Most teams that finish in the top six (5th overall) in a tough Western Conference, having dealt with injuries and changes to their roster by the trade deadline, would look at their regular season as a success, but it was another disappointing ending to the 2022-23 season for the Los Angeles Clippers. They fell short of their expectations of playing into late June after being bounced early in the first round. Head coach Ty Lue had his team finish six games above .500 (44-38) despite two of his best players only playing in 38 games together, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Yet another season coach Ty Lue led the Clipper team has fallen short in the playoffs without having one or both of his stars available and healthy. This would be frustrating for any coach, organization, and fanbase.
Here are three key players (not named Leonard or George) for LA heading into the season:
1. Russell Westbrook
The LA native decided to re-sign for a two-year $7.8 million this past summer after they were able to acquire him last season once he hit the open market after he was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers. A former MVP (2017) and member of the NBA’s 75th-anniversary team will now get a full training camp under coach Ty Lue as well as with his teammates heading into the season. He was thrown right into the starting lineup last season, where he averaged 15.8/ppg and 7.6/ast in 21 regular season games.
His value was shown the most for this team in that first-round playoff series loss to the Phoenix Suns in five games. The stats were there as he averaged 23.6/ppg, 7.6/reb, and 7.4/ast and was the catalyst on the defensive end in their lone Game 1 win (115-110) as he defended Suns superstar Kevin Durant making things consistently difficult for him. Coach Lue said after that game, “that his scoring wasn’t that important and you bring us way more than scoring the basketball (when asked about Westbrook’s tough shooting night),” and he showed that throughout that series.
With the health of Leonard and George always in question, Westbrook’s ability to affect the game in different ways will be key for this team this season. His availability will be just as important because he is not usually one to sit out for “rest.”
2. Ivica Zubac
The 7-foot big man was an integral piece to this team last season and has gotten better in each of his five seasons with this organization. He’s increased his scoring each of the past three seasons and has been huge defensively, and that has allowed coach Lue to play four guys on the perimeter with big “Zu” anchoring the middle. He started all 76 games he played in and averaged his first career double-double with 10.8/ppg and 9.9/reb. He doesn’t get a ton of opportunities to do something with the ball around the basket, but when he has, he’s been very efficient, shooting 63.4% from the field.
An example was the huge game he had back in November against the Indiana Pacers when he had the best individual game of his career with 31 points, grabbed 29 rebounds, and had three blocks. That was only the third time those stats have been recorded in a single game, and the last time was done by Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in 1973-74. That’s not something that they expect consistently from him, but they know without a doubt what he’s capable of once given an opportunity.
3. Kenyon Martin Jr.
The 22-year-old highflyer was acquired by LA this summer for two 2nd round picks after playing his first three seasons in Houston. The 52nd pick out of IMG Academy (Florida) is second to none when it comes to explosiveness on the perimeter. He was a participant in the 2023 Dunk contest in Salt Lake City, he didn’t win it, but that should be an indication of his athleticism. He started 49 games for Houston last season and averaged 12.7/ppg.
Knowing the injury history of Leonard and George over the past several seasons, he will be counted on to be available after playing in all 82 games last season. Coach Ty Lue told the media before a regular season game last year that his team “has one of the oldest rosters in the league,” and the addition of Martin Jr. is supposed to help take care of that, but we’ll see what type of impact he will have moving forward especially now that he’s playing on a team with expectations.
The Western Conference has not gotten any easier as teams have retooled to make a push to contend for a spot in the top six. I don’t believe there are going to be any easy games for LA, especially against teams in their same conference.
It starts with the defending champion Denver Nuggets, who swept LA in four games last season and has the reigning Finals MVP and two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic. The Phoenix Suns added Bradley Beal, who averaged 22.1/ppg last season in his 11th season with Washington, to go with the dynamic pair they already have and who are the favorites by many to represent the West this season in the Finals. The team that caught everyone by surprise last year was the Sacramento Kings, led by two All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, which finished 3rd in the West. You have the cross-town rival Los Angeles Lakers led by arguably the greatest to ever lace them in LeBron James, who surprised everyone by getting to the Western Conference Finals last season, had the best off-season with all the different additions they made according to several around the league.
The Golden State Warriors added future Hall of Famer Chris Paul to a roster with two of the best shooters ever. The Dallas Mavericks didn’t make the playoffs, but now Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving (who resigned this summer) will get a full training camp together to see what that ultimately will look like. The Memphis Grizzlies will be missing their star in JA Morant for the first 25 games to start the season, but under coach Taylor Jenkins they have always found a way to be in contention.
This team has not been able to finish any of the past four seasons with Leonard and George both healthy, so what indication does anyone have that this upcoming season will be any different? Leonard has not played in more than 57 games in a Clipper uniform, and George has only played in 189 games out of 308 games in four years. They went 24-14 last season when the duo was on the court together, which gives this organization some optimism heading into this season. Relying on players the likes of Terrance Mann, Bones Hyland, Norman Powell, Nicolas Batum, and Marcus Morris Sr., amongst others, just won’t be enough to keep pace in a grind-it-out Western Conference.
But coach Ty Lue and prideful owner Steve Ballmer have been looking and waiting for the results. They will finally get their own arena to begin the 2024-25 season located in Inglewood, CA, that will be called the “Intuit Dome,” and this move allows them to get out of the shadows of the team that gets all the recognition in the Lakers (rightfully so). ESPN’s NBA analyst and former NBA champion Kendrick Perkins said on the NBA Today show during the summer, “This is the make or break season, if they don’t get to the Finals, the Clippers have to move on from both of them (Leonard & George).” If they don’t get there because they weren’t on the court to finish the season, I don’t think many people would disagree.
Both Leonard and George are eligible currently for extensions, and both have player options for next season, but no movement has been made regarding new contracts for either of them. Ballmer is desperate to win a championship for his organization, but if he can’t count on the two players he should be counting on to be available while he’s sitting courtside cheering like he normally does for home games, then no one should be surprised if this is a completely revamped roster when they open their new arena next season. Also, now with the players’ resting rules in effect that don’t allow teams to sit two-star players at a time, especially for nationally televised games that are deemed healthy enough to play, there will be something different this team hasn’t had to account for in recent years.
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