Five storylines to watch in Clippers’ final seven weeks before playoffs
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue couldn’t wait to leave for Las Vegas following his team’s final game before the NBA’s all-star break, throwing a Louis Vuitton backpack over a shoulder and hustling out of Crypto.com Arena quickly last Thursday. Relaxation, after a long and obstacle-filled schedule, awaited.
Now it’s time to see how fast Lue and the Clippers (30-31), eighth in the Western Conference, can close their regular season, one that could see the team go in any number of directions.
Five storylines to watch in their final seven weeks before the playoffs begin:
Can the three wings the Clippers plan to build around for the future still be part of their present?
Paul George, who hasn’t played since Dec. 22 because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, will undergo an MRI on Friday, a person with knowledge of the scheduling said, though the MRI isn’t the “the ultimate decision-maker in what happens,” with gauging the potential for George’s return, team president Lawrence Frank cautioned earlier this month.
But there is of course hope George can play again and help in the postseason push. The team is also “hopeful” guard Norman Powell, who is still in a walking boot after a fracture in his left foot only three games after joining the Clippers, can still play this season, Lue has said. And Kawhi Leonard? Though it was Lue on Feb. 4 who said Leonard is “probably not going to come back” this season, no one has definitely closed that figurative door to a return, with Frank saying later in the month that “no one knows” about Leonard’s timetable. No one knows in part because no one can predict how long the Clippers’ season will run, with a rout of Golden State and a near-victory in Phoenix last week signaling again that the Clippers could be a tough postseason out.
A return this season could very well be unlikely. But in September, the star said his long-term contract’s structure reflected his desire to play this season. To hear Leonard say it, that intent seems to remain clear — even if the actual execution and timing of a return is not. During the league’s all-star break Leonard was heard telling his fellow members of the NBA’s all-75-year-team that he is “feeling a lot better — trying to get back out there, man.”
The Clippers’ Luke Kennard tied for second Saturday in the NBA three-point shooting competition at All-Star weekend in his home state of Ohio.
Speaking of the postseason: Are the Clippers all but bound for the play-in round?
With 21 games to play, the Clippers sit in eighth place, 4 1/2 games behind Denver and the sixth seed, which would allow them to avoid the play-in by making the playoffs outright. Going the other direction in the standings, they are six games up on San Antonio and New Orleans, who are tied for 11th, the first spot to miss the play-in.
That’s quite a bit of ground to make up in a short time. Playing a league-record-tying 61 games before the all-star break naturally presents the Clippers fewer opportunities for victories in this final push (for context, Denver has played only 58 games), which makes their next four games against Houston and the Lakers — teams the Clippers are unbeaten against thus far — critical to not losing ground. Only five games remain against the seven teams currently ahead of them in the West standings. It’s one reason why one schedule-tracking site ranks their remaining strength of schedule the 18th-most difficult in the league.
One thing to note: The Clippers play on consecutive days four more times the rest of the season. They are just 3-7 on zero days of rest.
With relatively little time left in the season, are the Clippers standing pat with their roster?
The Clippers are continuing to look around for upgrades. Players must be waived by March 1 to be postseason eligible. But don’t expect them to add a player just for the sake of a new face as they continue the tricky attempt to thread the needle of looking for improvements for the current season while also focused on maximizing next year’s championship aspirations, too.
To use one much-discussed role as an example, what that looks like is weighing whether an available lead ballhandler is talented enough — or possesses some near-elite trait the team prioritizes — to warrant taking away some of that ballhandling responsibility from a player such as Terance Mann. (That thinking, which hasn’t changed much since the trade deadline two weeks ago, also applies to players such as Luke Kennard and Amir Coffey, too.) Mann’s ability to initiate early offense since the Feb. 10 trade deadline — and his team-leading plus 10.8 plus-minus rating since then — has been something the team has liked. Another factor to consider: Adding a point guard might be moot if the team believes George or Powell can return relatively quickly.
Goran Dragic has chosen Brooklyn as his buyout destination. Is there anyone near that level of a difference-maker who would entertain the Clippers as a landing spot? D.J. Augustin ranks in the 100th percentile in points scored per 100 shot attempts — but has also turned the ball over on one-fifth of his possessions, according to advanced stats site Cleaning The Glass. Is a gamble on former lottery pick Kris Dunn, who is currently learning by and large the Clippers’ offense with their G League affiliate, worth it?
Frank has said the lead ballhandler need not look like a point guard to man the job. And yet, it’s almost impossible to notice the way Lue has repeatedly highlighted the roster’s lack of a “traditional point guard” during interviews and not think he would like at least the option. Adding anyone would require waiving a player.
How effectively will Reggie Jackson handle a heavier workload?
Jackson wants to play any and all minutes available, Lue has said, and that’s not an exaggeration. Since recapturing his self-described love for basketball again late in 2020, Jackson hasn’t taken his opportunities for granted. It explains why he pleaded, to no avail, to try to play in his first game back from the league’s health and safety protocols in December. But is there a fear of wearing down the 31-year-old guard and potentially reducing his postseason effectiveness if his current workload continues as the team’s workhorse ballhandler?
Since backup guard Eric Bledsoe was traded, Jackson is playing 34 minutes per game, about four more than before the trade deadline, while shooting 25% on three-pointers and 40% overall. The promising part of that sample size, however, is that Jackson’s turnover rate has also declined despite playing more minutes.
Marcus Morris Sr. scored 27 points as the Clippers cruised to a 142-111 victory over the Houston Rockets on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena.
Can this version of the Clippers’ offense be sustained?
Asked what most stood out about the Clippers recently, one NBA scout pointed to an offense that has continued to find contributions despite dwindling options. Those minutes-long stretches without points that agonized the Clippers so often during the season’s first half? They’ve mostly gone away since the trade deadline. And while that sample size is only five games, it’s one in which they’ve scored 114.4 points per 100 possessions, seven points better than their season-long offensive rating that ranks 26th.
Kennard’s 70% shooting on three-point shooting in those five games has certainly helped. So has Nicolas Batum’s 52% three-point shooting, Marcus Morris Sr. and Mann each shooting 40% or better from deep, Robert Covington’s off-the-dribble creation that has admittedly surprised Lue and center Ivica Zubac averaging 12.4 points and 8.8 rebounds down low while shooting 65%. By being better on both ends, the Clippers have created separation by increasing their steals average by 1.5 per game and their assists by more than three per game.
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