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The Clippers Are Already Way Ahead of the Game

Kawhi Leonard and Co. have been dominant through their first seven games. When Paul George returns, they could be the closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

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The Clippers have looked unbeatable this season even without Paul George. They are tied for the NBA’s fourth-best record (5-2) and fifth-best net rating (plus-6.1) without their second-best player, but even that undersells their dominance. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, they have a net rating of plus-18.2 in 183 minutes. By surrounding the best player in the world with waves of shooters and defenders at every position, the Clippers have become the clear favorite to win the NBA championship.

Kawhi snatched the crown in last season’s playoffs. As Kevin Durant tore his Achilles and LeBron James watched from home, Leonard flipped the Eastern Conference finals by shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo and then finished off the banged-up Warriors in the NBA Finals. Nothing has changed in the first two weeks of this season. LeBron was outclassed by Kawhi in the Battle of Los Angeles on opening night, and Durant is out for the season.

If anything, Leonard has raised the bar even higher. He’s averaging career highs in points (29.3 per game) and assists (5.7), and is tying career highs in rebounds (7.3) and steals (2.3) despite playing the sixth-fewest minutes (30.5) of his career. While quad injuries have sapped some of his athleticism, the 28-year-old more than makes up the difference with greater skill and a better feel for the game.

It’s time to start talking about Kawhi as one of the greatest players of all time. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who scores more efficiently than James Harden. He’s in the 98th percentile of isolation scorers leaguewide this season. He needs only an inch of space to get his jumper off, and a perimeter player with his size (6-foot-7, 230 pounds, 7-foot-3 wingspan) and strength can create space off the dribble whenever he wants. The wildest thing about the comeback he led against the Jazz on Sunday—scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter against the no. 1 defense in the NBA—is how easy it looked:

It doesn’t matter who is guarding him. The Lakers have the no. 2 defense in the NBA and Kawhi scored 30 points on 10-for-19 shooting in only 32 minutes in the Clippers’ season-opening win.

If the defense leaves one man on him, Leonard can score at will. If they send help, he finds the open man. That has been the biggest area of growth in his game: He has turned himself into an elite playmaker who can read the defense, make plays on the move, and thread passes across the floor.

But no player, no matter how dominant, can win an NBA championship on his own. What makes the Clippers so impossible to guard is that they have no one whom the defense can leave open. The only players in their rotation who can’t shoot 3s are their centers. Look at the career 3-point shooting percentage of the nine players (counting George) who receive minutes at the 1 through 4 positions:

Bomb City: The Clippers Go Deep From Deep

Clippers Shooters 3PA 3P%
Clippers Shooters 3PA 3P%
Paul George 6.3 37.8
Landry Shamet 5.1 41.2
Patrick Beverley 4.3 37.5
Lou Williams 3.8 34.8
Kawhi Leonard 3.6 38.3
Rodney McGruder 2.9 34.7
Patrick Patterson 2.3 36.7
Maurice Harkless 1.9 32.3
JaMychal Green 1.7 37.9

Spacing the floor is more about quantity than quality. Having a few snipers is nice, but the key to success is consistent shooting at every position.

The Clippers don’t have to do anything too complicated to create good offense; the foundation of their playbook is the pick-and-roll between Kawhi and either Ivica Zubac or Montrezl Harrell. It’s simple but brutally effective, especially for teams used to getting out in transition instead of grinding possessions in the half court. Los Angeles plays at the 24th-fastest pace in the NBA, and plays even slower when Kawhi is in. All the Clippers have to do is give Leonard the ball with shooters at the ready and someone will always be open.

When Kawhi isn’t in, the offense usually runs through Lou Williams, the winner of the past two Sixth Man of the Year Awards. Like Kawhi, Williams benefits from playing with three shooters creating space for pick-and-rolls between him and Harrell, one of the best roll men in the NBA. The Clippers have two elite shot creators and ideal floor spacing for all 48 minutes, which means there’s never a point in the game when the opposing team can play a weaker defender. The turning point of the Lakers game was when Williams and Harrell began running pick-and-rolls at Dwight Howard on the second unit. Howard is one of the best backup centers in the NBA, but there was little he could do in space against such a deadly two-man combination.

The Clippers aren’t the only team that spaces the floor extremely well. What makes them different is that all their shooters play defense too. Williams is the only bad defender in their rotation, and Patrick Patterson sometimes struggles to slide his feet after his series of knee injuries. The rest, with the exception of their centers, can defend multiple positions, which means that coach Doc Rivers doesn’t have to make any trade-offs between offense and defense. That same dynamic was one of the keys to the Raptors’ success last season.

Good defense leads to good offense, and vice versa. Getting stops creates easy baskets in transition, while scoring prevents the other team from running, thus making them easier to defend. A lot of players are finding new life in Los Angeles’s Basketball Nirvana. Patterson looked washed in his last two seasons in Oklahoma City, and Moe Harkless has been one of the Clips’ best reserves after falling out of favor in Portland. The scariest part is that even if those two eventually regress to the mean, Los Angeles will be able to replace them with George.

George is an elite two-way player coming off an MVP-caliber season with the Thunder who also happens to fill one of the only weak spots in L.A.’s rotation. In his absence, the Clippers have had to rely more on Williams. It hasn’t gone well on defense—they have a defensive rating of 110.4 in 215 minutes with Williams, the second worst of any player in their rotation, and a defensive rating of 92.7 in 121 minutes without him, by far the best off-court rating of any of their players. The Clippers also have a minus-9.3 net rating in 153 minutes without Kawhi this season. If George can just stabilize those lineups, there will be no slowing the Clippers down.

The beauty of pairing Kawhi and George is twofold: They have the versatility to anchor a lineup alone but can also play off each other when they share the floor. They are the only Big Two in the NBA made up of elite 3-and-D players, which gives Los Angeles an almost infinite variety of combinations to choose from. The Williams-and-Harrell pick-and-roll wouldn’t work as well on any other elite team because no other pair of stars can play off the ball and defend the point of attack as well as the two new Clippers.

The biggest issue the Clippers will have in the regular season is keeping their stars healthy. Kawhi said last season that his playoff run wouldn’t have been possible without a load-management program, while George is recovering from two offseason shoulder surgeries. The good news for the Clippers is that they have the depth to prevent those two from being pushed too hard over the next six months. Rodney McGruder, their 11th man, was a valuable 3-and-D wing for the Heat last season. Jerome Robinson, their 12th man, was the no. 13 overall pick in the 2018 draft. And the team is excited about its two rookies from Florida State—center Mfiondu Kabengele, the no. 27 pick, and wing Terance Mann, the no. 48 pick—who will probably have to spend most of the season in the G League.

The only weakness on a healthy Clippers team is defense at the 5. Zubac is a solid defender with size (7-foot, 240 pounds), but he lacks the foot speed to extend out on the perimeter. Harrell has speed but he gives up size (6-foot-7, 240 pounds). The Lakers took advantage of that on opening night, pounding the ball inside to Anthony Davis, who finished with 25 points, nine rebounds, and five assists while shooting 9-for-14 from the free throw line. That could be an issue in a potential NBA Finals matchup with Joel Embiid and the 76ers.

But it might not matter if the Clippers can maximize their strengths. They slowed down Davis by playing off two nonshooting centers in Dwight and JaVale McGee, and they could do the same thing to Embiid by playing off Ben Simmons. They can also use Kawhi, George, and Patrick Beverley to suffocate teams on the perimeter and prevent opposing centers from even getting the ball, much like the Heat used to do with LeBron and Dwyane Wade. And even if they give up points inside, they should be able to get them back by spreading out the opposing defense and running pick-and-rolls.

The closest historical comparison for the Clippers are the ’90s Bulls. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: Their best player is an unstoppable scorer who plays lockdown defense, and their second-best player is a do-everything wing who can run the offense, space the floor, and defend all five positions. There hasn’t been a pair of two-way wings with that type of size, shooting, and playmaking ability on the same team since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The big story line coming into the season was how the breakup of the Warriors made the title race wide open. The Clippers may have ended it before it had a chance to get going.