Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 19
Last Season: 42-40
Notable Additions: Marcin Gortat (trade), Luc Mbah a Moute (free agency), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (draft), Lee Jenkins (free agency, I guess?)
Notable Subtractions: DeAndre Jordan (free agency), Austin Rivers (trade), Wesley Johnson’s soul (James Harden crossover)
Vegas Over/Under: 35.5
Team MVP: Lou Williams
Best-Case Scenario: L.A.’s “other team” has been completely reset, with zero players remaining on the roster from when Steve Ballmer purchased the franchise in 2014. The Lob City era, inarguably the most successful period in franchise history, officially concluded this offseason with DeAndre Jordan leaving for the Dallas Mavericks. Still, the Clippers are uniquely situated to remain competitive while rebuilding—a course that president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and his front office seem focused on pursuing.
Even if they fail to acquire Jimmy Butler, who reportedly requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves and would like to end up with either the Heat, Clippers, Knicks, or Nets, L.A. has assembled enough talent to potentially compete for a playoff spot, even in the stacked Western Conference. Last season’s “Goon Squad,” led by Lou “should have been an All-Star” Williams, remains mostly intact. Tobias Harris, entering a contract year in the middle of his prime, is coming off a career-high season in scoring, 3-point percentage, and 3-pointers attempted; the concomitance of incentive and talent may result in an exceptional season from him. Young reserves such as human torpedo Montrezl Harrell and under-the-radar prospect Tyrone Wallace bring depth to the bench, along with European standouts Boban Marjanovic and Milos Teodosic. Plus, the acquisition of Marcin Gortat, the return of Luc Mbah a Moute, and the addition of rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson will bolster an already well-rounded rotation.
The question comes down to, as it often does with the Clippers, health. Last season, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, and Avery Bradley played only a combined 38 out of 196 possible games (19.4 percent) because of injury. For perspective, those three players’ salaries add up to a whopping $38.6 million this season. If they can stay healthy, it is not unfathomable that head coach Doc Rivers could lead this collection of super reserves to the playoffs. After all, Rivers displayed some exceptional coaching after the Blake Griffin trade, shifting his defensive scheme and running a more creative, egalitarian offense. So while it is not rational to imagine anything beyond a playoff berth from a team whose best player is probably [squints] Tobias Harris, the puzzle pieces might fall just right for a surprise run.
But if a first-round exit is the ceiling, acquiring two star free agents is the sky. L.A. can create enough cap room for two max contracts in the summer of 2019, when Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and other star players whose names don’t start with a K can hit the free-agent market. Kawhi has already been linked to the Clippers; and if they don’t give up assets for Butler before the start of this season, they can always sign him outright in the summer. With cap flexibility and a roster filled with solid reserves, the Clippers can market themselves as an attractive destination for stars who want to live in Los Angeles without the burden of playing next to LeBron James on the Lakers. Plus, they could get Lee Jenkins to write about their choice.
Worst-Case Scenario: If there is anything I’ve learned from my time as a Clippers fan, it is to never expect the best-case scenario.
For starters, the chances of shirking the injury bug are slim; the three players who had extended stints on the shelf last season—Gallo, Beverley, and Bradley—have histories of lower body injuries beyond their Clippers tenures. Moreover, the Clippers presumably will be relying on heavy minutes from Gortat, Mbah a Moute, Williams, and the remains of Johnson, all of whom are in their 30s. And while rookies Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson were impressive in summer league, it is unfair to expect them to produce out of the gate.
Sure, Rivers’s coaching could maximize the talent, but this is a starless squad with no discernible leader. They will likely rely on Williams to be their primary scorer again, and while he picked up the slack last season, it remains to be seen if the 6-foot-1 career reserve can replicate that in his 14th season. Also, with Gortat replacing Jordan in the middle, there may be a significant drop-off in interior defense, foiling the efforts of noted stalwarts Beverley and Bradley on the perimeter. And as well-rounded as the bench is, they may be forced into the starting lineup because of injury. A team of super reserves can easily become a team of average starters.
The Clippers can solve that problem by swinging a trade for Butler, or plucking another star out of free agency next summer. But while the lure of Los Angeles is strong, they won’t be the only team with big dreams in the near future. In fact, five teams (the Pacers, Nets, Kings, Mavericks, and Hawks) can create more room than the Clippers, and three more (the Lakers, Sixers, and Knicks) project to be able to offer at least one max contract. As the Lakers found out with Paul George, some or even most of the players available may not even look past their current team. While the Clippers’ cap space opens up new possibilities, they could wind up filling their two max slots with a combination of good-but-not-great players, condemning them to the dreaded hamster wheel of mediocrity.
TL;DR: This season is just a setup to a crucial free-agency summer, for better or worse.