Perhaps more than any other league in all of sports, the NBA is dominated by “what-ifs”. That question, almost seamlessly, drives conversation and commentary, even if it’s driving a discussion off the edge of a cliff, careening towards absurdity.
It’s become especially dominant in recent years, with popular alternate histories claiming that “if Kawhi Leonard’s shot from the corner had missed, the 76ers would’ve won the East in 2019,” or “if Kyrie Irving had been vaccinated, the Nets would have never traded James Harden and won the 2021 (or 2022) NBA Finals.” (Notice how both examples pertain to title runs. Hold that thought.)
Understandably, the most common ones relate to injuries. “If LeBron James and Anthony Davis had been healthy in the 2021 postseason, the Lakers would have beaten the Phoenix Suns in the first round and won their second consecutive title,” is a personal least favorite.
“If Khris Middleton wasn’t injured this postseason, the Bucks would’ve defeated the Celtics” is one that I am willing to entertain. But possibly the most legitimate what-if as it pertains to this season is the one being talked about the least: “What if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had been healthy?”
The answer, while not remotely a guarantee, is that the Clippers may very well be in the middle of the NBA Finals, facing off against whoever won the Eastern Conference in this alternate timeline.
On paper, a team led by two perennial All-Stars and MVP candidates is one that would make for a popular choice, and perhaps a betting favorite, for a title winner. If only they were healthy, which is a problem that continues to persist year after year. As Dwight Schrute once said, “If onlys and justs were candies and nuts, then every day would be Erntedankfest.” (That’s a deep cut. I won’t blame you if you don’t recall that line among the thousands of others made famous by The Office.)
Dwight’s point, despite being one of his lesser-known quips, is sound. It’s fun to ask “what if [insert event] had/hadn’t happened?” over and over again instead of focusing on reality. But the good news is that next year, a full-strength team should be a reality for the Clippers. The only reason Paul George missed the team’s do-or-die play-in game against the Pelicans was due to being placed in health and safety protocols hours prior to the game. Before that, he appeared back to his old playmaking ways, despite missing the better part of the season with a nagging elbow injury.
Kawhi Leonard has been rehabbing for over a year now after tearing his ACL against the Jazz back in the 2021 postseason. Leonard sat out all of this past season and should be ready to go by the time next season tips off.
“Our system was built around two players, around PG and Kawhi,” head coach Tyronn Lue told Marc Spears of Andscape back in March. “And when they both go down, now you got to be able to shift and now build around the team that you have. It’s really by committee, everybody, coaches, players, veterans, everybody’s just doing their part.”
The Clippers did just that for much of the 2021-22 regular season, aiming to iron out kinks within a starless rotation. In doing so, they discovered assets like Isaiah Hartenstein, a solid-to-good backup seven-footer, who despite being similar in size to starter Ivica Zubac, often yielded much more mobility and even showed flashes of playmaking on the interior. Also proving himself was Luke Kennard, a known quantity as a triple-happy shooter. But he took his increased minutes as an opportunity to grow as a creator off the dribble.
Terance Mann struggled ever-so-slightly on offense, but showed that his defensive chops are enough to make him a useful cog in the Clippers’ long-term machine. In May, I wrote, “At the moment, he’s inexpensive; his new money won’t kick in until after the 2022-23 season. And at the moment, he’s indispensable. The Clippers are one of the NBA’s most rigidly-constructed teams, especially given the age of their stars and their injury proneness. Mann will remain a luxury — and a crucial entity — for as long as he is on the roster. It’s up to him as to how he uses that time, and leverages that value.” That remains true now, even with the aforementioned star duo returning to the lineup next season.
There isn’t much that they can do in terms of roster shakeup this offseason, which they enter without a lottery pick and also sit firmly in the luxury tax. But they have plenty of perks that are sure to keep them in contention next season: two All-NBA stars, of the league’s best coaches, and a roster that will return 11 players next season, at least. The trade Lawrence Frank made for Norm Powell and Robert Covington at this past season’s deadline is one that will prove even more valuable upon Leonard and George’s full-time return.
Plenty of what-ifs have clouded the Clippers’ last few seasons, but perhaps the biggest one still awaits: what if they’re finally able to put it all together for an entire season? It’s likely that they’ll contend. They have the roster to do it, and even without that full-strength roster this season, they were the recipients of optimism galore.
With the offseason just around the corner, and next season only four months away — how?!?! — there’s nothing on the Clippers’ horizon except everything. That’s another Dwight Schrute musing to leave you with, one much more befitting of this team’s future.