Through the first two weeks, the bubble has felt a lot like the regular season for the Clippers: They entered being mentioned as serious title contenders, they keep winning games, but injuries and personal situations have kept everyone from being on the court and developing chemistry together.
Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams have all left the Orlando bubble — with the club’s blessing — to attend to personal, family matters. All three are expected to return to the NBA Orlando campus at some point. The Clippers looked strong in their first scrimmage in the limited minutes Paul George and Kawhi Leonard played together, but for a team trying to develop chemistry having players out is not ideal.
“I don’t think it hurts our team…” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Friday after a team practice. “Today we have a practice, a lot of our guys aren’t here. That’s never healthy for your team, especially a team that really hasn’t been together. We’re a new team. We had Kawhi and PG miss training camp. PG missed the first, what, 16 games. Then Kawhi missed games. Lou. This year so far we really have not caught a great break as far as being able to work together.
“I got to say this team so far, they keep impressing me. as well with their ability to figure out a way of playing together even though we don’t have a lot of minutes on the floor playing together.”
“You know, we’ve been down and missed guys pretty much all season long, so we’ve been filling it in,” George said last week. “We’ve been holding it down until everybody has been available, and we plan on continuing to do so.”
“We’re not worried about our depth right now, these pre-season scrimmages, whatever this is,” Marcus Morris said Friday, noting this is a veteran team that knows how to fit together. “ We know what we’re getting back, what kind of team we’ve had. We’re not real worried.”
The rest of the NBA should be real worried if Doc Rivers can get his Clippers to build championship chemistry in the Orlando bubble.
We only saw the Clippers at full strength for a limited time this season, starting around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far. It’s small sample size theater, but they looked like a title team coming together.
Then the coronavirus hit the NBA and the nation.
“It was a little frustrating because we played our way all the way up until that point, we played ourselves into that chemistry, into that zone we were in…” George said. “It was tough to take this little break. But I think ultimately it’s going to pay off. Again, we had so many guys dealing with little nicks and bruises, and we were one of the teams that could have benefitted off of the healing process and coming together healthy. This break did wonders for this group, and we’re going to pick up where we left off at.”
What makes the Clippers legit championship contenders starts with Leonard and George. Talent wins and the Clippers bring two of the top 10 players in the league (when healthy). More importantly, these are two elite players wing, a position that grows in importance in the playoffs because of the versatility it provides. In Leonard the Clippers have a top-five, proven champion — he was the Finals MVP last season and looks healthy and poised to pick up this season where he left off. He is a force on both ends of the court.
George also makes an impact on both ends of the court. Rivers added that in this restart he is giving PG more responsibility in the pick-and-roll, and there is a good reason for that.
“Because he’s a great shooter…” Rivers said. “Paul George does a lot. Great post game. With Paul’s size, we just put him in a lot more pick ‘n rolls than he’s ever been in his career. With his size, it’s so effective that we’re doing it more, work on it every day, and he’s gotten better and better at it.”
What sets the Clippers apart as contenders is the depth around their two stars, assuming that Williams, Harrell, and Beverley all return to Orlando.
Up front the Clippers start Ivica Zubac (who has yet to arrive in Orlando), a quality defensive big in the paint who sets a strong screen and rolls to the rim hard. Then there’s the Sixth Man of the Year energy of Harrell. Now behind them is Morris (who just started practicing with the team) and veteran Joakim Noah, who looked spry and active in the Clippers one exhibition game. Morris and JaMychal Green will split time off the bench at the four, and both bring shooting and veteran presence.
Up top they have Beverley with Williams behind him, and don’t forget they added Reggie Jackson behind those two. At the two-guard there is Landry Shamet (who tested positive for the coronavirus and is not yet in Orlando with the team).
Coaching all this is Doc Rivers — a championship coach who quietly is one of the smarter Xs and Os coaches in the league and a guy who treats his veterans like adults, but knows how to push and motivate them when its time.
If there is one coach who can bring this crew together, it’s Rivers.
On paper, the Clippers can (and maybe should) beat anyone. In reality, they have only put that version of the Clippers together for a short stretch. The Clippers have not been bad (fourth-best record in the NBA, top five in both offense and defense) but we have only seen the fully formed, championship-level version of this team for a short stretch.
If George can reach his peak and the Clippers’ depth can stay healthy and in Orlando, the Clippers could have their first title, an incredible turn around from the franchise that just more than a decade ago was the laughing stock of the league.
But can complete that turnaround? Doc Rivers and crew have a lot to prove still. Doing it on paper is not enough.