Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 44-20 (second in Western Conference)
Numbers: 112.9 offensive rating (third in NBA), 106.6 defensive rating (fifth), plus-6.4 net rating (tied for third)
Seeding Opponents (in order of schedule): Lakers, Pelicans, Suns, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Nets, Nuggets, Thunder
Last Time, on the Clippers …
The superstar pairing of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard played together in exactly half of the team’s total games, and the presumptive postseason starting lineup played with each other even less. Patrick Beverley, George, Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac logged only 124 minutes together after the trade deadline, but they posted a plus-19.4 net rating in that limited stretch. Title favorites typically have longer-standing chemistry, but Leonard smashed a lot of those traditional expectations last year. It’s possible we’ve already seen the Bucks’ and Lakers’ peak forms; that’s probably not the case for a Clippers team that was just starting to hit its stride before the shutdown.
How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine
Lou Williams left the bubble for a family emergency, but found his way back to the wrong Magic City. Williams may be subject to a longer quarantine period upon his return thanks to his little detour, and the absence of the Sixth Man of the Year candidate could affect the chase for the 2-seed in the Western Conference.
Elsewhere: Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet were late arrivals to the bubble and have been watching team practices through Zoom, which somehow seems worse than just missing it altogether. Beverley brought 1 million white T-shirts and has been yelling at his teammates through the hotel walls at 2 a.m.; he also left the bubble last week but returned on Sunday. George, meanwhile, has gone fishing.
Seeding-Games Goal: Avoid the Thunder
The logical answer here would be to avoid the Rockets, who can dictate the terms of engagement with their small-ball style and can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook and James Harden go supernova at the same time.
But if you’ll follow me for a stroll down Narrative Street, there’s an angry little point guard in Oklahoma City who would definitely enjoy some revenge against his former team and a familiar coach. Facing down a legend like Chris Paul and former chosen one Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one thing; but directly confronting the future implications of trading for George seems like a lot of pressure tilted to the Clippers’ side of the table.
Biggest On-Court Bubble Question: What Happens at the 5?
Too much has been made about the Clippers being in need of a rim protector. Zubac has nearly identical rim-protection numbers to all-defense candidate Brook Lopez, and Montrezl Harrell’s willingness to step in and take charges can flip a playoff game.
What makes things interesting is that Zubac’s leash has already been incredibly short—he’s appeared in only 18 fourth quarters for the Clippers this season. With Harrell serving as the closer at center, it’s possible smaller teams may come right at him in the pick-and-roll and try to play him off the court, which would likely invite some minutes at the 5 for Marcus Morris. The addition of Joakim Noah just adds another wrinkle; coach Doc Rivers has shown an affinity for veterans he faced back in the day, and Noah certainly qualifies. It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Noah’s passing and energy earns him some real playoff minutes. It is hard to consider this kind of depth and flexibility as anything other than a luxury, but Zubac getting phased out entirely may have a bigger impact than expected.
Player in the Spotlight: Kawhi Leonard
Forget the whole thing about giving an even longer-suffering franchise its first title—let’s see if three is the magic number. Leonard getting three rings and three Finals MVP awards (for his third team) before he hits 30 would put him right on pace with Michael Jordan in those same categories. For someone who has spent most of his career omitted from the “best player on the planet” conversations, another title run would be quite the statement.
On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 Is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Clippers’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?
Ten. Vegas has the Lakers and Bucks listed slightly ahead, but if the apocalypse is nigh and the simulation is broken, the Clippers have no choice but to be the 2020 champion.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.