Injuries have completely wiped away the hopes of contending teams over the past few NBA seasons, and the Clippers know that feeling all too well. While getting in a rhythm for the playoffs is important, the recent history of the Clippers showcases that rest can trump cohesion and team chemistry.
Lob City’s nightmarish playoff failures are well-documented, but it is often forgotten just how much injuries derailed some of those playoff runs. The final three seasons of that era were perhaps the worst. Chris Paul was able to play all 82 games of the 2014-15 regular season, but his body broke down during the playoffs. He injured his hamstring in game 7 of the first round series against the San Antonio Spurs, which would cause him to miss multiple games in the second round series against the Houston Rockets. The following postseason, CP3 made another early exit from the playoffs after breaking his hand against the Portland Trailblazers. Blake Griffin would miss months of the 2015-16 regular season after breaking his hand, and then would fail to finish consecutive postseasons after injuring his quad and then his toe. After a while, pessimism kicked in, and fans would come to expect bad things to take place in an untimely manner, diminishing any momentum or success the teams had built. But now, the Clippers have some shiny new toys in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and this organization won’t risk putting wear and tear on their bodies for the sake of a few regular season wins.
All season long, the Clippers have been extremely cautious in holding their injured players out of games. But between Leonard’s load management, George making his way back from dual offseason shoulder surgeries, and the extended periods of absences to other players with minor injuries, this tactic has been frustrating for fans to adapt to.
The Clippers’ three most important players (Paul George, Patrick Beverley, and Kawhi Leonard) have been the most frequent players to be out of the lineup, having missed 60 games between them. Combining those key absences with the major mid-season roster additions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, coach Doc Rivers has had to roll out 32 different starting lineups, second most of the 2020 playoff teams. It seems almost laughable the amount of times we’ve heard Doc reference how few practices the team has had together as a full unit. The lack of reps and time together on the practice court has certainly been evident in games, as lack of familiarity and cohesiveness have held these Clippers back from being consistently dominant. The cautionary tactic has led to mixed results as the Clippers have lost many winnable games. This has in turn frustrated fans further, especially since the rival Lakers had such a dominant season while going all-out to win games.
The Clippers’ lack of continuity is certainly concerning when it comes to rhythm and meshing on the court. However, these Clippers as a whole have remained relatively healthy throughout the season, which was the plan all along, largely due to being able to rest key players. It is also important to note that while there have been minor dings here and there, no player has been sidelined this season with any major injuries (torn ligaments, broken bones, etc.). In a post-game media session following the 129-120 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Leonard spoke on balancing rest/health with being in rhythm and winning. “I definitely think the healthiest teams usually win it all,” Leonard said. “Guys that have a full roster have a good bench. If we can get a rhythm going with the guys that we have here that usually play then we’ll see what happens.”
Leonard said it best: “THE HEALTHIEST TEAMS USUALLY WIN IT ALL.” It’s really that simple. In 2019, Leonard led his team to victory over the Golden State Warriors, who had managed to lose two of their All-Star players to injury during the playoff run. Those same Warriors found themselves on the brink of elimination in the 2018 Western Conference Finals before another Chris Paul failed hamstring helped them to a third NBA championship. And, of course, you can’t talk about the 2015 Warriors championship without remembering that those Cleveland Cavaliers they faced were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. While it’s true that these teams rightfully earned their championship titles, there’s no denying that they benefited from the untimely injuries of their opponents. If those teams had been able to operate like the Clippers and rest more of their key players in the regular season, maybe the outcomes would have been different.
Most teams couldn’t afford to be as generous with resting key players as the Clippers. Yet, here the Clippers are as the 2 seed in the western conference, their highest regular season finish in franchise history. The team’s talent, and relatively healthy roster, has kept them afloat despite the repeated shuffling of lineups throughout the season. This lack of continuity would normally be cause for concern, but when you have a roster as deep as the 2020 Clippers, you trust that they’ll still be able to produce. In fact, you could make the case that the constant jumbled rotation from game to game has actually helped the team, preparing them for many possibilities that could occur during this postseason run. Whether it be injuries, foul trouble, suspensions, or on-the-fly game plan changes, each player has had experience this season playing different roles with different teammates on the court. That could be invaluable come playoff time, when the gameplan and rotations of coaches change on a game to game basis.
Regardless of how the postseason concludes, you should know that this health-focused regular season was beneficial and is probably here to stay. The Clippers roster is seemingly relatively healthy, and has accumulated some rest. The team’s two superstars, Leonard and George, are the healthiest and best rested they’ve been in a few postseasons, and are playing like the best versions we’ve seen of them this season. As fans, that’s all you can ask for at this point; the best player in the world has a full tank of gas that’s ready to fuel this Clippers team on a deep playoff run.