The LA Clippers face an extended period of trying to keep their head above water.
Sitting fifth in the Western Conference with a 17-16 record, the Clippers are just 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers in 11th.
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Given the log jam in the standings, the Clippers were already without Kawhi Leonard and now face the coming weeks without Paul George in the lineup.
Let’s take a look at how we got here and what’s next for Ty Lue’s squad.
Leonard’s return is unsurprisingly a mystery.
Suffering a partially torn ACL during the 2021 NBA Playoffs, there has been little news about a possible return time for Leonard, with history suggesting there will be no rush to get back out on the floor.
Undergoing surgery to repair the ligament on July 13, Leonard is in a race against time, with the usual 9-12 month recovery window for an ACL tear leaving him little time to return before the postseason gets underway. The April 16 start date arrives just over the 10-month mark since surgery.
As for George, it was revealed on Christmas Day that he would be sidelined with an elbow injury and re-evaluated in three-to-four weeks.
Averaging 24.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists on the season, George has been the key driver of the Clippers remaining in the playoff picture.
After a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 26, the Clippers now face a stretch of nine games where they will face expected playoff teams in Brooklyn twice, Boston, Phoenix, Memphis, Atlanta and Denver.
Who will step up in Paul George’s absence?
Against Denver, it was Luke Kennard who moved into the starting lineup.
Kennard is averaging 11.6 points and 3.5 rebounds on the season while connecting on 44.3 percent of his attempts from long range. The 25-year-old signed a long-term contract with the franchise prior to the 2020-21 season before finding himself in and out of the rotation last year. He has seen his minutes per game bump up from 19.6 to 28.6 so far this campaign.
Kennard finished the loss to Denver with eight points on 3-for-10 shooting in just 17 minutes of court time.
LA will receive a welcome boost in the coming days, with Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris hoping to be removed from the league’s health and safety protocols.
Jackson, in particular, will be expected to pick up some of the offensive slack with PG out of the lineup, with the point guard yet to find the form that saw him take center stage in many big moments during the Clippers’ postseason run last year.
After averaging 17.8 points on 48/40/87 shooting splits during the playoffs, Jackson has managed 17.2 points on dwindling percentages of 39/32/80 in 31 regular season appearances thus far in 2021-22.
It’s the defensive end that presents intrigue, however, with the Clippers currently fourth in defensive efficiency league-wide with a defensive rating of 105.3.
Hanging in there without PG (via NBA.com)
Impressively, the Clippers have been able to survive in the non-George minutes, with the team only 1.3 points per 100 possessions worse without the All-Star wing in 2021-22, remarkably giving up fewer points without George in the 655 minutes he’s been off the floor.
Softening the blow could be George’s absence coming in the midst of the league being heavily impacted by COVID, with almost every team in the league missing a raft of stars. With Ivica Zubac manning the paint and Eric Bledsoe a steady option at point guard, the Clippers should still be able to remain competitive on that end of the floor. Morris and veteran Nic Batum provide versatility on the wing, even if they not the dynamic defensive force that George can be at this point in their respective careers.
The next few weeks are sure to present a challenge for the Clippers, but with a no team looking to make a move in the middle pack, .500 basketball is an attainable goal that should leave the Clippers in the postseason mix if George can make a healthy return in a months time.
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