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Kawhi Leonard’s return from a knee injury was supposed to vault the Los Angeles Clippers to the top of the conference. Instead, the Clippers are off to a 2-4 start and Leonard, who is on a minutes restriction, has already missed four games with knee stiffness.
Anthony Davis entered the season as the Los Angeles Lakers’ X-factor, saying last month that his “personal goal” was to “play all 82 [games]” after two injury-plagued campaigns. The eight-time all-star forward only made it to game five before a recurring back injury sidelined him for the Lakers’ fifth straight loss to open the season.
In Portland, Damian Lillard’s return from abdominal surgery helped spark the Trail Blazers to an unexpectedly fun 5-1 start. Yet Lillard suffered a calf strain in his fifth game that could sideline him for two weeks.
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Zion Williamson’s recovery from a season-long foot injury raised hopes of a deep postseason run for the New Orleans Pelicans. Before Halloween hit, Williamson had already injured his ankle in a preseason game and suffered a hip contusion during opening week, although those setbacks haven’t slowed the Pelicans.
Finally, Denver’s Jamal Murray has reunited with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic after an 18-month absence due to knee surgery. To keep Murray on track, though, the Nuggets immediately sat him out for the second game of the season and have carefully limited his minutes.
Though these five teams run the gamut from aspiring contenders to likely lottery fare, they have all been stuck riding the same emotional roller coaster: A minor setback can turn a star’s highly anticipated comeback into a confounding uncertainty that can wreck carefully laid plans and keep coaches, teammates and fans off-balance.
Take the Clippers, who were respectable in Leonard’s absence last year and who loaded up on veteran talent in preparation for his return. During the 2020-21 season, Leonard averaged 24.8 points per game, nearly posted 50/40/90 shooting splits (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free throw percentage) and led the NBA’s third-ranked offense. This year, with Leonard in and out of the lineup, the Clippers have been completely out of sorts, ranking 29th on offense and enduring back-to-back losses to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even with Leonard, the Clippers have struggled to integrate his isolation-heavy style into their pass-happy offense. Indeed, the Clippers sometimes look like two different teams within the same quarter: a slowdown, pick-on-mismatches crew with Leonard and a freewheeling, three-point attack once he goes to the bench.
At the start of last season, the Clippers were able to settle into defined roles and generate their own momentum knowing that Leonard would be out for months. This year, the Clippers have lacked focus and verve, looking hamstrung by his undetermined availability.
“We’re kind of walking through everything offensively, and when we do that, it’s going to be tough to score,” Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said, after a dismal showing in a 112-91 loss to the Pelicans on Sunday. “We’re not a very good basketball team right now.”
The Lakers’ early struggles can largely be attributed to their poor outside shooting, but there is a pins-and-needles vibe to virtually everything Davis does too. While the 29-year-old forward has consistently impressed on the defensive end this season, he has repeatedly clutched his back during games. When Davis missed his first game last week, LeBron James said: “When his mind is gone, then everything else falls to the wayside. He has to trust himself.”
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Late in the Lakers’ 121-110 home victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, Davis was in such pain after a dunk that he needed to sit down while conducting his walk-off interview. Later, he said that he had come to terms with the fact that his back would be a “day by day” concern.
“Mentally, I’m in a great space,” he said. “Clearing my mind and making sure I continue to be locked in, putting in all the work. I had a great summer. I’m not letting this stop me.”
The Lakers have little hope of making a playoff push without a healthy Davis, just as the Blazers collapsed without Lillard last season. But plucky Portland has gotten impressive contributions from 23-year-old guard Anfernee Simons and rookie guard Shaedon Sharpe this season, developments that have helped to mute the panic around Lillard’s early setback. Simons hit a gorgeous jump hook to seal an overtime win over the Phoenix Suns last week, while the 19-year-old Sharpe has already compiled an impressive reel of highflying dunks.
Similarly, the Pelicans have weathered Williamson’s absences thanks to a deep, young and energetic roster, with standout moments from Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado. Yet Williamson made his presence felt immediately in his return from the back contusion, tallying 21 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in just 31 minutes against the Clippers on Sunday. Williamson will be an all-NBA selection if that level of all-around production continues.
“Glad to have him back,” Pelicans Coach Willie Green chuckled. “When he touches the ball, he makes the right play. Whether it’s a score for himself, finding his teammates or kicking it out. He played point guard for a bit to take advantage of mismatches.”
The Nuggets, meanwhile, find themselves somewhere in between the Lakers, who can’t get by without Davis, and the deeper Pelicans. Jokic’s consistent excellence has enabled Denver to slow-play Murray’s return, and scoring-minded forward Michael Porter Jr. and backup guard Bones Hyland have helped pick up the slack.
But the Nuggets still have issues to resolve: Their defense has been inconsistent, they are working in several new rotation players and they lack initiators aside from Jokic, Murry and Hyland. When Hyland was a late scratch against the Lakers on Sunday, Denver struggled to keep pace offensively. Remarkably, Denver was outscored by 24 points in the 16 minutes that Murray was on the bench.
Still, Denver Coach Michael Malone, who chastised his team’s “embarrassing” defensive effort, was able to see the bigger picture. Murray scored a season-high 21 points in a season-high 32 minutes against the Lakers, and he oozed confidence while drilling the type of difficult jumpers that made him famous in the 2020 bubble. The heavy early doses of caution and patience will hopefully pay off in the playoffs, when the Nuggets will need Murray firing on all cylinders.
“It was good to see him get into a rhythm, find his shot and see the ball go in at a pretty high clip,” Malone said. “Every game that Jamal plays is an opportunity for him to get in game shape, find a rhythm for himself and find a rhythm playing with his teammates.”