The L.A. Clippers got their men. Now they’ll have to prove they can persevere despite a foreign object on their backs.
Don’t worry, the NBA hasn’t started advertising on the back of jerseys just yet. Instead, what’s set to debut in 2019-20 is a shiny new target being placed squarely on the league’s little engine that never has.
The Clippers, who famously failed to win a playoff series for 30 years until last decade and who have never reached the conference finals, will enter next season as the favorite to win the championship next June.
Kawhi Leonard stunned most in deciding to sign with the Lakers’ kid brother last week, spurning the opportunity to join forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in addition to passing on defending the title with Toronto.
Paul George, who wanted to return to his native L.A. when he forced a trade from Indiana a few years ago, got his wish when Oklahoma City granted his request for a trade and sent him to the Clippers to give Leonard the tag-team partner he coveted most.
Make no mistake, this was a Leonard power play. He’s got the most juice in the league right now, replacing James and injured star Kevin Durant as the NBA’s top talent after bringing the Raptors their first title in a dynamic one-year run with the organization.
Leonard helped deliver a championship for a team that hadn’t even won an Eastern Conference title in their 24-year history, doing so while playing hurt for weeks on end. He played through a nagging quad injury and knee tendinitis, visibly limping and struggling to get the lift he enjoyed early in the postseason after suffering an injury in the East semifinals against the 76ers.
Leonard beat Philadelphia on the first Game 7 buzzer beater in playoff history and then won Finals MVP. He put his unbelievable strength, fabulous defense and improved shooting touch on display when it mattered most for the better part of two months and now joins forces with a player who finished third in the regular-season Most Valuable Player voting before ending the season banged-up in his own right.
George underwent offseason shoulder surgery and isn’t expected to be ready to fully get after it when the regular season begins, but he’ll give the Clippers the league’s top two-way wings when healthy.
The Clippers went from 16-1 at the Westgate SuperBook down to 3-1, opening the week as the betting favorite ahead of the Bucks (9-2), Lakers (5-1) and 76ers (8-1). Impact reserves Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell return, as do starters Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac, who both re-signed. I’d avoid blindly backing the ‘over’ on regular-season wins for the Clips since their depth will make it easier to give Leonard and George nights off to rest. But once the playoffs roll around, opponents are going to find it difficult to get much accomplished on the perimeter with Leonard, George and Beverley. L.A. will be the NBA’s top defensive team.
The Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets should also emerge as top contenders in the West, while the Bucks and 76ers look like the class of the East. For futures purposes, the Heat (50-1) and Pistons (100-1) are teams worth getting behind for the sheer value of it since former MVP Russell Westbrook is potentially in play for both.
The league race figures to be more open than it’s been this decade, which has featured the Warriors, Heat, Spurs and Cavs in starring roles. Although the individual usual suspects are now in positions of power in new places, volatility could serve the likes of a Utah, Denver or Milwaukee, smaller-market teams looking to join the Clippers in reaching heights they’ve barely even flirted with in decades.
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