Coming into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers were viewed as one of the favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. That pick was contingent on a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The supporting cast that owner Steve Ballmer has assembled around his dynamic star duo is good enough to make them one of the deepest teams in the association, with an expectation of challenging defending champs Golden State.
Thus far, the season Ballmer envisioned has yet to unfold in his favor. Behind closed doors, Ballmer is probably sick when he watches how good this team is without their star players. Leonard has participated in just five of 22 games this year, while George has suited up for 16. The reason? Injuries and load management. Kawhi is apparently still having issues with his knee, and George is battling a hamstring injury.
Sure, both guys may have already tweaked something early in the season. Still, it also can’t be overlooked that Leonard (primarily) has been a prominent advocate for load management during his NBA career. He did it in Toronto en route to winning the franchise’s first NBA title in 2019. In “The Claw’s” lone season as a Raptor, he played in roughly 73 percent (60 games) of the team’s games. That year everything came together, and Toronto, led by Leonard, was able to take advantage of a few breaks to win the title.
That run Leonard and the Raptors had was the catalyst for his signing with the Clippers and recruiting George. In year four of the Kawhi-PG era, the Clippers are farther away from achieving the ultimate goal for Ballmer — winning the franchise’s first NBA title — than they were before arriving in L.A.
The Clippers had that run a couple of years ago where they reached the first Western Conference Finals in franchise history, accomplishing much of that without Leonard on the floor. You’ll recall he tore his ACL in game four of the semifinals against the Utah Jazz that year. George led the Clippers past the Jazz in six games before losing to the Suns in the WCF in six. That’s the closest they’ve come to “taking over” L.A.
Ballmer is an eccentric and confident billionaire. So, there’s no way he didn’t expect that by year four, this tandem of Leonard and George wouldn’t have already led the Clippers to at least an NBA Finals appearance. Instead, Ballmer is stuck with an aging former superstar who can’t (or won’t) get on the floor. PG-13 is still very good and a top 15-20 player when available, but he alone won’t be enough through that gauntlet in the West.
This team is so deep that it’s frustrating watching just how good they are, knowing they don’t have their top two players. On Tuesday night, in Portland, the comeback kids did it again, rallying to overcome an 18-point deficit against the Blazers late in the third quarter to win 118-112. Both teams were without their stars, as Damian Lillard has been battling a calf strain.
Norman Powell led the Clippers’ charge off the bench scoring 32 points, dropping 22 in the fourth quarter. Reggie Jackson added 24 points, along with Robert Covington, Ivica Zubac, and Terance Mann scoring double figures. Seven of the 11 players that suited up for coach Tryonn Lue in this game contributed at least seven points to the victory.
So, Ballmer must watch a performance like this and shake his head, visualizing what could be with his heavyweights on the court. You don’t become a billionaire by playing it safe. As the saying goes, scared money doesn’t make money. If you’re a Clippers fan, you’ve got to love that Ballmer is willing to spend what it takes to field a contender. But if you’re spending the money on stars that barely play, eventually, that will get old.
Every team had a championship window. The Cavs had theirs with LeBron James a few years back and capitalized, same goes for the Warriors, who have won multiple titles and have even opened a whole new championship window. The Clippers’ window is quickly shutting if it hasn’t already been boarded up completely. Barring some miraculous run in the postseason, Ballmer’s dream of being king of L.A. will remain just that. But at least he’ll have his own arena in a couple of years. That will end up being the best thing to come out of this.