Three nights after the Clippers thumped the league-best Boston Celtics, their customers spent hundreds of dollars to enter the arena Thursday and watch a Clippers team that didn’t include Kawhi Leonard …
… or Paul George …
… or Reggie Jackson …
… or Ivica Zubac …
… or Luke Kennard …
… or Norm Powell.
Of the six players who were sidelined for the 111-95 defeat to the Phoenix Suns, only Powell didn’t play against the Celtics on Monday and Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
“It’s disappointing because we can’t stay healthy,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
These Clippers could be the greatest collection of talent in franchise history. They could finish the season as NBA champions.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts encouraged fans to enjoy the Dodgers’ regular-season journey, but that advice shouldn’t be applied to the Clippers.
Their journey is painful.
Their journey is hard to watch.
There were plenty of empty seats for their last two games, and who could blame the fans for staying away when the team is fielding mystery box lineups?
Against the Suns, the Clippers used their 12th starting lineup in 31 games, this one consisting of John Wall, Terance Mann, Moses Brown, Amir Coffey and Marcus Morris Sr.
They aren’t doing this by choice.
“It’s not something where we’re actually just resting guys,” Lue said. “Like, guys are banged up.”
Leonard, who returned this season from knee surgery, is yet to play on consecutive nights. George had a sore knee. Jackson had a swollen Achilles tendon. Kennard has been dealing with a strained calf. Zubac injured his knee against the Timberwolves.
Powell hasn’t played in more than two weeks because of a groin injury.
The Clippers are optimistic Leonard, George and Jackson could return to play Saturday against the Washington Wizards. Zubac could miss a couple more games.
In addition to complicating efforts to generate buzz for a franchise that exists in the Lakers’ shadows, the guessing game over who might play has also compromised Lue’s ability to set his team on course to win its first championship.
The excitement about the monumental victory over the Celtics?
The spirit that was fortified in a rugged win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday?
Back to zero.
The momentum that built up over their three-game winning streak?
“It’s definitely real frustrating when we have a good thing going, have a nice little rhythm, figuring stuff out,” Mann said. “About to start a nice little win streak, I thought, and this happens.”
The Clippers are 7-2 in games in which Leonard and George have played together, and 10-12 in their other games.
Outscored by their opponents on the season, the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 71 points in the 195 minutes Leonard and George have shared on the court.
George said he thinks the Clippers’ offense is best when Zubac is on the floor. One problem: Zubac hasn’t played much with Leonard or George.
The roster was built around the two stars, with the roles of the other players designed to magnify Leonard’s and George’s strengths. When one or both of them are missing, the job descriptions of the others changes dramatically.
With Leonard and George playing against the Timberwolves, Mann attempted six field goals and Brandon Boston one. With Leonard and George absent for the Suns game, Mann put up 14 shots and Boston 13.
Leonard’s and George’s absences change other aspects of the game as well.
“We understand when PG and Kawhi are on the floor, things are gonna be a lot different defensively,” Lue said.
On the bright side, the loss to the Suns dropped the Clippers to only 3 ½ games back of the Western Conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies.
“You hate to see it, but if it’s gonna happen, I’d rather it happen early than late,” Lue said.
The playoffs don’t start for four more months. The Clippers still have time to get their players healthy. They still have time to become a team.
That doesn’t make the current stage of the season any more pleasant to watch. This is a period to be endured rather than enjoyed, the daily surprises in their lineups entirely unsurprising.