3 reasons Clippers will surprise everyone in 2021-22 season
With a number of stars changing teams this past offseason, there’s a newfound excitement ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season. Most notably, Russell Westbrook joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Kyle Lowry joined the Miami Heat and DeMar DeRozan joined the Chicago Bulls, but Kawhi Leonard elected to remain with Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Lakers and Brooklyn Nets are expected to put out top-heavy talent on the floor this season, and as of right now, there isn’t much in terms of expectations for most of the teams around the league. Not only did the Nets and Lakers make big splashes this offseason, but many weren’t convinced by the teams that beat them last postseason. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns both reached the NBA Finals, but their playoff runs were strongly affected by the health of their opponents.
The Clippers are in a weird place right now. With a healthy Kawhi Leonard, they’re likely in the NBA Finals and are possibly the reigning champions right now. They’d be expected to compete this season, but it appears that they’ll be without Leonard for a significant chunk of the 2021-22 season. If he’s unable to return for the entirety of the year, many expect a shortened season for the Clippers.
They, however, might surprise a lot of people this year, and here’s why.
The Clippers are a deep team built to handle the 82-game regular season without their two-time NBA Finals MVP. Kawhi Leonard’s absence was among the first thing on the team’s mind when they entered the offseason. Their top two priorities were A) retaining all their free agents and B) building a roster that would best complement Paul George.
Thankfully, this past postseason showed that these two things went hand-in-hand. Re-signing Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, and getting Serge Ibaka back were crucial for the depth, versatility, and personality of the team.
Rajon Rondo did not fit well with the Clippers for whatever reason (too much traffic cop offense with little ability to score on his own), while Patrick Beverley became a player on an expiring contract. The Clippers elected to move both the 35-year-old point guard and the 33-year-old point guard in exchange for 31-year-old Eric Bledsoe, who was coming off a tough year in a weird fit with the New Orleans Pelicans.
The team also signed Justise Winslow in free agency, giving them another low-risk, high-reward type of player. If there are still questions about how this team may fit together, the head coaching mastermind that is Tyronn Lue should put a lot of doubters’ minds at ease.
This year’s Clippers team developed a bond that’s hard to replicate. Under Lue, every player bought into the team-over-me mentality. Guys who played bigger roles elsewhere took a backseat if they needed to for the betterment of the team. Other guys who struggled in previous stints came to Los Angeles and rejuvenated their careers.
All season long, the Clippers led the league in 3-point shooting and ended up finishing fourth in NBA history at 41.1 percent. They never got out of character, playing to their strengths despite many thinking their shooting was unsustainable.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the way Reggie Jackson explained what this Clippers team meant to him in his season-ending press conference should tell you all you need to know.
"My 10th year has been my best year. The first thing I told those guys is thank you for saving me. I appreciate every guy in that locker room."
– A very emotional Reggie Jackson spilled his heart out after the game. pic.twitter.com/5TkL9M3FPS
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) July 1, 2021
From introducing each other during press conferences to watching the Olympics at four in the morning, every player on this team wants the best for each other. Paul George expressed just that when asked about Jackson’s free agency and the potential return of his best friend in June.
"Yeah, but obviously Reggie has played himself into some options, for sure, coming down to free agency. Rightfully so, he played his ass off, but of course I would love Reggie to come back."
Paul George on Reggie Jackson's free agency. pic.twitter.com/f1bqzxjFVd
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) July 1, 2021
That same bond and familiarity is why Nicolas Batum re-signed with the Clippers, posting a photo of his son with a “RUN IT BACK!” caption.
— Nicolas Batum (@nicolas88batum) August 3, 2021
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined Clippers teammates Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, and Patrick Beverley in making a number of appearances during Summer League.
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard on hand to watch Summer League Clippers. pic.twitter.com/e4IhBGnQEN
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) August 10, 2021
Just think how much Leonard has to enjoy his teammates to come out to scorching Las Vegas during Summer League less than a month after undergoing surgery on his partially torn ACL.
1. Paul George
For all those who joked about Pandemic P and ripped Paul George over the last few years as he struggled through injuries and depression, he acquitted himself beautifully in the postseason, both with and without Kawhi Leonard.
His 37-point, 16-rebound, 5-assist game in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz helped guide the Clippers to their first-ever Western Conference Finals. A monster 41-point, 13-rebound, 6-assist Game 5 vs. the Suns kept the Clippers from elimination in the Western Conference Finals.
In eight games without Leonard, George put the Clippers on his back by averaging 29.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game on a 56.3 true shooting percentage. George carried the Clippers time and time again, getting them within two games of the NBA Finals. All of that was done during one of the most insane playoff schedules a team has ever played in NBA history.
This season, George will have his work cut out for him. No Kawhi Leonard means the bulk of the leadership duties will be put on George. It’s not uncharted territory for him by any means, and it’ll certainly be interesting to see how George adjusts his game with a lengthy absence expected for Leonard.
All in all, the Clippers should be in for a good season. While they may not be elite-level championship contenders without Leonard, LA is still very capable of winning 48 games and earning a top-six seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.