The Clippers begin their year again with a muddle of uncertainty, and Tyronn Lue has decisions to make

LOS ANGELES – About this time last year, it showed up Los Angeles Clippers They were facing a crisis.

Kawhi Leonard He was in the middle of rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee. Paul George He was considering having surgery at the end of the season to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow; In the end, George was rehabilitated without surgery but missed three months. The menu is further ruined by repeated health and safety protocol entries. Even head coach Tyronn Lue has ushered 2022 into the protocols — in Canada.

The Clippers were destined for a season-long adjustment. But it took a tough week to get there. And another difficult week could be on the horizon in the wake of Los Angeles’ three-game game, uncertainty surrounding Paul George and concerns about the permanent availability of Kawhi Leonard.

Last season, after a thrilling win on New Year’s Day on the way back against Brooklyn Networksthe Clippers returned home to host Minnesota Timberwolves. Patrick Beverly He made it his mission to attack the point guards Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe, and the Clippers opened their 2022 home schedule with a heavy loss. Three days later, they went to the Mountain Time Zone and were easily beaten by Phoenix Suns500 (19-20) for the first time since a seven-game winning streak offset a 1-4 start. Clippers hosted Memphis Grizzlies the following Saturday and was blown away by a team led by a third-string coach.

This is when Lue had a conversation with Amir Kofi, then on a two-way contract, grooming him for a larger role for a team that “can eat but can’t cook”. Changes were already underway — Bledsoe never started again after the loss in Phoenix — but the Clippers were committed to a team that had to play without Leonard and George indefinitely. Coffey responded with 21 points in Sunday’s game-winning home run Atlanta Hawks That snapped the team’s three-game losing streak.

It wasn’t necessarily clippers Hassan After that Hawks game – the offense improved to 19th for the remainder of the season after finishing 27th in the Hawks game last year, while the defense dropped from 4th to 12th over the same period. But adjusting personnel and opposing playstyles to suit those personnel allowed the Clippers to remain in the playoffs despite a grueling winter schedule. And even then, the Clippers have had two major tackles that have shaken the roster, adding Norman Powell And the Robert Covington While parting with the Bledsoe rotation players, Justice Winslow And the Serge Ibaka.

Fast forward to Week 1 of 2023. The Clippers returned home from a five-game Eastern Conference road trip to host Miami Heat. Leonard was inactive due to a non-COVID illness, and with the way the rest of the Clippers players defended themselves to start the game, it was fair to wonder if they might have been fouled as well.

By halftime on Monday, the Clippers trailed 67-49. The Clippers usually have solid performances at some point, and the starters responded with a 24-2 run that featured eight minutes without Heat baskets and an uncommon third quarter of Clippers tackles.

But the Clippers entered the game, their only Pacific Rim game in eight games, for 17 days, having lost five of the previous six quarters. It would have been six consecutive fourth quarters If not for the last ditch effort against the Detroit Pistons With a lineup that Lue didn’t expect to save the game with. George also tweaked a troublesome right hamstring on this late third quarter play, causing him to spend the start of the fourth quarter in the locker room with what the team later called right hamstring discomfort:

The Clippers know they have comeback abilities, but Lue has relied on second unit formations that include the three Powell (6-foot-4), Luke Kennard (6-5) f John Wall (6-3), a second-unit triple favorite who struggled to share the floor, scoring just 101.8 points per 100 possessions and allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions in 99 minutes. The defense will be ranked 19th in NBA, but crime will be ranked last. The numbers are worse in 33 minutes of the fourth quarter this season: 97.0 points per 100 possessions, 131.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Against the Heat, the Clippers started the fourth quarter with that trio playing together, and the Heat outscored the Clippers 22-12 in those eight fourth quarter minutes. This also marked the final margin, a 110-100 Heat win which was the Clippers’ third straight loss. Overall, the Heat outscored the Clippers 29-17 going into the fourth quarter, the worst fourth quarter margin of the season for Los Angeles.

This can’t be about one game, or even one losing streak. Lue will need to make some tough choices very soon, as his idealistic approach of waiting for offense to happen and settling damaging formations is ephemeral for a team that has failed to win four straight games all season.

George’s injury is a major concern. While he says he is playing day in and day out and will try to be ready for Thursday’s nationally televised road game vs. Denver NuggetsIt is clear that George is dealing with a recurring injury. He missed 15 days with a right hamstring injury in November, then missed two matches with a sore knee in mid-December. Whether it’s two games or two weeks, it seems prudent for George to miss some time before the 13-year-old veteran runs the risk of a serious aggravation that could cost him a month or more. That’s what the Suns shoot rangers Devin Booker He now deals with a similarly groggy Phoenix team.

Back in October, George was dealing with a non-COVID illness while Leonard had to stand up for several weeks to treat a chronic illness. The roles are now reversed. Even if Leonard is healthy enough to return Thursday, the Clippers will enter time zone four during seven Fridays on the road in Minnesota. Leonard is expected to miss at least one of the next two games. And when George played himself sick, it showed. It didn’t make clippers better. How does Leonard feel after playing a downgrade game, watching the Bears during a particularly difficult period.

What kind of team will Lue have when the Clippers return home Sunday to take on the Hawks — the same team that solidified Lue’s turnover in early January a year ago? Lue was relying on seasoned point guards with theoretical bouts – Jackson as a catch-and-shoot starter with enough playmaking to be an acceptable threat, Wall as a change-of-pace forward tasked with catching Powell and Kennard shots. But Jackson’s incompetence rises when he’s on the floor without George and Leonard, while Wall struggled mightily with all his teammates in the rotation except for Leonard and Terrence Man.

Lue’s team was supposed to be “Wingstop University”. It was more like a “Small Guard Community College.” Lue was reluctant to play lineups that did not include Jackson or Wall in favor of combinations with Kennard, Powell, or Mann as the de facto point guards. Perhaps the decision would be easier for Lue if his stars were more available, or if Kennard, Powell or Mann were more dynamic as playmakers.

As it stands now, damned if you do, damned if you don’t because of Lue’s offense: He’s trying to maintain an offensive system and ranks 27th in the NBA, just like last year. But if you’re sitting out the veteran guards, how much improvement would that come, and how do you manage that situation?

Powell is a great scorer capable of high-level efficiency, but his assist turnover rate of 0.89 is the worst of any outfielder on the team. Kennard’s 1.39 assist turnover is the next worst; Kennard is a great shooter, but he’s regularly criticized for not looking for his shot enough, and his playmaking chopping can be overstated because he drives fewer times per game than any guard on the team.

Mann was caught in the middle – a player who was a starting point guard for Lue, especially when Bledsoe was starting and after Bledsoe was traded. But Mann was also asked to play a position role, and the constant switching of roles and positions was generally not in Mann’s favour. Lue would prefer Mann to be a small forward, but at this point the only decision Lue would have made was for Mann to play more than Covington. The fact that it is either/or between Mann and Covington can be described as a wrong choice at this point; even with Nicholas Batum Outside on Saturday at Indiana, Covington only played the first half while Mann only played the second half. Mann described the recent recurrence of his role as “just something that happened”, noting that Lue didn’t really talk to Mann about his situation. Just like Lue did with Covington.

Covington has been the odd man out all season, but it’s also clear he didn’t miss a beat Isaiah Hartenstein over Covington. In the past year, Covington has been regularly linked with Hartenstein in second units. All but 22 of his extra positive minutes last season came with Hartenstein, Ivica Zupak Or weep on the floor. Too often this season, Lue has Batum or Marcus Morris Sr. As edge protectors in lineups without Zubac. While these combos are transformable, they’re also chewable, especially if Leonard isn’t on the floor. Unfortunately for Covington, he has had a negative plus-minus mark in every game he has played since the beginning of December Off his birthday game against the Timberwolves. Perhaps Covington will play more when the roster is appropriately tweaked, however Covington is also working on an archetype fitting of the Winslow/Ibaka trade filter.

All of this leads Lue’s Clippers to the incredible reality they face. Lue controls the change of order or formations, although his best players are not available. Lue can’t wait for miserable three-guard formations to sort themselves out or for his aging core team to play consistently good basketball with the energy required for four quarters instead of four solid minutes.

Lue gets a lot of the credit for his willingness to tweak schemes, especially defensively, as well as his ability to connect with his players and make them play aggressively. This remains the head coach of the franchise’s only Conference Finals appearance, something his critics thought would not be possible after the shortcomings of his predecessor and mentor Doc Rivers. Lue still has nine players from the 2021 Conference Finals team, including both stars and all five starters.

But this isn’t 2021. It’s not until 2022. Like Mann said, there’s more body and more depth, which makes calculus different. Expectations rose, and the Clippers didn’t quite meet them. It’s still possible to reach the summit of the West—the Clippers are just four games off the top spot—and the Lowe’s is a major part of the cultural shift. But now is the time for the Clippers to forge an identity.

Otherwise, the front office has assets that can make a hole in the pocket. If Lue wants this team to stay together as it was created, they’ll have to play like that, whether or not Leonard or George are available. Trade deadline in five weeks. If Lue can’t straighten out the Clippers, the front office will almost certainly be moved to rearrange the deck.

(Photo by Tyronn Lue: John E. Sokolowski/USA Today)

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