It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride for the Los Angeles Clippers.
With superstar Kawhi Leonard on the mend from a torn ACL, the franchise adjusted its expectations accordingly going into this NBA season, but still expected to remain competitive and maybe make some noise in the playoffs. However, doing so was contingent upon perennial All-Star Paul George staying healthy and doing what he does—as in casually averaging 24.7 points, 7.1 boards, 5.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game—throughout the course of the year.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, while George has remained productive on both ends when he’s on the floor, he’s struggled to remain healthy. In fact, he’s missed the last 11 games with a torn ligament in his elbow. And with the team’s playoff aspirations hanging in the balance, now comes the news that the Clippers don’t expect their dynamic forward to return this season—as in at all.
From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer:
While the team’s initial announcement on Christmas Day stated George would be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks, the Clippers are operating under the possibility that George may not return this season, sources told B/R. And despite the momentum surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s rehab from a torn ACL, there remains a healthy dose of skepticism around the league about Leonard retaking the floor in 2021-22 as well.
“He’s always played things methodically and cautiously,” said one source with knowledge of Leonard’s thinking. “I knew he was ahead of schedule [in his rehab], but I wouldn’t bet on it. Kawhi is always focused on the long term. If they’re not in the playoff picture, I think the chances he comes back are slim to none.”
That means with the team sitting at 8th in the Western Conference with a painfully mediocre 21-22 record, the Clippers might be forced to make some difficult decisions—especially since they won’t even benefit from bottoming out this season, since their first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft is headed to Oklahoma City as part of the deal that landed them George in the first place.
So what is a championship contender riddled with considerable injuries to do?
Apparently, the plan is to follow the Golden State Warriors blueprint and treat this season as a “gap year,” in which the team spends the rest of this year doing its best Orlando Magic impression, reloads during the offseason, and comes back for blood next year. Bleacher Report notes that this strategy has already been given the green light by Clippers owner Steve Balmer, which means the team could be hosting a fire sale at the trade deadline.
“They’re pretty much open for business for anyone except their main guys and Terance Mann. I think they really are fine falling out of the playoffs and regrouping for next year,” one Western Conference official told Bleacher Report. “I think they’re trying to shed the Marcus Morrises of the world, guys that have some value and maybe can replace them with younger talent, maybe cheaper [contracts], to free them to get someone else this summer.”
There’s also this juicy tidbit:
[Clippers coach Ty] Lue, sources said, initially rebuffed the concept of muted expectations for this season. When the Clippers broke ground at the site of their new Inglewood arena in September, Lue explicitly informed Ballmer he would be coaching to win games, according to one source with knowledge of the situation. He did not want to divvy playing time based on any concerted youth movement, and there has been no further direction from management to do so.
But George’s injury presents Lue and the Clippers with a new reality. Lue has started third-year forward Amir Coffey in four of Los Angeles’ past six games. The team was slow to incorporate Boston Jr., whom the Clippers paid $2.5 million to acquire on draft night, but Lue has rewarded the intriguing rookie with a dramatic increase in playing time since December after strong early showings.
Clearly, they aren’t about to win shit with complementary pieces like Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson running the show, so why not have a garage sale and get rid of those fishing rods and that bassinet they don’t need anymore?
Between injuries (Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers), COVID-19 outbreaks (every-damn-body), and poor chemistry (Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks) there are plenty of other teams trapped in the same boat. So don’t be surprised if the Clippers’ roster looks dramatically different after the NBA trade deadline.