of this list are the Nuggets who have a relatively young roster that could realistically dominate the league for many years to come once they gain enough cohesion and confidence.
Moreover, the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings are two up-and-coming forces in the West who will only get better with time. The star-studded Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks will also pose a challenge, especially once their recently acquired franchise players acclimate themselves to their new homes.
The time to strike is now for Los Angeles and they might not ever get a better chance to win the title than this season with this aging group. Leonard (and to some extent George) has always been up for the challenge, though he will have to remain on the court to finally make this team’s dreams a reality.