by Chris Camello (@chris_camello)
LOS ANGELES — As the NBA season quickly rolls into the 2020-2021 season, the Western Conference figures to once again be deep and competitive. While many believe the Los Angeles Lakers will be the team to beat in the West and throughout the league, the question remains will their hallway rival L.A. Clippers be in the top tier of that mix?
On paper, the Clippers should still be considered a title contender. They still have a potent one-two punch with All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They still have solid veterans like Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, and Reggie Jackson.
The Clippers shored up their front court and wing positions by acquiring Serge Ibaka, a champion with Leonard with the 2019 Toronto Raptors, versatile swingman Nicolas Batum, and sharpshooter Luke Kennard.
Their new head coach Tyronn Lue is also familiar with this group spending last year as a top assistant under Doc Rivers and won a championship with the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yet, something feels different with this Clippers team. They aren’t perceived to be as strong as they were a year ago and the expectations are definitely lower. Some even believe the loss of Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell who opted to go across the hall will weaken the team.
One explanation for viewing the Clippers with a sense of indifference is they didn’t make the necessary improvements during the offseason. The brain trust of the Clippers’ front office failed to land a legitimate playmaking point guard who could be a vocal leader on and off the court while also pushing the tempo on offense.
This begs the question what is the identity of the Clippers? Are they still the tough, hard-working, defensive-minded “dogs” they claimed to be a year ago? Or did that identity leave with Trez?
Lue mentioned initially he wanted the Clippers to play with more pace; now he’s talking about implementing the triangle offense with Leonard in a Kobe Bryant-Michael Jordan type of role. Those are two very different statements.
As far as defense goes, the Clippers were 5th in defensive efficiency last season despite having an undersized frontcourt. Ibaka will help some of their issues in the frontcourt, but the early impressions of their defense during preseason weren’t very positive.
There are questions and uncertainties surrounding the Clippers, including Leonard’s future with the team, but if he and George are able to stay on the court together and get those reps in, they should be in the top-tier.
Finding an identity will be critical for the Clippers this season and ultimately determine how far they go. One thing is certain; they won’t be given the benefit of the doubt this year as they did last year. People will believe it when they actually see it.