Clippers season preview: Can deep, talented team reach its ceiling?

Every conversation about the talent-rich Clippers ends, not with an exclamation point, but a question mark. Can they stay healthy?

The response is often punctuated with a definite ‘let’s see.’

Let’s see if the Clippers, whom many have tabbed as early favorites to contend for the NBA title this season, can avoid a similar fate when they reached the 2021 Western Conference semifinals only to see All-Star Kawhi Leonard crumple to the court with a torn ACL.

Let’s see if they can steer clear of the kind of defining injury that derailed the team’s playoff hopes last season when forward Paul George injured his right elbow. It was a pivotal moment, although the Clippers held it together to finish as the eighth seed (42-40) before losing two play-in games.

Let’s see if veteran point guard John Wall can regain the skills that made him a five-time All-Star after sitting out last season. And how well will he connect with Leonard and PG?

Let’s see if a ridiculously talent-ladened bench is a blessing or a hindrance to their championship dreams. The Clippers are deep at the two, three and four spots, which gives them versatility and will help protect against injuries, but will everyone be happy sharing the minutes?

Coach Tyronn Lue said the answers will shake out once the season starts on Thursday night against the Lakers. Robert Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Leonard and George are expected to start with the only remaining question mark at point guard, where Reggie Jackson and Wall have been battling it out during the preseason.

Sacrifice, Lue said, will be key.

“I think when you have great players and a lot of good players you’ve got to call their numbers,” Lue said. “If you don’t call Luke’s (Kennard) number or Norm’s (Powell) number, Kawhi, PG, Marcus, then sometimes guys can get left out. That’s my job is just to make sure that I’m calling guys’ numbers at the right time and making sure everyone’s involved in the game.”

Powell said the chemistry is going to work itself out as the season progresses because they get along on and off the court.

“On the court, everybody is coachable and talking to one another when they see things unfolding as the game goes along. But it has to be everybody’s approach day in and day out that is going to put us over the hump.”

“That’s the tough part when you’ve got a lot of really good players who can score the basketball.”

Leonard, who was sidelined for 15 months, played sparingly in two of the Clippers’ four preseason games, but the two-time NBA Finals MVP looked much his old self, making clutch shots and playing solid defense. Yet, no matter how healthy and strong Leonard is, Lue plans to rely on a deeper rotation to keep Leonard healthy, especially on back-to-back nights.

George, too, looked like one of the best two-way wings in the league during the preseason. His ability to defend and make shots from anywhere on the floor will complete the 1-2 punch that is needed to compete for a championship.

Entering their fourth year with the Clippers, Leonard and George have yet to fully show what they can do together over an entire season, considering COVID-19 forced the NBA into an extended pause in 2020 before play resumed in the Orlando bubble.

Wall was the biggest acquisition of the offseason, and he gives the Clippers a dynamic scoring threat in transition. His presence also takes the load off Jackson, who had to shoulder much of the burden when the Clippers were without Leonard and George last season. Deciding on who plays at the point, and when, will depend on “feel” Lue said.

“I know what Reggie can do, Lue said, “so you just have to play the game the right way, be locked in. It’s not a personal thing. It’s a team thing. My job is to make sure I get a good look at everyone and what they can do offensively and defensively.”

Left with just one experienced 7-footer on the roster (Zubac) after Isaiah Hartenstein departed, Lue will be looking to go small in many situations. In that case, look for Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington or Morris Sr. at center. Covington averaged 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots last season off the bench.

“All the different positions are interchangeable,” Lue said. “Right now, a lot of teams are playing position-less basketball. You just have to go with our best five guys offensively, or your best five guys defensively.”

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Lue can’t forget Terance Mann and Luke Kennard, who give the Clippers additional outside scoring options.

“All those guys are able to shoot the ball and make plays,” Lue said. “We have a lot of different combinations that we are going to throw out there and look at and got to continue to keep building because right now the backup five position, we are playing small. So just trying to figure out those right combinations.”

True to his positive personality, Jackson isn’t dwelling on the what-ifs heading into the season. He said the Clippers just need to be opportunistic.

“Getting star players back, we added another great player in John, who’s been a star in this league. Norm is getting healthy and getting acclimated with everybody,” Jackson said of the reasons to be upbeat.

“I find myself being in a situation of a lot of sacrifice, but benefitting from a lot of talent that we have back, so it’s going to be fun. I don’t have to go play against the best defender anymore. … I’m definitely looking forward to that.”

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