Every championship is won by a team flexing what it has that other teams don’t—the imminent threat of Steph Curry, the crushing force of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the methodical destruction of LeBron James. The Clippers have that in Kawhi Leonard, or will once he makes his expected return from a torn ACL in the fall. Then they have Paul George, one of the league’s top costars, alongside him. And then they have a roster that stretches further than that of any other team, stacked with more options and more answers than any opponent could possibly muster.
The Clippers haven’t had a particularly eventful offseason, but with free agency winding down, they could well be the best team in the league. We’ve heard the on-paper case before with this franchise, but after rounding out an already loaded roster, the Clippers have an opportunity to make a title push not just by heaping stars on stars, but flooding the entire roster with real rotation talent. Most of the team’s offseason business came down to protecting its flank: re-signing Nicolas Batum, extending Ivica Zubac, and bringing back Amir Coffey. Otherwise, the Clippers’ most notable addition was signing John Wall with the taxpayer midlevel exception—the kind of subtle move that could feel like a coup come playoff time.
The same could be said for the trade-deadline pickups of Norman Powell and Robert Covington, which have yet to pay off in full. There is a clear benefit to simply having a greater number of capable players around, especially for a team that has been so disrupted by injury. Leonard will have all the cover he needs to ease his way back into action. The Clippers, more broadly, will have the manpower to play through other unforeseen injuries without falling into the play-in bracket as they did last season.
And once the Clippers get to the playoffs, it’s dizzying to imagine what they might be able to accomplish with all this depth. Head coach Tyronn Lue will now have an entire continuum of wing talent to choose from, with all manner of complementary skills. If the Clippers want to go five out to space the floor, for example, they’ll have to decide on what else they want with all their shooting: length, creativity, speed, strength, savvy, experience, or any combination thereof.
The consequence for all this good business is that it turns the roster into an unsolvable puzzle: a team so stuffed with talent that there isn’t any conceivable way to play everyone as much as they probably deserve. This is a team with 10—I repeat, 10—rotation-worthy wings, led by two anchoring stars who are guaranteed big minutes and commanding roles. The other eight will have to bend positions and sneak in where they can, moonlighting as a third-string point guard or backup center just to stay on the floor.
All of which puts Lue in a position as enviable as it is challenging. In theory, Los Angeles should have everything it needs to break through to the later rounds of the playoffs, beginning with the expected return of one of the league’s most undeniable players in Kawhi. Yet with so many options at his disposal, Lue will have to weigh tactical decisions against keeping the peace. Call it the Too Many Guys Corollary. Everyone is eager to sacrifice in July, but less so when they spend a few weeks in the regular season logging little more than garbage time. This depth chart will have to be balanced and rebalanced as Lue feels out what’s possible, and it will be adjusted constantly as the Clippers audition their wide variety of candidates in all sorts of provisional roles.
As a result, the Clippers are a clear-cut contender with almost nothing nailed down. The fact that George ranked 13th on the team in games played (31) last season and Leonard never appeared in a game at all means that most—if not all—of the returning Clippers will transition into radically different functions. Shot creators will become caretakers. Entrenched starters will learn to fill the gaps. Meanwhile, two of the team’s most significant additions this calendar year will need to find their place in a version of the team they’ve yet to see for themselves. Covington and Powell (who appeared in just a handful of games for L.A. due to a broken foot) found roles with a bootstrapping Clippers team that did what it could to scrape by. Now they’ll have to figure out what they mean to one of the deepest rosters ever built—and the most expensive, by salary, in NBA history.
It feels like the antithesis of a superteam. If you were intent to pinpoint the Clippers’ next-best player after Leonard and George, you could safely arrive at as many as six different answers. Yet in crunch time, at least half of those six could be forced to watch from the bench. It’s striking to think that when the game matters most, the Clippers will have space for only three of Wall, Zubac, Batum, Covington, Powell, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard. And it’s just as striking that, given the wealth of options available, we can’t really know how the most dangerous version of the Clippers might operate.
Wall is the most gifted playmaker on the roster, but ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk described the starting point guard job as an open competition; in the end, Lue might prefer to balance his superstar wings with Jackson, a more flexible guard. Zubac may be the Clippers’ only real center, but that doesn’t guarantee him a spot in the first five on a team all too eager to play small. Batum, Morris, or Covington could start at the 4 or the 5, allowing the rest of the lineup to adjust accordingly. And that’s not even digging into the way these decisions impact one another; if Lue wants to stay bigger with Zubac on the floor, does that make him more likely to lean on Wall in the pick-and-roll or to replace Wall with a more reliable shooter?
The most exciting contenders are the teams where everything is on the table. The teams that manage to build an identity without locking themselves into any particular shape. Leonard is the powerhouse. George is the elegant counter. The rest of the supporting cast allows the Clippers to ebb and flow and be whatever they need to be, unlocked in the world of difference between bruising scorers and lanky defenders that ostensibly play the same positions.
If all goes according to plan, that depth could be the skeleton key in an increasingly diverse Western Conference. Any challenger out West will need solutions for Curry on and off the ball, for Luka Doncic as he hunts mismatches, for Ja Morant at full speed, for Nikola Jokic as he moves all around the floor—and possibly for Kevin Durant, who remains in trade request limbo. They’ll need to reckon with the smallest version of the defending champion Warriors and the biggest lineups from the newly supersized Timberwolves.
Having a roster that can toggle between styles is no longer a luxury against that kind of field. It’s a matter of survival. And the Clippers have done everything possible to give themselves a chance by stocking their team like a doomsday bunker and sparing no expense in the process. Overkill is the whole point. All the Clippers have to do now is stay healthy, stay together, and make sense of the kind of roster the league has never seen before.