With Leonard out, Clippers Likely to Mix-N-Match Vets & Rookies

Los Angeles Clippers

Getty The Clippers come together during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals

Earlier this week, in advance of publishing the full 2021-22 league schedule on Friday, the NBA announced that the Clippers will visit the Golden State Warriors as one of eight nationally-televised games over the first four days of the season. (The league also announced the Christmas schedule, which, to the dismay of Anthony Anderson, does not include the Clippers.)

While the first game of any NBA season — especially one that’s back to 82 games — is about as telling of a team’s title chances as the cry of a baby is to her singing career, it’ll be interesting nonetheless to see how Clippers head coach Ty Lue works his opening day rotation and beyond.

Last season, Lue was praised far and wide for keeping the train on the track during the regular season, despite numerous injuries, and for his in-series adjustments during the playoffs in the face of back-to-back-to-back 0-2 series deficits. Lue showed he’s not afraid to pivot strategies or experiment with various lineups, often riding the hot hand no matter a player’s stature. This could prove particularly useful this season.

The Clippers have a lot of returning faces, to be sure, but they also have a handful of new faces. They drafted and signed Keon Johnson, Jason Preston and Brandon Boston, acquired 25-year-old forward Justise Winslow, and, on Sunday, traded for point guard Eric Bledsoe in a deal that sent team leader and human sweat emoji Patrick Beverley to Memphis, along with Rajon Rondo and Daniel Oturu. In addition to around-the-clock energy, Beverley, who has since been traded to Minnesota, was a big driver of camaraderie and chemistry during his four years in L.A., often mentoring younger players and keeping chins up. Bledsoe may be younger and perhaps the better all-around player, but Pat Bev was a force.

Center Serge Ibaka is not really a returning face nor a new one. His first year in L.A., the nine-year veteran missed almost half the regular season and all but two playoff games with a pinched nerve in his back, and there’s been very little word on his timeline following June surgery. Aside from Ibaka telling a TMZ reporter that “I’m going to be ready,” and that he once fed penis pizza to Kawhi Leonard, the speed of his recovery is largely unknown.

Most crucially, of course, is Leonard, the 2-time All-NBA selection who could be hobbled anywhere from six to 24 months while recovering from ACL surgery. Navigating around that lineup crater will be Lue’s biggest challenge and certainly subject to much trial and error as he learns the tendencies of his rookies and newly arrived veterans, let alone how they mesh with the returning players. It’s the NBA, not neurosurgery, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart and how Lue and the Clippers might mix things up.

The Depth Chart Could Be Very Fluid

With Leonard and Beverley no longer in the picture, and depending on Ibaka’s progress, this is the probable depth chart to begin the season. Somewhat worrisome, in 52 minutes of floor time last season, the presumed starters struggled together, posting a net rating of -11.9.

Starters 2nd Unit Deep Bench
Paul George
Marcus Morris
Ivica Zubac
Reggie Jackson
Terance Mann
Justise Winslow
Nicolas Batum
Serge Ibaka
Eric Bledsoe
Luke Kennard
Jason Preston
Keon Johnson
Brandon Boston
Jay Scrubb
Amir Coffey (restricted FA)
Yogi Ferrell (unguaranteed)

As useful and entrenched as Marcus Morris is, the team’s numbers improved considerably with Nicolas Batum at the 4 spot instead, jumping to +33.3. The 6-foot-8 Morris will rightfully be a starter again this season — he’s one of the toughest guys in the league and was the NBA’s second-most efficient 3-point shooter last year — but given his knee issues in the postseason, don’t be surprised if Lue is somewhat dainty with Morris’s minutes throughout the regular season. The same goes for Ibaka’s load management when he eventually returns, which is why Lue could be inclined to run Ibaka off the bench behind Ivica Zubac for the majority of the year.

Theoretically, Bledsoe could slot into the starting lineup for Reggie Jackson or Terance Mann rather seamlessly, thereby lessening Paul George’s peripheral responsibilities and bolstering an already tough defense. (Bledsoe was Second Team All-Defensive in 2019-20.) But in the case of Bledsoe moving up and Jackson moving back, that would leave the second unit without a guy who can consistently create his own shot or distribute from the paint. Even Mann, who proved last season that he can create opportunities from the lane, prefers to attack from the corners and isn’t at his most effective as a floor leader.

Mann’s overall production, in fact, will likely play a big role in determining how much rotational shifting Lue is compelled to make. There’s no doubt, given Leonard’s absence, that the third-year guard out of Florida State will be asked to contribute more than just the 7.0 points a game he averaged last season. In Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, Mann destroyed the Jazz to the tune of 39 points on 15-for-21 shooting and 7-for-10 from three. But as good as he was in that game, he looked hesitant in others, scoring just nine total points in the final two games of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix on 4-for-15 shooting and 0-for-5 from behind the stripe.

Terance Mann

GettyMann soars above the rim

If Mann can develop into a more confident shooter, particularly from three (he shot 41.8% from long distance last season but on only 1.8 attempts) and perhaps integrate a pull-up jumper into his game rather than always taking it to the basket, Lue will feel comfortable keeping him in the starting lineup and not look for scoring elsewhere. After all, Mann’s defense is never in question.

What Role Will the Rookies Play?

Second-round pick Preston showed during Summer League that he can run the offense and make things happen off the dribble, but that was Summer League and as Preston well knows, from his days as an NBA blogger, things get a lot tougher once the season begins. In need of facilitators, Lue could use Preston in the second unit as a pass-first point guard. But a second unit backcourt comprised of Preston, Luke Kennard and Jackson would be a considerable liability defensively and force Batum and Ibaka to stay home for rim protection. (TBD on Winslow’s defense.)

First-rounder Johnson, despite being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and with the potential to be a defensive stopper, clearly has a way to go with his shooting. The 6-foot-5 guard out of Tennessee shot just 28.8% overall and 20.0% from behind the arc in five Vegas games. Worse yet, a lot of his misses from the outside weren’t even close. Ballhandling was a known trouble spot for Johnson coming out of college, and his 1.8 turnovers in the Summer League did little to put those concerns to bed. But handles and shooting don’t come overnight, and while the 19-year-old still has plenty of time to improve, if he expects to see any sort of meaningful time this season, he’ll need his defense to far exceed his offensive limitations, a la Matisse Thybulle in Philadelphia.

The opposite somewhat applies to second-year guard Jay Scrubb, who seems capable of making the jump offensively this season, especially after scoring 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting in the Summer League opener. But Scrubb needs to work on his decision-making and defensive discipline. Scrubb had an even assist-to-turnover ratio in Vegas, which is not good, and showed a tendency to foul unnecessarily. But overall, he played hard, rebounded (6.6 over five games) and appeared unrushed most of the time. If Scrubb weren’t already in the second year of a two-way contract, the Clippers would likely still find a way to keep him on the roster. As it is, he will almost certainly see more minutes this year than the 84 all of last season.

Brandon Boston, the rail-thin wing who was thought to be a possible lottery pick before his disappointing freshman year at Kentucky dropped him to 51st overall, could be an X-factor in Lue’s rotation this season. In the Summer League, Boston was an effective scorer, averaging 13.0 points in five games and showing resilience and consistency from inside the arc that was not there last year in Lexington. Boston needs to start eating more and lifting weights (like, yesterday) if he plans on staying mostly upright for the rest of his career, but in the meantime, he should get several opportunities to strut his stuff this year with Leonard out and Johnson’s offense not yet league ready.

The truth is, the Clippers don’t look much like a championship-caliber team without Leonard. But if Lue’s wizardry can keep the Clippers’ head above water for most of the season, and Leonard can somehow return to active duty before the playoffs, L.A. could quickly turn back into contenders.

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