On Wednesday morning The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that former Denver Nuggets power forward Paul Millsap would be signing with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2021-22 season. Before the announcement, as one of the few remaining proven assets in free agency and reportedly more interested in joining a title-contending team than adding to his $189 million in career earnings (32nd all-time), Millsap had garnered interest from several franchises, some of whom could offer him no more than the veteran’s minimum.
One of those interested parties was the Clippers, who are in the process of trying to fill the last of 15 standard roster spots and one remaining two-way slot. Millsap would have been a near ideal addition for Los Angeles: a reliable inside presence with an excellent locker room reputation, known for his defense and capacity to play inside and out — a fine fit for a team like the Clippers who like to spread the floor and experiment with small-ball lineups. But with Millsap now going to Brooklyn, the Clippers have to head back to the drawing board.
To be clear, Millsap is not a make-or-break kind of player at this point in his career. But his decision to forego L.A. for Brooklyn could be illustrative of a problem facing the Clippers when it comes to free agency and the buyout market:
No one quite knows what to expect from the Clippers this season without Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard, of course, is rehabbing a torn ACL after signing a new four-year $176 million contract with the Clippers last month. He could sit anywhere from 5-to-20 months, but the smart money tends to lean towards a year. Some around the league believe the Clippers will still be contenders without their All-NBA forward. Others, however, are far less optimistic, essentially seeing 2021-22 as a chance for L.A. to get their ducks in order for 2022-23.
While either viewpoint could be argued, there’s no denying that without Leonard any postseason journey will be made considerably more difficult, and that for title-hungry free agents like Millsap or DeMar DeRozan, who recently opted to forgo L.A. for Chicago, a Kawhi-less Clippers squad presents a less obvious situation for success than say the Nets or Lakers or Suns.
Despite Returning Vets, Questions Marks Abound
Yes, the Clippers were successful this summer in re-signing free agents Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka. But all of them are north of 30 and less than sure bets this season. Ibaka is coming off June back surgery, and both Jackson and Batum’s careers were considered dead before exceeding expectations with the Clippers, particularly during the playoffs when Jackson’s 58 3-pointers were second only to Kris Middleton’s 60, and Batum’s +135 led the Clippers by a wide margin. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Ibaka never fully returning to form and Batum and Jackson falling back to Earth this season.
In July, Fox’s Ric Bucher pondered the chances of Jackson, in particular, returning to his previous mediocrity, saying that some insiders believe the 10-year veteran “was on his best behavior this year because he was a pending free agent. Not because he’s no longer the sometimes erratic, high-strung personality he proved to be in Oklahoma City and Detroit.”
Third-year wing Terance Mann will also undoubtedly play a big role in the Clippers’ fortunes this season. Mann took considerable strides last year and is assured of major minutes with Leonard out. But while Mann’s defense and slasher’s production is a given, the fact that he averaged only 5.2 field goal attempts last season suggests expectations should be tempered until Mann shows he can handle the bigger workload. Shooting guard Luke Kennard will be in line for a bigger role, too, but he’ll need to produce more off the dribble to be a consistent difference-maker this season.
Question marks also hover above veteran additions Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow. At 32, Bledsoe still possesses extraordinary athleticism and could thrive as a penetrator in the Clippers’ spread offense. But last season’s downturn with the Pelicans in everything from shooting percentage and points to free throw percentage and assists could be a harbinger of things to come.
Winslow, meanwhile, is just 25 and has shown flashes of excellence when he’s not hurt — like averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 66 games with Miami just three years back. Only problem is, ever since then, Winslow’s been hurt more than a teenager’s feelings, playing just 37 games over the last two seasons, and there are no guarantees against further fragility.
And, of course, there’s Leonard’s superstar running mate Paul George. Last postseason, the seven-time All-Star showed he could carry the team without Leonard, but going into his 12th season, injuries are a concern (George missed several games last season with a right-foot bone edema), and he won’t have Kawhi to lean on when it comes to playmaking and guarding opposing superstars. If Leonard stays out the entire season, it remains to be seen what sort of shape George will be in come playoff time.
Young, Unproven Free Agents Are for the Taking
With Millsap out of the picture, it’s likely the Clippers are back to sorting through the remaining free agent bigs, of which there are a few intriguing albeit unproven names.
6-foot-10 forward DJ Wilson was the 17th overall pick in 2017 and can run the floor well for his size. Athletic and possessing a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wilson has the potential to be a useful rim protector if he can improve his footwork and positioning. He’s also not reluctant to shoot from three, averaging 2.5 attempts from behind the arc last season in Milwaukee and Houston, connecting on 34.5%.
7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein is a possibility. A second-round pick of Houston’s in 2017, Hartenstein spent last year in Denver and Cleveland, and was productive in limited minutes, shooting 56.6% from the floor and averaging 12.0 rebounds per 36 minutes. At just 23, the left-handed Hartenstein is relatively athletic for his size and has shown an ability to play off the pick-and-roll and finish amidst contact. In July, he declined his $1.7 million player option with Cleveland and a week later the Cavs, who already have Jarrett Allen and drafted center Evan Mobley No. 3 overall, declined to extend Hartenstein a qualifying offer. Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor reported that the Clippers were in attendance for Hartenstein’s open workout during the Vegas Summer League.
Harry Giles was the nation’s top recruit out of high school, according to ESPN, and was the 20th overall pick out of Duke in 2017. Giles, however, has failed to live up to expectations so far and saw only 9.2 minutes in 38 games for Portland last season. Giles is still viewed by some as a work in progress and has shown some signs of becoming an effective outside threat (he shot 34.8% on 23 attempts from three last season). The biggest draw of Giles is his above-average athleticism, which allows him to defend against and play off of pick-and-roll sets.
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