Coach Tyronn Lue’s wish list is short this year. All he wants is 15 games with a whole, healthy team. That’s 15 consecutive games with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the rest of the talent-laden Clippers all in uniform. No street clothes.
But his wish for continuity might be a difficult, even impossible, get considering the team’s vulnerability to injuries and philosophy regarding giving players games off to rest. This week was a perfect example of how hard it is for the Clippers to achieve any sort of consistency.
On Monday, every player was available to play against the Boston Celtics except Norman Powell, who has not played since Nov. 29 because of a groin injury. The Clippers upset the Celtics.
By Wednesday, the attrition began with John Wall sitting out the scheduled first game of a back-to-back. Still, Leonard and George were on the court to face Minnesota. They struggled to win that winnable game.
Then came Thursday’s second game of the back-to-back against Phoenix. Leonard was out for scheduled rest and joined by George, Reggie Jackson Ivica Zubac, Luke Kennard and Powell, who were out for sudden injuries and soreness. The Clippers lost in a rout.
Lue said the injuries are frustrating but there is little he can do except rely on those who are healthy and the medical staff.
“It just depends on who’s heathy and are able to get through it,” Lue said. “When guys are out, it just puts a lot of strain on other guys playing more minutes, having to do more. So, even though guys are out, you’re killing the other guys if you want to do heavy practices or hard practices.”
The heavy minutes by other players have taken a toll. Zubac, who is averaging 29.5 minutes a game, is a prime example.
The Clippers’ ironman center doesn’t like to sit out. He plays through aches and pains, saying they are just “part of the game.” But the 7-footer suffered a bone bruise against Minnesota after starting all 30 previous games.
Jackson is the same way. Hates to miss games and has played through numerous minor injuries but was seen limping off the court Wednesday. He is averaging 29.3 minutes.
Marcus Morris Sr. and George are topping the 30-minute mark, while five others are picking up the rest of load with more than 20 minutes a game.
Load management, or injury management, is another issue, something that has become a trademark of Clippers’ seasons since Leonard arrived in 2019. The concept is to allow teams to monitor the minutes of veteran players and those with an injury history.
Before this season began, the Clippers established a plan to manage Leonard, who was coming off an ACL injury, along with George (elbow) and other veteran players. Team president Lawrence Frank detailed this plan in a pre-training camp media session.
Frank said the detailed plan is “to give some of those heavy-load carriers (rest) to where they’re not overtaxed at that time – yet there’s enough continuity where there’s rhythm there, so it’s a fine balance.”
Only that hasn’t quite worked. The Clippers have used 11 starting lineups. Leonard has missed 21 of the 31 games after experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired knee and suffering a sprained ankle. George has missed nine games. Kennard, who has been bothered by a nagging calf injury, has seen action in just 19 games and a handful of various other injuries have made consistency unreachable.
Frank had said the Clippers were set up to preserve their veterans for the long haul, but when the lesser stars are overtaxed, the plan goes awry.