2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: LA Clippers’ depth means nothing without its stars

Dec 7, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks to pass in front of Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 7, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks to pass in front of Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The LA Clippers are something of a miracle in the NBA.

They are a team built around two superstar players. Players who by themselves would certainly be good enough to lead their team to the playoffs but together make their team a title contender.

The fact the Clippers entered their season knowing and planning to manage both of them through long-term injuries to have them ready for the playoffs made their season all the more of a miracle.

Despite everything — including entering the playoffs as the 5-seed — the Clippers were among the favorites to reach the NBA Finals in the wide-open Western Conference. Anything seemed possible. They just needed their stars healthy.

That simply did not happen though.

The LA Clippers are celebrated for their health and their culture. But the unavailability of their stars ultimately cost them any chance at reaching their potential. Every team needs its stars.

Kawhi Leonard played in two Playoff games before tearing the meniscus in his knee. Leonard appeared in only 56 games during the 2023 season. Paul George missed the entire postseason after playing in only 56 games last season.

The Clippers still had their fair shot at winning the title. They still believed. And they did so because they have meticulously built up their depth and learned to have resilience in the face of all that uncertainty.

Yet depth, for as valuable as it is, only gets a team so far. Teams need their stars to win. And ultimately, depth has to serve the stars. And in the Playoffs, teams need their stars more than ever.

The Clippers are a model of careful planning and preparation. They know they are managing their two stars and that they will play very few minutes together. George and Leonard played only 995 minutes together across 38 games. That was still the Clippers’ fifth-most used two-player combination.

How little their two stars played together makes their 44-38 record all the more amazing.

The Clippers were third in the league points per game off the bench at 41.5 points per game, the most of any team that made the Playoffs last year.

They got great contributions throughout their roster. Norman Powell averaged 17.0 points per game in just eight starts. Marcus Morris averaged 11.2 points per game in starting every one of his 65 games.

In all, the Clippers had 10 players average double figures. Of course, a few of those players — John Wall and Reggie Jackson — ended the season playing elsewhere.

This was a lineup and a team that was constantly shifting. Coach Tyronn Lue did not always know who he was going to have. They were always tenacious defensively and dangerous to teams that took them easy because they did not have their stars available.

They made some smart signings and deployed them well too.

Russell Westbrook jumped in and gave them a huge boost with 15.8 points per game and 7.6 assists per game. He had a renaissance in the playoffs averaging 23.6 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game and 7.4 assists per game. Eric Gordon joined the team and averaged 11.0 points per game on 42.3 percent shooting from deep in 22 appearances.

If anything, perhaps one of the problems the Clippers faced is that in trying to chase their playoff possibilities, they gave up too much of their depth going after names that had buzz about them in the trade and mercenary markets.

Really, perhaps then, the Clippers’ issue was that they knew for all their depth and all the players that seemingly rallied to the cause they were always chasing missing their stars.

That showed ultimately in the stats too. The LA Clippers finished the season 17th in defensive rating at 113.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, one spot better than the Orlando Magic. They finished 17th in offensive rating at 114.0 points per 100 possessions. The Clippers 22-20 in close games.

With George and Leonard on the floor together, the Clippers had a 118.9 offensive rating and 110.0 defensive rating. This was an elite team when George and Leonard played together. And they were pretty good with even just one on the floor — the Clippers had a +6.1 net rating (118.2/112.1 split) with Leonard on the floor and +4.0 net rating (116.5/112.5) with George on the floor.

This was a team that outperformed its stats in many ways. They were an elite team with their stars and a plucky but struggling team without them.

So when both their star players went out in the Playoffs, they had no chance against the Phoenix Suns.

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The Clippers have depth. They have a lot of useful and capable players. But it does not matter if not for the stars.

The stars are everything. It is where the team orbits. And a team can only survive so long without reliable minutes from their star players.

That might be why the Clippers, facing that steep tax bill, might be considering moving on from their stars and resetting themselves some. Although it certainly sounds more likely the Clippers will try to run it back one more time.

Ever since the NBA Draft, the Magic have had a lot of focus on their seeming glut of guards.

One side of the coin certainly comes from worrying about how all those players will get their playing time. The other side of that coin is that by drafting Anthony Black and Jett Howard, the Magic have ensured they have talented players capable of preventing the team from starting 5-20.

Injuries may not hit this team as hard as they did last year. Those injuries early in the season likely cost the team its postseason spot. But the team is ready for it.

Expect the Magic to spend the rest of their free agency shoring up their frontcourt depth.

But at the end of the day, depth is a luxury. The necessity is the star players.

Orlando is building depth with all kinds of different players all with the goal of trying to figure out who best works with and enhances their two star players — Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner.

As good and as important as all these other players are that the Magic are investing in, they will go as far as Banchero and Wagner will take them. They will be the essential players who have to step up if the team is going to climb into the playoffs.

Depth is a good thing. Nobody should ignore or disregard depth. But ultimately the stars are what wins in the league.

Orlando has done a good job collecting a deep roster of young talent. But what matters is how their stars develop. That will ultimately map out what this team can become.

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The Clippers showed that for as valuable as good depth can be, it is meaningless without stars there to anchor it.