Five biggest questions surrounding the Clippers entering the 2018-19 NBA season:
Can the Clippers stay healthy?
Injuries crippled the team last season to the point that G-League players were occasionally flown in the morning of their NBA call-ups for games they started hours later. Coach Doc Rivers used a league-high 37 different starting lineups. That’s no way to establish consistency in a league where success depends on it, so it’s understandable that health is the caveat in any discussion regarding the Clippers’ ceiling.
“Health plays a big part in anything,” guard Patrick Beverley said, “and the healthiest team usually wins.”
Beverley (knee), Avery Bradley (abdominal muscles) and Danilo Gallinari (hand, glute) were key additions last season whose impact never materialized because they couldn’t stay on the floor. Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder) missed critical games in the playoffs with Houston before signing with the Clippers in free agency. Those pillars are mostly healthy now and their presence gives the Clippers one of the league’s deepest rosters for the moment. How long Rivers will have a full rotation at his disposal remains the overarching question of the season.
Despite their rash of injuries last season the Clippers weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until Game 80 of 82. Stay healthy, the thinking goes, and they have an outside shot in the ultra-difficult Western Conference at pushing for a return to the postseason for the first time in two years.
A playoff berth would also cost the franchise, however. The team’s first-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft is top-14 protected, which allows the Clippers to keep it should they pick in the lottery. The pick belongs to Boston if not.
Will the Clippers add an All-Star before 2019 free agency?
Los Angeles was among a short list of preferred destinations for All-Star guard Jimmy Butler after he demanded a trade from Minnesota in September, but despite all the early discussions about the Clippers as a perfect suitor, there has been no traction in trade talks between the sides through the preseason. The question is whether the risk of giving up a potential future All-Star, such as forward Tobias Harris or rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is worth adding a star in his prime such as Butler, who could earn a maximum contract next summer and take up a big chunk of the team’s cap space well into his 30s.
Gilgeous-Alexander, in particular, is viewed as a potential star not only by the Clippers. He was voted the steal of the draft in a survey of NBA general managers and his ability to adjust on the fly during games has impressed.
“I remember a guy named Jordan was pretty smart, LeBron was pretty smart, Rivers not so smart,” Rivers said. “Those are things we didn’t know about Shai and he’s teaching us that he’s a lot smarter than we knew.”
How will they fare against a difficult early schedule?
Twelve of the Clippers’ 14 games to open the season are against opponents that made the playoffs last season and expect to return in 2019. That includes two games against Houston, last year’s top seed in the West, and one against reigning champion Golden State. Consider, too, that on opening night they face the Denver Nuggets, who missed last season’s playoffs despite a winning record and are a trendy pick to be a contender in the West this year.
Look no further than that opening stretch for a litmus test of the Clippers’ potential.
Who will the Clippers turn to for scoring in the clutch?
The Clippers’ defensive ambitions, built around a potential lineup of excellent stoppers including Beverley, Bradley and Mbah a Moute, have been no secret during the preseason.
“We want to be the best defensive team in the league,” Mbah a Moute said.
If their defense has the potential to keep them in every game, the Clippers’ scoring in crunch time remains an unknown. Finding the team’s offensive “closers” has been a priority for Rivers in the preseason and he has three obvious candidates in Harris, Gallinari and Lou Williams, the NBA’s reigning sixth man of the year. Beyond them, though, are few obvious answers.