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Projecting the LA Clippers’ 2021-22 starting lineup

https://www.newsbreak.com/news/2294375516441/clippers-ivica-zubac-is-officially-out-for-game-5-vs-suns-with-knee-injury

The LA Clippers are oddly in a good spot for the upcoming NBA season, simply because they are not going to be held to any expectations. With Kawhi Leonard expected to be out for most if not all of the regular season while recovering from ACL surgery, no one is expecting LA to seriously compete for a title. However, they will still aim to be competitive in order to keep the winning culture alive after their inaugural run to the Western Conference Finals last season. It’s also worth noting that they do not own their first-round draft pick this season (it’ll be sent to Oklahoma City as a result of the Paul George trade), so they have no incentive to tank.

With the goal of remaining competitive in mind, Head Coach Tyronn Lue will need to tinker with his lineups so that Leonard’s absence goes as unnoticed as possible. This is obviously a daunting task, as Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the league. Even so, the Clippers are a deep team with a myriad of versatile players that can challenge the best teams in the Western Conference (they proved as much last year, earning their final two wins against the Utah Jazz in the second round without Leonard and taking the Phoenix Suns to six games in the Conference Finals while he was sidelined). Here’s who should get the starting nod from Lue at each position.

Point guard: Reggie Jackson

Jackson was excellent for LA throughout the regular season last year as a scoring spark plug, but he took his game to another level in the postseason. Once Leonard went down with his ACL injury, Jackson stepped up as the team’s secondary scorer behind George, averaging 21.4 points on 48.5% shooting while knocking down 36.9% of his 8.1 three-point attempts per game for LA’s last eight postseason contests. He can’t be expected to put up that level of production on a nightly basis next season, but it’s entirely possible that he’ll be the team’s second-leading scorer while Leonard is out.

The other option for the starting point guard role would be the newly acquired Eric Bledsoe, whom LA snagged in a deal with the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo and Daniel Oturu. Bledsoe would be an upgrade over Jackson defensively, but his inability to shoot and play off the ball makes him a shakey fit next to a ball-dominant wing like George.

Shooting guard: Terance Mann

Bledsoe could also start at shooting guard, as his strength and wingspan allow him to guard up a position. However, the shooting issues remain, and starting him could take away from the development of LA’s most promising young wing. Mann had a breakout game in the postseason, dropping a career-high 39 points and hitting seven of his 10 attempts from deep. It was a thrilling performance, and one that revealed his potential as a deadly two-way supplimental wing. He’s athletic, switchable, lengthy and unafraid to battle with centers for rebounds.

Mann’s shooting is one of the biggest x-factors for the Clippers next season. While he’s already proven to be a great corner shooter, if he can begin to hit spot-up shots from above the break and even show flashes of a pull-up game, it’ll unlock so much of the Clippers’ offense. The spacing is going to be a bit tighter with Leonard out, so Mann will have to pick up the slack. If his shot begins to wane, perhaps Lue will consider Luke Kennard as a starter given that he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA.

Small forward: Paul George

This is the easy one. George is going to get all he can eat as an isolation scorer and a pick-and-roll ball-handler, just as he did in the Western Conference Finals. His efficiency wained a bit in that series due to the heavy scoring burden, but he won’t be asked to play 40+ minutes a night during the regular season like he was in the playoffs.

Even so, it’s not unreasonable to project George to reach a career-high in scoring average while Leonard is out, assuming Lue is comfortable giving him the neon-green light. He’ll be guarded by the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis, but George is used to this, dating back to his time as a no. 1 option in Indiana and Oklahoma City, as well as last regular season when Leonard missed time with a foot injury.

Power Forward: Marcus Morris Sr.

Glue Guy Nicolas Batum could easily start in Morris’ place (and did for stretches last season), but the Clippers are going to need Morris’ offensive creation with Leonard out. He’s a low-post threat that can exploit mismatches against smaller wings, but can also space the floor to give George and Jackson room to operate.

Batum will no-doubt be given plenty of minutes, both as a backup power forward and a small-ball center (a lineup that proved deadly last postseason, even after Leonard went down). Lengthy, shooting wings are one of the most sought-after commodities in the NBA, and the Clippers are fortunate to have several of them that can play together.

Center: Ivica Zubac

Choosing the starter at this position will be Lue’s toughest choice, and it might come down to who else is starting. If Bledsoe does get the nod at shooting guard over Mann or Kennard, Lue will have to compensate for the lack of floor-spacing by inserting a stretch-5: Serge Ibaka. However, if the shooting is adequate at every other position, he can go with a traditional rim-running center in Zubac.

Zubac was unplayable against certain lineups in the postseason due to his inability to switch, but on a nightly basis against lesser opponents, he’s a great option as both a roll man and a rim protector. He’s also far younger than Ibaka with a lot of room to grow. He attempted and made his first three-pointer at the end of last season in a game that didn’t matter, but if he can begin to take and make those shots consistently, it’ll transform LA’s offense.

Zubac sprained his right MCL during the postseason, and Ibaka had season-ending back surgery before the playoffs began. It is unclear if both, one of or neither center will be good to go to start the regular season (though average recovery time for MCL sprains seem to be relatively short). LA still has an open roster spot that they should aim to fill with a quality, innings-eating third center.