Before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George forced their way to the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2019 offseason, the team made a name for itself as a hard-nosed and gritty team that punched above its weight.
That Los Angeles team is best remembered for their tight first round series with the dominant Golden State Warriors that was held just a few months before Leonard and George joined them.
Golden State was playing what would become their last few games with Kevin Durant flanking Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, yet the Clippers still managed to push the series to a hard-fought six games. This was despite parading a “Big Three” of Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell and their rotation players having a combined total of zero NBA All-Star appearances.
Fast forward to today and the addition of Leonard and George has not been able to deliver the NBA title that seemed inevitable when they first came together. Their meltdown in the 2020 playoffs was mainly their fault, although injuries have held them back since then. Leonard’s partially torn ACL that he suffered in last year’s playoffs is expected to keep him sidelined this season while George has been out since December with an elbow injury and still has no definite timetable for his return.
With both of their superstars currently sidelined and no positive developments with regards to their return on the horizon, Los Angeles has had every opportunity and many valid excuses to tank. Instead, they have seized this opportunity to reintroduce their ballsy persona and storm the league with their spunky play.
Head coach Tyronn Lue, who won an NBA title in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and is now in his second season as the Clippers’ lead tactician, has cultivated a culture that brings out the best in each of his players. They have far less talent than even the cult favorite 2019 version of this team, but they have managed to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race.
They are currently eighth in the West with a 30-31 record which puts them 1.5 games ahead of their star-studded cross-town rival Los Angeles Lakers. More importantly, only 4.5 games separate them from the sixth-seed Denver Nuggets and a guaranteed postseason berth with 21 regular season games still left to play.
The beauty of Lue’s system is that it has allowed several players to thrive, with no one or two players burdened with single-handedly taking on the load that Leonard and George usually carry. This was on full display in their 142-111 drubbing of the overwhelmed Houston Rockets.
Most teams would typically give less than a full effort versus a rebuilding team like the Rockets, except these Clippers do not know how to take a night off. The collective hunger of this group of unproven and often undervalued players guarantees that this unit always gives it their all, much to the disdain of Houston.
The well-traveled veteran Marcus Morris led Los Angeles with 27 points on a night where seven different players scored in double digits for them. Morris has now scored at least 20 points in six of their last eight games. He is having his best stretch since the half season that he played for the New York Knicks in ‘19-’20 before being traded to the Clippers midway through that campaign.
Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, both of whom have been revelations this season in the extended playing time that they have been given, added 25 and 20 points, respectively.
Criticized for the four-year, $64 million rookie extension that he signed in 2020, Kennard has proved his worth this season as a knockdown three-point shooter and reliable secondary playmaker on their reserve unit. While his statistical contributions may not jump off the page, he profiles as a perfect complementary player to Leonard and George and he should get his due once he starts slotting in alongside them when they eventually return.
The 6’5 Mann has also come on strong recently following newly-acquired Norman Powell’s foot fracture. Mann has scored at least 20 points in three of their last four games and has tallied at least 13 in five of their last six outings.
That one bad game of Mann that spoiled what could have been a streak also doubled as a reminder of the limitations of this team. Their swagger can only take them so far and it was evident in their 103-96 loss to the league-leading Phoenix Suns in the game prior to their Houston victory.
Without Leonard and George in tow, this is the best that can be expected from this Los Angeles team. At a certain point, talent wins out over effort, especially when the games begin to matter.
However, the real fruits that this season will bear may only be realized in the next few years. Anything more than a first round appearance is an unfair ask from this team, especially if George does not come back, but what they have brewing right now is an elite supporting cast that is ideal for their two lead players.
Morris, Kennard, Powell, and Reggie Jackson are all dependable tertiary options on offense who figure to thrive further once defenses start focusing on Leonard and George once again. On the other side of the ball, Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein, Robert Covington, and Nicolas Batum remain steady contributors for them and should continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Moreso, the 7’0 pair of the 24-year-old Zubac and the 23-year-old Hartenstein can only continue to get better with time given the work ethic that they have displayed. These two promising big men have already had their fair share of big games this season and the progress that they have made is encouraging.
The wild card here is the third-year guard Mann and it will be a game-changer if he can continue to improve at the impressive rate that he has over his short career. His hustle, versatility, and tenacity are must-have qualities and he has the requisite on-court skills to match his intangibles. Mann could eventually tilt the odds on whether or not the healthy version of this team eventually wins an NBA championship.
Regardless of how this campaign ends, this has already been an unquestioned win for the long-term prospects of these Clippers. Lue’s fingerprints are all over the identity of this team and they have bought-in to his philosophies which bodes well for them moving forward.
All they need now is for Leonard and George to fully recover, but in the meantime, it is worth it to live in the moment and appreciate the passion and intensity that this team plays with during every single second of this season.