The LA Clippers have been through years of injuries with their starters before. They have been through franchise upheavals too. Even as they switched from Doc Rivers to Tyronn Lue, their identity remained the key to their success and weathering this storm.
There were stars to orbit and move around. Everyone would fall into a role. But this team was about something more. Those role players understood this better than anything.
Yes, they served a role when the stars were present, but their roles went beyond that. They had to for the team to find success.
The Clippers’ championship hopes certainly rested on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s health. But their heart and soul are the role players who keep the team afloat through all the injury management. The mix of veterans and young players who gave the Clippers life and kept them in the playoff chase.
The league is defined by its stars. But the best teams are defined by their culture. And that is something that lasts and works even if stars have to miss time.
The LA Clippers were down their two main stars for most of the season. But an understanding of their roles and a connection to an identity helped them weather the storm to make the Play-In Tournament.
The Clippers’ success in getting to the Play-In Tournament and earning eighth place in the Western Conference was on the backs of their role players and the identity and culture they created within them.
It was one of hard workers who never really gave up — the LA Clippers had several come-from-behind victories, including one against the Orlando Magic — and players who took turns stepping up.
Even with Leonard out the entire season and George out for most of the season — he missed 54 games with a wrist injury — the Clippers still carved out an identity and still came up with big wins with players stepping up.
From Dec. 8 to March 25 (when George was out), the Clippers had a 23-27 record and a -3.2 net rating. The team without George was not particularly good offensively or defensively (26th in offensive rating and 17th in defensive rating). This was about treading water and staying alive in the playoff race.
The Clippers built some cushion to establish playoff positioning and just needed to prevent a free fall. They won six of their final seven games after George returned to clinch their spot. This Clippers team still needed someone like George.
But that group still carved its own identity without him, even if the record was still inconsistent.
The absence pushed Reggie Jackson to the front — he averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 39.3-percent from the floor. That comes with its own issues even with Jackson having some strong moments in the process.
Young players like Terrance Mann stepped up to score 11.5 points per game during this stretch. Amir Coffey was called to the plate and averaged 10.8 points per game.
Among players who played the majority of games during this stretch, the Clippers had seven players score in double figures. That was some great balance for a team that lacked its star power.
The Clippers did a decent job ratcheting up players to a different level and finding the hot hand — whether that was Reggie Jackson one night, Terrance Mann another or Luke Kennard another. If the Clippers were in a close game, they had the firepower and the confidence to give themselves a chance.
Of course, there is no replacing star power. And at the end of the day, talent tends to even out. In an 82-game season, everyone finds their level.
The Clippers did not have enough — as evidenced by their falling short in the Play-In Tournament after Paul George went into health and safety protocols for that final game.
Still, everyone credited Tyronn Lue for keeping his team together and giving them a chance to make the playoffs. The Clippers were a .500 team without George this season. And with the players they had, that seemed like a better-than-expected result.
When George and Leonard return next year, the experience they got playing together will surely help them be better role players and step up when the moment calls for them. If that is what this season ended up being for the Clippers, it should launch them back into contention next season.
This is an absolute necessity for teams to get to that next level. As Shaquille O’Neal likes to put it: Stars carry the biggest load, but it is the others who get those players over the top and set up their success.
The good teams win games when their stars are out and still play the same way with different guys stepping up. The playoffs are all about finding any which way you can to win. And the players throughout the roster — from rookies like Herb Jones for the New Orleans Pelicans to Jevon Carter for the Milwaukee Bucks — gain the confidence to step in big moments during the postseason.
If anything, the problem for the Clippers during their single-elimination loss to the Pelicans in the Play-In Tournament final came because they started to count too much on their star player and his absence kept them from reaching their potential.
That is at the heart of the issue too, and perhaps one of the concerns the Clippers had as they reintroduced George to the mix.
As much as some executives may hate the idea of culture and identity when it comes to their team — these sometimes feel like just buzz words to define intangible things and make something completely unscientific a bit more defined and easier to quantify — there is something to it.
A team needs to be able to play the same way and stay consistent even when top players are out. Certainly, other parts of their game will have to increase and decrease without the star player to orbit around. But a team needs to be about the same things defensively and offensively in these moments.
The Clippers had moments where this was apparent. Even without George for most of the season, LA was always a hard out.
They may have gone down at points in the season, but they were rarely out of games. And they had the veteran know-how to keep coming at teams and sometimes catch them unaware to steal games. The Clippers have a strong supporting cast.
The Magic this year, of course, were a team full of young players trying to find this identity and find some level of consistency. They are still trying to find their way to play and what they have to do to win no matter who is in and out of the lineup. There was certainly a lack of depth at times — partly because of mishits in second-round picks and veteran signings and the heavy reliance on so many young players.
The Magic are still trying to craft the top of the roster and find the star that everyone can orbit around. Once they have that — like the Clippers have in both Leonard and George — everyone’s roles will become clearer.
That will also make it easier to define that identity and style. And it will help those players know when they need to step up and how they can step up when star players inevitably miss some time during the course of a season.
The most important thing the Magic can do entering and exiting the 2023 season is to define these roles more clearly and have an understanding of where players fit into the bigger picture moving forward.
That is what helped the Clippers stay afloat through all the injuries to their big players this season. And it is what will help them define what comes next for them.