LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — After a summer of making headlines with the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers officially get their 2019-20 season underway tonight, when they face their crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center.
The Clippers finished last season with a 48-34 record, good for the eighth seed in the West before bowing out in the first round after a feisty series against the Golden State Warriors. Expectations for this season are much higher due to the aforementioned Leonard and George moves. So, where do the Clippers stack up among the title contenders? What should you look for this season with the new-look roster? That’s what we’re here to look at as the season jumps off tonight.
The projections for this team are all right in the same area code as the season begins. FiveThirtyEight’s model sees the Clips winning 53 games, while ESPN has them at 54 wins. Those totals may seem low to fans excited by the acquisition of two superstar level talents in the offseason, but consider this. Only one team in the West won more than 54 games last season, and that was the Golden State Warriors with the quartet of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Outside of the Warriors, the conference’s seven other playoff teams all ranged between 48-54 wins.
Things haven’t gotten any easier this season. While the Clippers have arguably the best duo in the conference (though Lakers fans will likely argue for their star combo), nearly every team in the conference seemed to improve this offseason. It once again looks like tough sledding in the Western Conference, and 53 or 54 wins is likely to be good enough for the lead. FiveThirtyEight does have the Rockets projected for 57 wins, due to the duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. One more complicating factor for the Clippers is the absence of George for at least the early part of the schedule. He is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and is likely out until at least mid-November.
Despite the George injury, the team is the consensus favorite to win the title among oddsmakers with 7-2 odds of hoisting the trophy come June. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model places them second, behind the Rockets, with a 17% chance of winning the title.
What To Watch For
The recovery timetable for Paul George is the biggest issue to note. While there has been optimism that he can return by mid-November, if things take a little longer to heal, that could certainly lead to a slower start.
But, the addition of Leonard certainly eases that concern. The reigning Finals MVP re-asserted himself in the conversation of best players in the game last year, averaging career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) per game while also dishing out over three assists per night. He proved capable of carrying the offensive and defensive load in Toronto. Watching what coach Doc Rivers and his staff draws up to get him easy looks will be fun.
With Leonard, and eventually George, in the fold, the defense should improve upon last year’s output, when the team ranked 21st in defensive rating, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions. The perimeter defense between Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley should be stellar. The question comes inside, where the team lacks a traditional rim protector. Ivica Zubac is the lone player above 6’10” on the roster, and it will largely be a combination of him, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Patterson in the front court. Leonard and George obviously offer the ability for the team to go small, with Beverley, Lou Williams, George, Leonard and Harrell type lineups. But, the lack of rim protection could become an issue at some point.
Rookie To Watch
Second-round pick Terance Mann has been getting some attention throughout the preseason, as Rivers and the staff have had the rookie handling point guard duties during preseason action. The 6’7″ Mann played mostly on the wing during his time with the Florida State Seminoles, so the point guard duties were a bit of a throwback for him, albeit one he enjoyed. He told the Los Angeles Times that he has been watching tape of Penny Hardaway to use as his guide for playing the position. Getting a contribution from Mann in that type of role would be a bonus and further round out the Clips’ depth in the back court.
The season tips off tonight against the Lakers, one of 26 nationally televised games that the team will have this season. The team’s quest for its first Larry O’Brien trophy begins at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time at the Staples Center.