Should the season resume, the same roster that had been dogged by injuries since last summer is on track to be the healthiest it has been.
“The Kawhi [Leonard] we’ll see will be in phenomenal shape,” coach Doc Rivers said, adding that Paul George «is another guy that’s goig to be in phenomenal shape. Reggie [Jackson], who was injured when we got him, will now be healthy.”
Another player who stands to benefit is the team’s third center, Joakim Noah, who had recovered from an Achilles tendon injury in the fall to fill the last spot on the 15-man roster March 9. Since there is a pause on all roster transactions across the league, the 10-day contract Noah signed remains in effect one month later. That has left the former defensive player of the year able to work into shape under the supervision of the team’s medical and performance staffs.
“It’s been great for him,” Rivers said. “There are certain individuals who this rest period, or whatever this is called, has been a benefit, and Jo is one of them for sure because he’s got a chance now to get healthy, and to get in shape and that will be a factor for him. He will be a guy that will be able to help us.”
Though the suspension has cast doubt on whether the 2020 playoffs will be played at all, it has also provided an opportunity for teams to get healthy. The NBA has allowed teams to request league-office approval to provide medical treatment to players as long as the treatment is necessary and obtaining such care outside the NBA facility would place the player at unnecessary risk of exposure to the coronavirus, according to three people with knowledge of the practice.
“I talked to Kevin Garnett on the day he went into the Hall of Fame and we had a long talk, but one of the things he actually said is, ‘Man, I can’t wait for the playoffs,’” Rivers said. “In typical KG fashion, ‘No excuses! Nobody should have any excuses! Everyone’s going to be healthy! Everyone’s going to be rested!’”
Leonard was unable to train last summer because of injuries lingering from his lone season with Toronto. The NBA said Leonard was unable to play games on consecutive nights while managing an ongoing injury to the patellar tendon in his left knee. It wasn’t until November, several weeks after the season began, that George and his surgically fixed shoulders were cleared for contact. He has also missed 11 games because of hamstring injuries.
Though it was understood that the Clippers’ playoff success would be predicated on the health of those stars, injuries to other players created more concerns as the season wore on. At times, the only consistency came in seeing at least one contributor’s name on the injury report. The 29 different starting lineups used through 64 games tied for an NBA high.
Signed Feb. 20 to bolster the bench’s backcourt, Jackson immediately added pop to the Clippers’ second unit by freeing ball-handling responsibilities once assumed by high-scoring guard Lou Williams. The instant production was a good omen for the Clippers, who signed Jackson understanding he’d missed 42 of the season’s first 44 games because of a back injury.
“Very few” Clippers have been able to shoot in the past month, said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, adding that one player “tried to drive all around L.A. to find an outdoor hoop, but all the rims were taken down.» All, however, have been sent exercise equipment by the team to help maintain their conditioning. And, per the NBA’s directive, injured players are not necessarily on their own to maintain their treatment.
“Our performance and medical staff does a really good job of, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Frank said. “Each player is completely different so they each have different equipment and different tools.”
Though the hiatus potentially primes the Clippers for a full-strength postseason run, it also cut short the momentum they’d gathered in the weeks before Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, leading the league to suspend its season.
Only the Clippers ranked among the five best teams in both offensive and defensive rating since the All-Star break in February. They had won seven of their previous eight games while showing their range. Against Oklahoma City on March 3, a small-ball lineup featuring JaMychal Green at center extended its lead in an eventual win. Two nights later, the Clippers relied on 7-foot center Ivica Zubac to help throttle a talented small-ball Houston lineup.
“We started understanding each other … we were playing seamlessly through Kawhi and PG, you know, it wasn’t forced anymore,” Rivers said. “I really thought we were about to make a crazy run down the stretch and unfortunately, bam, it stopped. I guess my short answer is, I love where we were at and seeing the way we play and how we were coming together, this team’s good. I think we could beat anybody.”