Was it not just yesterday that the LA Clippers were fighting to keep their 2020-21 season alive in the Western Conference Finals? Believe it or not, training camp for the 2021-22 season is just two weeks away, their first preseason game falls on Oct. 4 and their season opener against the Golden State Warriors will tip off on Oct. 21. Meaningful basketball will be back in the blink of an eye, but Head Coach Tyronn Lue and co. still have quite a few questions to answer before that time comes. The following are three of the most crucial and confounding:
Who gets Kawhi’s spot?
No one can fill Kawhi Leonard’s shoes, of course. His absence, due to an ACL injury suffered in last year’s postseason, will probably keep LA out of title contention this season depending on the speed of his recovery. Lue knows there isn’t a player hiding somewhere down his bench that can score 25+ a game, guard the opposing team’s best player for stretches and generate open looks for his teammates. That burden will fall on Paul George, who’s primed to put up some career numbers as the Clippers’ lone superstar.
Even so, Lue is required by the NBA to start five players at the beginning of every game (damn you, Adam Silver). So who gets that last spot? The sexy answer is third-year wing Terance Mann, who had a breakout postseason and started six of LA’s eight Kawhi-less games in the back half of their postseason run. Clipper fans would be ecstatic if Mann could make a substantial leap in his third season, building on the strides he made in the playoffs (highlighted by a 39-point masterpiece to close out the Utah Jazz) and becoming one of the league’s premiere three-and-D players. He needs to improve in both of those categories, but he’s shown plenty of flashes in addition to some nice off-the-dribble creation. He’d be a great supplemental fit next to George if he can consistently take and make jumpshots (not just from the corners).
A less sexy option would be Eric Bledsoe, whom the Clippers acquired earlier this offseason. His strength and huge wingspan enable him to guard shooting guards, and the Clippers could use his drive-and-kick game. However, his deficiencies as an off-ball player could clog the offense. Bledsoe’s jumpshot has been suspect his entire career, and with a ball-dominant wing like George running the show in the starting lineup, Bledsoe might be best suited as a backup point guard.
Nicolas Batum is the best player among these options, and could easily slide in on the wing. However, he thrived as a sixth man last season, and his secondary playmaking and shooting will be needed on the second unit, particularly now that Lue doesn’t have the luxury of staggering George and Leonard so that one of them is on the court at all times. Still, it’s never a bad strategy to simply start your five best players.
Don’t be surprised if Luke Kennard gets some consideration, considering he shot 44.6% from three last year for LA. However, he’s nowhere near the level of defender that the above three players are, and opposing offenses might elect to hunt him down as the weak link in an otherwise stout defensive unit.
Who starts at center?
One side of the coin is a 24-year-old rim-runner with great touch around the basket and solid instincts as a rim-protector. The other is a 31-year-old veteran who was once the most prolific shot-blocker in the league and has now evolved into a stretch-five. There’s not really a bad choice Lue can make between Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka, but he has to make one nonetheless. Perhaps it’ll simply come down to health to start the season, as both players have been recovering from ailments in the offseason (an MCL sprain for Zubac and back surgery for Ibaka).
The answer to the first question of this article may also help to answer this one. If Lue elects to start a poor shooter like Bledsoe, Ibaka’s floor-spacing will be necessary in the starting lineup. If he goes with Mann, Batum or Kennard, he can get away with having a traditional center like Zubac. Who knows? Zubac attempted and made his first three-pointer last season, so perhaps he’ll transform into a stretch-five as well this year.
Who wins the third center battle?
The Clippers’ front office has been busy the last few weeks, signing Harry GIles III to a non-guaranteed deal and Isaiah Hartenstein to a training camp deal, with the hope that one of them will separate himself as LA’s best option for a tertiary big man. Normally, the third-center question wouldn’t be too consequential, but given Ibaka’s injury history (he was only able to play 41 regular season games and two playoff games for LA last year), whoever earns Lue’s favor in training camp and the preseason will likely see real minutes at some point in the regular season.