When the Los Angeles Clippers played the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 17, it marked just the 16th time that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared the court together for the Clippers. The lack of cohesion and lineup uncertainties are Clippers coach Tyronn Lue’s biggest challenges since taking over the team during the pandemic year of 2020.
Not knowing who’s available on a week-to-week basis can’t be a fun exercise for Lue. It’s a credit to his coaching talent that the Clippers are still in playoff contention despite all the injuries and the myriad of challenges in dealing with load management.
At the center of the Clippers’ load management saga is Leonard. The two-time NBA Finals MVP has yet to regain his MVP form after tearing his ACL during the 2021 playoffs. Kawhi, who missed all of last season while recovering from the injury, has looked a step slow in the 22 games he has appeared so far this season. He’s averaging just 19.4 points per game, which would be the lowest in his career since 2014-15, and his hallmark lockdown defense is nowhere near Kawhi level.
Kawhi is the unofficial face of the player load management movement. When he was in San Antonio, the Spurs carefully massaged his recovery from various injuries. The load management practice carried over to L.A. when Kawhi joined the Clippers in 2019. But load management only works when you’re saving the player from wear and tear. It’s a different story when the player, as in Kawhi’s case, is coming back from a significant injury and his damaged body is preventing him from regaining his old form.
ESPN analyst Brian Windhorst offered a grim assessment on Kawhi’s health earlier this season. “I don’t think Kawhi looks very good. He’s had a couple of OK games, and his shooting particularly don’t look good,” Windhorst said on “NBA Today.”
Throughout his tenure with the Clippers, Lue has seen more lineup changes than a manager in a Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Lue has had to shuffle his lineups so many times this season that he’s running out of cards. He said he just wants to see his team play together for a 15-game stretch to find out its true potential. He would even take a 10-game stretch.
“I know we have a good team,” Lue said after his Clippers dropped to 23-23 for the season after losing 120-110 to the 76ers at Crypto.com Arena. “But as far as staying healthy, we need to establish some continuity.”
One night after making those statements to reporters, Lue was forced to reshuffle his starting lineup again as The Athletic reported that both Leonard and George would miss the game against the Utah Jazz as a precautionary measure since it was a back-to-back game. Leonard and George didn’t have an injury designation. The Clippers termed the missed game as a “rest” day.
“We’ve just been behind the 8-ball just in terms of injuries and lineups and guys in and out,” said George, who briefly returned to the court to play the Sixers after missing the previous five games due to a hamstring injury. The team is carefully managing George’s hamstring injury and don’t want any setbacks. But at some point, George will have to play consecutive games to get back into All-Star form. He was very rusty against the Sixers, scoring just 13 points on 11 shots.
“I thought he was a little rusty as far as handling the basketball, making the plays, that’s to be expected,” Lue said of George. “Just getting him back on the floor was a positive thing for us.”
But it’s not just George and Leonard who’ve been hit with the injury bug. Veteran point guard John Wall, the Clippers’ big signing in the offseason, sustained an abdominal injury against the Denver Nuggets and is expected to be out for a minimum of two weeks.
When the Clippers are whole, they have a potent unit capable of challenging for an NBA title. With a healthy Kawhi and a healthy PG13 in 2021, the Clippers reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the Phoenix Suns. Without Kawhi in the lineup, the Clippers finished third in the Pacific Division and missed the playoffs in 2022.
Lue isn’t wrong when he said the Clippers are a “good team.” However, a good team can’t be great when it is unable to get any continuity. The Clippers had championship aspirations entering the 2022-23 season. But if Kawhi and PG continue to miss games, the Clippers could miss another opportunity on fulfilling their full potential.