When Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014, he envisioned the organization becoming a championship contender, something they have never been known to be. Living in the shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers in the same arena, the Clippers have never truly been viewed as a real force in the Western Conference.
The new ability to spend money and having an owner who prioritized winning over everything else suddenly allowed the Clippers to start building. LA has made the playoffs in seven of the last nine seasons as a result, and they made history during the 2020-21 season by reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
When they've been on the court together, George and Leonard have elevated the Clippers to contending status in the Western Conference. The pair have won at least 42 games every single season in Los Angeles and the Clippers have been to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. However, injuries have really derailed this team's chances of living up to their full potential.
Just looking back at their appearance in the 2021 Western Conference Finals, the Clippers entered this series against the Phoenix Suns shorthanded due to Leonard suffering a torn ACL in the series prior. He ended up missing the entire 2021-22 season, and George only played in 31 games that year due to injuries. This past 2022-23 season, Leonard played in just 52 games and George played 56 games.
As good of players as they are, the Clippers have been stuck in championship purgatory due to nobody being able to get rid of the injury bug in the locker room. This is a very experienced and well constructed roster that certainly has title potential, but health always seems to be the limiting factor for Los Angeles. In a total of four seasons, which has encompassed 308 total regular season games, the Clippers' two stars have only played in a total of 142 games, recording a 96-46 record.
A 67.6 win percentage is fantastic, yet an availability rate of 46.1 percent is not. At the end of the day, the potential success the Clippers could find solely depends on the availability of their two stars. With George and Leonard healthy, the Clips could wind up advancing to their first NBA Finals ever. With them injured, though, Los Angeles will once again face disappointment late in the year.
Clippers offseason additions and departures
Additions: F Kenyon Martin Jr. (trade – HOU), F Kobe Brown (draft), G Jordan Miller (draft)
Departures: G Eric Gordon (free agency – PHX)
The 2023-24 season may truly be the final year for the Clippers to prove themselves before changes occur. They have a new arena on the way for the 2024-25 season and this roster may have a lot of holes to fill next offseason with Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and Mason Plumlee set to become unrestricted free agents. George and Leonard also own $48.8 million player options that they could decline to become unrestricted free agents.
The Clippers know that time is running out for them to capitalize on any potential championship window that exists, which is why Ballmer and the front office maintained their core over the offseason.
When everyone is available, we have seen what the Clippers are capable of doing, and the added depth from last season proved to be useful. Norman Powell was a key sixth man in the second unit, Plumlee provided a great one-two punch behind Ivica Zubac, and Russell Westbrook was the perfect fit at the point guard position.
Both Plumlee and Westbrook ended up re-signing with the team in the offseason. Instead of going to another contending team interested in his services, Plumlee re-signed on a one-year, $5 million deal. Westbrook earned himself a little bit more than the minimum deal he finished up last season on, as he and the Clippers agreed to a two-year, $7.8 million contract that contains a player option for the 2024-25 season, aligning his deal with that of George's and Leonard's.
Things didn't work out for Westbrook when he was a member of the Lakers, as that was a doomed situation from the very start. The Lakers always prioritized LeBron James and Anthony Davis over him and they simply failed to put Westbrook in a position to succeed. As a result, he was dealt to the Utah Jazz ahead of the trade deadline and then waived, which is how he ended up staying in Los Angeles as a member of the Clippers.
Russ played a total of 21 games with the Clippers at the end of the year, not including the five postseason games he participated in. Turnovers have always been a problem with Westbrook given the nature of his play, but the nine-time All-Star was everything the Clippers had been searching for in their backcourt. Westbrook's explosiveness was utilized in transition and he immediately assumed the mantle as the team's lead playmaker.
This trio of Westbrook, George and Leonard is older, yet the experience they have as individual players is what makes the Clippers a championship contender. Their respective games actually compliment one another quite well, making Los Angeles a threat to win the West if they can remain fully healthy.
Aside from bringing back Westbrook and Plumlee in free agency, this team ended up being quite dormant for the most part. They held no cap space and almost everyone that was under contract for the 2022-23 season remained on the roster. Their only notable departure was veteran shooting guard Eric Gordon, as he decided to join the Phoenix Suns on a minimum contract after coming to the Clippers ahead of the trade deadline.
While they have not been known for adding impactful talents via the NBA Draft through the years, the Clippers did end up adding two rookies to their roster. Kobe Brown was the organization's selection with the 30th overall pick and he ended up showcasing his potential at Las Vegas Summer League.
A big forward who plays out on the wing, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range in his first four Summer League games. Unfortunately, Brown suffered an ankle injury in his fifth game, ending his offseason prematurely. Overall, he does figure to be a promising prospect who could wind up seeing some time as the season progresses.
In the second-round with the 48th overall selection, the Clippers selected Jordan Miller from the University of Miami. Miller made a name for himself with the Hurricanes by being a versatile talent on the perimeter who could fill multiple roles at once for his team. Two-way potential is what he brings to the table, which is why the team signed him to a two-way contract.
The Clippers also added Kenyon Martin Jr. to their roster this offseason in a trade with the Houston Rockets. Martin had been searching for a change of scenery and the springy forward now finds himself on an experienced, contending team in Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see how head coach Tyronn Lue looks to integrate the 22-year-old into his system, especially since Martin could prove to be an X-factor as a younger, more athletic option on a veteran team.
The main point of emphasis from this offseason for the Clippers is the fact that they brought Westbrook back. He solidifies their backcourt and will ultimately take a lot of pressure off of George and Leonard to have to do everything.
Clippers pursuit of James Harden
What is going to happen with James Harden? This has been a question on every NBA fan's mind throughout the offseason since Harden opted into his contract and requested a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers ahead of free agency.
There is a lot of drama surrounding Harden and the 76ers organization right now, especially after the former league MVP called out executive Daryl Morey, claiming that he is a liar and that he will never be a part of an organization Morey is a part of. Harden, who had a player option for the 2023-24 season, was under the assumption that the team was going to be giving him a new max-level contract following the 2022-23 season as a result of him taking a pay cut last offseason.
Whether there was miscommunication or it was truly a situation where the team lied to their star guard, Harden seems to be done with the Sixers, making it clear that he wants to play for the Clippers. Harden is from Los Angeles and wants to head back to the Western Conference, making this his prime destination.
The Clippers and Sixers have talked with one another this offseason, yet no real deal for Harden ever emerged. Philadelphia has set a very high asking price for the ten-time All-Star and with no other teams really looking to acquire him, Los Angeles has not felt a need to increase their initial offers. As a result, Harden remains with the 76ers and the Clippers recently ended trade talks ahead of training camp.
A trade being finalized and the Clippers landing another All-Star just seems destined to happen at some point, especially since Harden is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestrained free agent in 2024. Then again, the 76ers are not going to be giving him up unless they receive compensation that can help them compete for a championship right now.
From Los Angeles' perspective, landing Harden would instantly give them one of the best starting rotations in the entire league. George and Leonard are a handful to deal with on their own, Westbrook's abilities to run in transition make him a threat, and Zubac has always been a reliable frontcourt contributor. By adding the Sixers' star to the mix, the Clippers would have another playmaker and elite-level scorer who could create for himself.
What will be interesting to see is if Harden not only shows up to training camp for the 76ers, but if he is actually willing to participate. It appears as if he has made up his mind and is done with the organization, which leads to questions about whether or not he will sit out and incur fines that come his way.
As much as his talents could help them pursue a championship, the Clippers also need to be cautious when considering a trade for the All-Star guard. Harden has played for three different teams over the last three seasons. Los Angeles would be his fourth in a four-year span. He's unreliable, he's caused problems everywhere he has been, and he may decide after one year that he wants to switch teams again.
Drama follows Harden everywhere he goes, meaning the Clippers could be the next team he puts in a bad situation if a trade were to happen. At this time, there is no momentum on any deal and it is unlikely he begins the 2023-24 season with any other team than the 76ers.
2023-24 season outlook
As was the case over the last few seasons, everything for the Clippers comes down to whether or not George and Leonard are healthy. With them on the court, this team has a chance to take down any team that stands in their path of potentially reaching the NBA Finals.
Should one of them be unavailable… Well, we have seen how this plays out.
Even if they hold off on a potential Harden trade, the Clippers still have everything they need to compete for a championship. The three stars on their roster fit together better than many would imagine, depth and experience exist at every position, and Lue is a championship-proven head coach.
When looking at the product the Clippers put out on the court a season ago, it's easy to see that they struggled defensively. Los Angeles surrendered an average of 113.1 points per game to their opponents, 12th in the NBA, and they ranked 18th in defensive rating. The three seasons prior, this team ranked inside the Top 10 of defensive rating every single year.
Maybe Kawhi and George missing chunks of time impacted their ability to be a top defensive team, but it seemed like the Clippers simply gave up at times during the 2022-23 season. This team is basically the same as it was a couple of years ago when they reached the Western Conference Finals. The only difference is they have added talent with the likes of Westbrook, Powell and Plumlee.
Should the Clippers fail to win a playoff series and be one of the final teams standing in the conference, it would not come as a shock to see Ballmer take the franchise in a different direction, especially with Leonard and George not getting any younger. This is one of the oldest teams in the league and it is finally time for Los Angeles to prove that they have what it takes to win at the highest level possible.