With coverage in full swing around the league and true preseason action to begin in just a few short days, NBA fanatics are rejoicing. The long days of the offseason are now miles behind in the rearview mirror. Those who love the game of basketball need not wait another minute. Okay, well, maybe a few more weeks for games that actually count, but we’ll take anything at this point of the year — preseason and Media Day included.
From the flurry of interviews now surfacing comes plenty of information that could give the collective masses an idea of what to expect from certain teams. One of the biggest stories to bubble up is the status of Paul George and when he can be expected back, given that he is still rehabilitating multiple shoulder surgeries dating back to May and June.
The plan, according to George himself, is to miss all of October with a target to return sometime the following month. While the number of games he’ll miss will be minimal, this could still have a substantial effect on the Clippers’ season as a whole, especially when you consider the fact that the West is a loaded conference with no much room for error in postseason seeding.
To really get an idea of how sorely George will be missed, let’s first take a look at their schedule for October and November.
Oct. 22 – Los Angeles Lakers (H)
Oct. 24 – Golden State Warriors (A)
Oct. 26 – Phoenix Suns (A)
Oct. 28 – Charlotte Hornets (H)
Oct. 30 – Utah Jazz (A)
Oct. 31 – San Antonio Spurs (H)
Nov. 3 – Utah Jazz (H)
Nov. 6 – Milwaukee Bucks (H)
Nov. 7 – Portland Trail Blazers (H)
Nov. 11 – Toronto Raptors (H)
Nov. 13 – Houston Rockets (A)
Nov. 14 – New Orleans Pelicans (A)
Nov. 16 – Atlanta Hawks (H)
Nov. 18 – Oklahoma City Thunder (H)
Nov. 20 – Boston Celtics (H)
Nov. 22 – Houston Rockets (H)
Nov. 24 – New Orleans Pelicans (H)
Nov. 26 – Dallas Mavericks (A)
Nov. 27 – Memphis Grizzlies (A)
Nov. 29 – San Antonio Spurs (A)
That’s a total of 20 games over both months and 12 of them are to be played at home, although the season opener against the Lakers could certainly be viewed as a road game.
Realistically, George will be back before all those games pass. But no one in the Clippers’ organization seemed confident that George will return early, and all indications would be that he will not be rushed either. So the odds that he misses something close to 20 games is a very real thing.
Kawhi Leonard is capable of beating teams as the sole leader of the Clippers, particularly so given an unreal amount of roster depth. But he hasn’t played more than 60 games in a season since 2016-17 and he wasn’t exactly healthy during the Raptors’ playoff run last year, either. Leonard having to ball out on a nightly basis to keep the Clippers afloat in a loaded Western Conference will prove difficult, with the added bonus of wear and tear on the recent NBA Finals MVP down the line.
There’s no doubt the Clippers will be scary come playoff time, but seeding could be very important at the end of the year. With all the conference-wide talent, there’s an almost guaranteed chance that a possible contender has to face another possible contender in the first round.
What’s worse for the Clippers is the amount of playoff-worthy teams they will face early on. They’ll have the Utah Jazz twice in the first seven and, almost assuredly, George will be absent. They have the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the first six too.
Worse, in games No. 9 to 16, the Clippers will play the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans twice each, plus the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers once. Falling behind early in the Western Conference will not make it easy to climb back up in the rankings later on.
The dilemma the Clippers now face will be a George-less team for at least 15-plus games and coupled with an injury-prone Leonard, forced to step up his game at a much earlier point in the season than desired. This isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it absolutely increases the odds of a less-than-stellar start to the season.
Los Angeles will still make the playoffs, they’ll likely go far and there’s a reason they are the odds-on favorite in every sportsbook to hoist the Larry O’Brien next June. But George’s absence should be enough to keep every Clippers fan, coach and player on their toes.
The bright spot that may just hold the ship together is that this Clippers team was actually quite good already before the additions of Leonard and George. Sure, they lost some talent to the Thunder via trade with Shai Gilgeious-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, but the two All-Stars more than make up for the loss. Like, obviously and clearly, way more.
The Clippers will surround Leonard and George with a slew of talent in the likes of Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Landry Shamet. They have the right pieces to generate offense, remain very sound on defense and they have plenty of contributors that are above average from deep — all this considered with the absence of George. Throwing the superstar and former MVP candidate into the mix will make them much more dangerous.
So will the Clippers struggle at the beginning of the season without George? Will this struggle affect their final seeding in a serious way? Potentially. But the Clippers with just Leonard, for now, are still an incredible team. There’s a chance they lose a few games they wouldn’t normally, but it shouldn’t have too much of an impact.
The season is long and you can always get a few back later in the season, especially when teams begin their quiet tanking campaigns. Still, Leonard and company sans-George need to stay on their toes. Their postseason seeding, in some ways, certainly rests on these early-season results. But if last year’s results, both from the remaining Clippers and Leonard himself, are any indication, they may just weather the storm.
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