October 4, 2022

Every championship is won by a team flexing what they have that other teams don’t – the looming threat of Steph Curry, the overwhelming strength of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the methodical destruction of LeBron James. The Clippers have that in Kawhi Leonard, or will be once he makes his expected return from a torn ACL in the fall. Then they have Paul George, one of the best costars in the league, at his side. And then they have a roster that stretches farther than any other team’s, stacked with more options and more answers than any opponent could possibly muster.

The Clippers haven’t had a particularly rocky offseason, but with free agency ending, they might just be the best team in the league. We’ve heard the case on paper before with this franchise, but after rounding out an already loaded roster, the Clippers have the opportunity to push the title forward not just by racking up stars upon stars, but by flooding the entire roster with real spinning skills. Most of the team’s offseason business came down to protecting its flank: re-signing Nicolas Batum, extending Ivica Zubac and bringing in Amir Coffey. Otherwise, the Clippers’ most notable addition was the signing of John Wall with the exception of mid-level taxpayers — the kind of subtle move that might look like a coup come playoff time.

The same could be said for the trade deadline pickups of Norman Powell and Robert Covington, who have yet to be fully paid. There is a clear benefit to simply having more capable players around, especially for a team that has been so disrupted by injury. Leonard will have all the coverage he needs to easily return to action. The Clippers, more broadly, will have the manpower to play through more unforeseen injuries without falling into the play-in bracket like they did last season.

And once the Clippers get to the playoffs, it’s dizzying to imagine what they might be able to accomplish with all that depth. Head coach Tyronn Lue will now have a full continuum of winger talent to choose from, with all sorts of complementary skills. If the Clippers want to come out at five to space the floor, for example, they will have to decide what other they want with all their shooting: length, creativity, speed, strength, sense, experience or any combination thereof.

The consequence of all these good deals is that they turn the roster into an unsolvable puzzle: a team then packed with talent that there’s no conceivable way to play everyone as much as they probably deserve. It’s a team of 10, I repeat, ten– rotation-worthy wings, led by two anchor stars who are guaranteed big minutes and commanding roles. The other eight will have to bend positions and sneak in wherever they can, moonlit as third-string playmaker or backup center just to stay on the floor.

All of this puts Lue in a position that is as enviable as it is empowering. In theory, Los Angeles should have everything it needs to qualify for the final rounds of the playoffs, starting with the expected return of one of the league’s most undeniable players in Kawhi. Still, with so many options at her disposal, Lue will have to weigh tactical decisions against keeping the peace. Call it the corollary of Too Many Guys. Everyone is eager to sacrifice in July, but less so when they spend a few weeks in the regular season logging little more than garbage time. This is a depth chart that will need to be balanced and rebalanced as Lue feels what is possible, and it will be constantly adjusted as the Clippers audition their wide variety of candidates in all kinds of provisional roles.

As a result, the Clippers are a clear contender with almost nothing nailed down. The fact that George ranked 13th on the team in games played (31) last season and Leonard never appeared in a game means most, if not all, of the returning Clippers will move on to duties. radically different. Plan creators will become keepers. Entrenched beginners will learn to fill in the gaps. Meanwhile, two of the team’s biggest additions this calendar year will have to find their way into a version of the team they haven’t seen for themselves yet. Covington and Powell (who only appeared in a handful of games for LA due to a broken foot) found roles with a Clippers team that did what they could to fend for themselves. Now they’ll have to figure out what they mean for one of the deepest rosters ever built and the most expensive, salary-wise, in NBA history.

It feels like the antithesis of a super team. If you were planning to identify the next best Clippers player after Leonard and George, you could safely come up with up to six different answers. Yet in critical times, at least half of those six people could be forced to watch from the bench. It’s striking to think that when the game matters most, the Clippers will only have room for three of Wall, Zubac, Batum, Covington, Powell, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard. And it’s equally striking that, given the wealth of options available, we couldn’t quite tell how the more dangerous version of the Clippers might perform.

Wall is the most gifted point guard on the list, but ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk describe the position of starting point guard as an open competition; in the end, Lue might prefer to balance her superstar wings with Jackson, a more flexible guard. Zubac may be the Clippers’ only true center, but that doesn’t guarantee him a top-five spot on a team too eager to play small. Batum, Morris or Covington could start at 4 or 5, allowing the rest of the roster to adapt accordingly. And that’s not even delving into how these decisions influence each other; if Lue wants to stay taller with Zubac on the ground, does that make him more likely to lean on Wall in the pick-and-roll or replace Wall with a more reliable shooter?

The most exciting contenders are teams where everything is on the table. Teams that manage to build an identity without locking themselves into a particular form. Leonard is the powerhouse. George is the stylish counter. The rest of the supporting cast allows the Clippers to rise and fall and be all they need, unlocked in the world of difference between killer scorers and lanky defenders who ostensibly play the same positions.

If all goes according to plan, this depth could be the keystone of an increasingly diverse Western conference. Any Western challenger will need solutions for Curry on and off the ball, for Luka Doncic as he chases mismatches, for Ja Morant at top speed, for Nikola Jokic as he moves all around the floor – and perhaps for Kevin Durant, who remains in trade demand limbo. They’ll have to reckon with the smaller version of the defending champion Warriors and the larger rosters of the newly oversized Timberwolves.

Having a roster that can switch between styles is no longer a luxury against this kind of terrain. It’s a question of survival. And the Clippers did everything to give themselves a chance by stockpiling their team as a doomsday bunker and sparing no expense in the process. Overkill is the whole point. All the Clippers have to do now is stay healthy, stick together, and make sense of the kind of roster the league has never seen before.