2019-07-09T11:40:17-04:00)

Kawhi and the Clippers Had a Brilliant Plan—Now They Need Some Luck

On paper, the new-look Clippers are arguably best team in the league. But Los Angeles still needs a few things to go its way in order to reach its mind-boggling potential with Kawhi and Paul George.

Now that we've had a few days to digest Kawhi Leonard's move to the Clippers, the timeline looks even crazier than it did Friday night. A friend of mine said on Twitter the move Leonard pulled was like something out of Billions, and that sounds about right. While the entire world spent six days waiting on the Lakers to drop a nuclear bomb on the NBA, Kawhi was pressuring the Clippers behind the scenes, arranging secret meetings with Paul George, and pulling the strings on a plan that no one had even thought to imagine. That it all came together to shake up the league on the same night as a literal earthquake only made it that much more incredible. 

Now it's all over. No more flight tracking, no more helicopter surveillance, and no more citizen journalism on Reddit. Instead, as the NBA moves forward, all we have left are unanswerable questions about where the league is headed over the next few seasons. One such question: how healthy will the Clippers be? 

On paper the Clippers probably have the best team in the NBA. They are currently the title favorites in Vegas, having moved from 10/1 to 11/4 after Friday night. They managed to add two superstars in their prime that should pair perfectly together, all while retaining the supporting cast (Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac) that made this team impossible to root against for all of last season. They probably need a little more depth in the backcourt and they should be working hard to steal JaMychal Green if he's available to reinforce the frontcourt, but the nucleus is already very impressive.   

In a macro context, this is a title contender that gave away its two franchise cornerstones (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) only two years ago. To recover this quickly, operating as surgically as they did at every turn, is almost breathtaking. 

Now let me add one word of caution. In the middle of all the excitement this weekend, I couldn't help but think back to the end of the Finals. Kawhi was 27 years old in June, but there were times when he looked closer to 34 or 35 as he hobbled through the end of that Warriors series. That mental image was a reminder that he's had a series of nagging injuries in the past, he will likely be on a load management schedule for the rest of his career, and we're still only 18 months removed from a season-long quad injury that divided at least two sets of doctors.

Granted, Kawhi dominated the Warriors on one leg (and did the same to the Bucks, for that matter). But even so, it's not a great sign that the Raptors employed the most aggressive rest schedule the NBA's ever seen and Leonard was still hobbling through playoff games. Given his history and how physical he is, his future comes with more questions than the average 28-year-old superstar at the peak of his powers. 

There are also questions about George, a 29-year-old who underwent two shoulder surgeries in May and June, along with arthroscopic surgery on his knee last spring. In 2017-18 his shooting mechanics mysteriously fell apart after the All-Star break, while this season's shoulder injury left him hindered down the stretch and sent him crashing back to earth after looking like an MVP candidate for the first five months of the season. By the time he made it to the playoffs, George said he could barely lift his arm above his head. Now, as he recovers from his shoulder surgeries, ESPN reports that it's not yet clear that he'll be ready by the beginning of the season. 

Whether he's ready for opening night or not, George is expected to make a full recovery from that shoulder surgery, and there's no reason to doubt that prognosis. He has looked great after recovering from the catastrophic broken leg that nearly derailed his career in 2014, and when he's healthy, he's one of the best athletes in the entire league. Still, like Kawhi, he arrives in L.A. with a few more questions than the average 29-year-old superstar.

None of that context should detract from what the Clippers just accomplished. That massive OKC deal was obviously worth the gamble, and the fact that they even had this option on the table it is a credit to a team that knew where it wanted to go and had a plan to get there. For example, the 2021 Heat pick they sent to OKC was the by-product of a lopsided Tobias Harris trade in February. That deal came together after the Clippers realized that paying their best player at the outset of free agency would be impossible alongside the team's pursuit of Leonard. Then, when free agency arrived and the team was waiting on Leonard, the 2023 Heat pick materialized when the Clippers absorbed Moe Harkless, a useful rotation player, into cap space, knowing they could eventually deal Gallinari to create room for a second star. 

The entire Clippers timeline is indicative of an organization with a coherent vision, creative execution, and a Doc Rivers-led culture that stabilized them throughout this process. That same culture, coupled with the fit between Kawhi, the world's best alpha, and Paul George, maybe the best complementary wing in the NBA, is why people believe in what's coming next. There’s almost nothing to criticize because it’s all so clean in the abstract. With those pieces in place, there should be very good title shots in each of the next three seasons. 

But even after all that planning and then this month's brilliant execution, the Clippers still need luck. Landing the right superstars is only half the battle. Landing them at the right time is just as important, and that part is harder to plan for in any rational way. 

Kawhi turned 28 years old on June 29, and after the playoff run we just lived through, only an insane person would question who he is and what he can do as a player. The better question is how long he can continue to do it. George arrives with similar questions at 29 years old. If everyone is talking about a Clippers team that just stunned the Lakers and pulled off the heist of the summer—and we are, because we need more use of the word "heist" in sports—then the question going forward is how big that jackpot actually was. 

The health and longevity of George and Leonard will provide our answer. 

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