Heading into training camp, the 2022-23 Los Angeles Clippers are a stacked team, with returning stars, a stellar supporting cast, a great coach and a strong front office, a munificent and brilliant owner, and a new stadium on the way. There’s not a cloud in the sky. But… it’s the Clippers.
The roster has been a slow build, with lots of fine tuning over the past two years since the departure of Doc Rivers and the installation of Ty Lue as head coach. The primary narrative during that time has been misfortune and near misses, typical for the franchise and virtually the brand itself. There’s no need to talk about any of that right now, but one of the silver-lining benefits of absent stars has been extended playing time and usage for role players. Not only has the roster building been deliberate and precise, but promising or intriguing players have been able to show genuine development and growth on the court.
A big part of what makes the Clippers so exciting as they start the new season is their rather astonishing roster depth, and they seem to have a dizzying number of potential lineup combinations. It’s something of an embarrassment of riches. With proven, effective, and dynamic players like Luke Kennard and Amir Coffey looking perhaps to be on the outside of the rotation, and trying to figure out how to get adequate minutes for Norman Powell, Terrance Mann, Reggie Jackson, John Wall, and Robert Covington, one of the hardest parts of trying to assess the Clippers as a whole is simply remembering all their potential weapons—it’s easy to leave somebody out, especially when the focus is on the return of Kawhi Leonard, getting to see him play alongside Paul George, and tracking the status of John Wall’s comeback.
So there don’t seem to be any obvious or glaring chinks in the armor at the moment. There are plenty of questions, and there’s dread and anxiety, as always, about slings and arrows and what might come next. But it all looks good, and now we’re up against the time when we get to see it all play out.
I can only come up with one potentially significant issue: it seems like the Clippers might have a rebounding problem. “No rebounds, no rings”, they used to say, so it’s a concern that should at least be mentioned here at the start of the 2023 season as the Clippers seek to contend at the highest level. An initial caveat is separating rebounding from defense, which usually go hand in hand. But in the Clippers’ case, they seem to pencil out as an extremely solid defensive team, with no apparent soft spots – everybody able to carry their weight, and nobody an obvious candidate to get picked on.
The situation is rather subtle. Ivica Zubac is an excellent rebounder, and he will carry the team in this department, as he has for the past few years. But when Zu was off the floor last season, rebounding became a significant problem for the Clippers—and that was with Isaiah Hartenstein was on the roster. He’s gone now. Kawhi Leonard’s return will cure a seemingly infinite number of ills, and general rebounding ability for the primary lineup is one of them. But Kawhi isn’t a volume rebounder, and it isn’t an area where his effort and energy should be spent—his efforts will provide a boost, not be foundational. A healthy Paul George will be helpful to the rebounding cause, but that’s fine tuning as well.
The problem is that Nic Batum and Robert Covington, as amazing and versatile as they might be, aren’t great rebounders. They defend, block shots, move the ball, hit threes, and then defend some more, but they don’t eat up rebounds, unfortunately. Hartenstein was better on the offensive glass than the defensive, but he was a highly valuable filler, with great energy and an enjoyable game, and the Clippers will miss his effort. Ty Lue and his staff will know that rebounding is an issue, and they’ll be emphasizing team rebounding with the small lineups on the floor, hoping that they wreak havoc and create opportunities with defense. But it won’t be easy. And there will be matchup problems with teams that feature strong rebounders.
All of this leads to what I’ll call the Marcus Morris Conundrum. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Morris’ season plays out, and the way to look at it best, I think, is ten games at a time, as we’ve done with similar major questions in seasons past. Morris should benefit quite dramatically from the return of Leonard and George. His minutes will be reduced, and he won’t be playing when he’s banged up and can’t move. He should get a lot more open looks and good shots. And if his offense can be more or less sustained at the high level it can sometimes reach, the shooting stats will be gaudy and the fact that he doesn’t rebound will be less noticeable, with the deficiency covered by Zu and Kawhi. That’s a best case scenario.
Unfortunately, the above scenario offense cancelling out defense (rebounding), which isn’t a long-term strategy, but could work. The problem is that it’s hard to see how there’s a backup that would address the specific need. Batum and Covington are great, and the two of them getting plenty of minutes instead of Morris is desirable, but it still leaves the Clippers deficient in the brawler/rebounding category. Amongst the backcourt players, Terrance Mann is the only plus rebounder, it seems, and who knows what John Wall’s game is going to be like. It’s unfortunate that Coffey, Kennard, and Powell don’t do any rebounding. There’s no Patrick Beverley anywhere in sight, though Mann makes a lot of good plays. Maybe Amir Coffey will improve in this category, but it’s hard to see it making a difference.
So the Clippers will be starting the season with a slight tilt towards an offense-first approach, which should be fine. The ten-games-at-a-time view is always enlightening. A lot of the attention will be on the mix of minutes between John Wall and Reggie Jackson, and on Norman Powell’s fit in the rotation along with Terrance Mann. It’s going to be really fun to watch. But if Marcus Morris doesn’t get off to a hot start, he’s not extra sharp, and it becomes noticeable that the Clippers are giving up rebounds they should be getting, it will sharpen the focus in terms of what the team might be looking for in some sort of consolidation trade before the deadline. I expect Luke Kennard to be spectacular, and earn plenty of minutes. So it wouldn’t be great for him to get shipped out just because Marcus Morris can’t rebound and is hobbled, but the beast that the Clips might get in return could be a fearsome addition to the squad. And this isn’t even a legitimate concern, especially not at the start—but amongst so many strengths and virtues, it’s something to keep an eye on.