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There’s Nothing Wrong With the Clippers

On the contrary: When both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard play, L.A.’s other team is just as dominant as we thought they’d be. Let us explain.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Clippers are just fine, and everyone needs to calm down.

Just a week ago, alarms were blaring, including at this very website. The Clippers had lost three games in a row and, before that, suffered blowout defeats against two non-playoff teams. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George kept missing games. Tension lingered in the team’s locker room as new stars and veteran stalwarts reportedly clashed.

And then they won four games last week, including blowouts against the Grizzlies and Nuggets, and now all is right again in Clipper land. One seamless week is not by itself a panacea for any worries surrounding the team, of course—not with six weeks remaining until the playoffs begin. But those worries should never have bloomed in the first place. Again: The Clippers are just fine, and have been all along.

On the whole, the Clippers’ numbers this season look more good than great. But the crucial discriminating factor for the Clippers, more than any other top team, is the availability of their star players. Down the hall at Staples Center, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have combined to miss 11 games; Leonard and George have each missed more than that amount (13 and 22, respectively). And when both new Clippers have played together, between various injuries and bouts of don’t-call-it-load-management, the team has been just as impressive as expected.

Consider, first, the spread between L.A.’s stats in the 28 games that Leonard and George have shared the court, versus the 32 games they haven’t played together (with Leonard alone, George alone, or, in three games, neither playing). In the former situation, the Clippers have the second-best point differential in the league, ahead of the Lakers and behind only the record-pace Bucks. In the latter, the Clippers fall to fringe-contender territory.

Best Point Differential, 2019-20 Season

Team Per-Game Differential
Team Per-Game Differential
Bucks 12.8
Clippers (with both Kawhi + George) 8.0
Lakers 7.4
Celtics 6.8
Raptors 6.4
Clippers (overall) 6.2
Mavericks 6.2
Rockets 4.7
Clippers (with one star or neither) 4.7
Nuggets 3.5
Heat 3.3
Jazz 3.1

And the gap between the Clippers’ play with both stars versus without is even larger than it appears. The Clippers have faced tougher competition with both stars available. Their opponents with Leonard and George have cumulatively been 1.2 points better than average; their opponents with one star or neither have been 0.7 points worse than average. Fold in this strength of schedule adjustment, and it’s even easier to see the disparity. (If the math looks slightly off on this chart, it’s because of fractional rounding.)

Clippers’ Performance by Star Status

Split Record 82-Game Pace Per-Game Differential Strength of Schedule Adjusted Differential
Split Record 82-Game Pace Per-Game Differential Strength of Schedule Adjusted Differential
Both Stars Playing 21-7 62 wins 8.0 1.2 9.1
One Star, or Neither, Playing 20-12 51 wins 4.7 -0.7 3.9

In the periods of Clipper-inspired angst this season, it almost seems that people forgot their preseason expectations for the team, and worried despite the season largely hewing to plan. We knew before the season that Leonard would rest periodically, just as he did in Toronto. He played 60 regular-season games last season; he’s on pace for 64 this season. We also knew before the season that George would miss some time following offseason shoulder surgery. He’s perhaps spent more time off the court than anticipated, but that inconsistency hasn’t slowed George when he’s actually able to play.

George’s surface stats look worse than before—but only because he’s playing nearly eight fewer minutes per game than the last two seasons, when he ranked second and fourth in the league.

When adjusted for playing time, George’s numbers compare favorably to those from 2018-19, when he finished third in MVP voting and made the All-NBA first team, and 2017-18, when he made the All-NBA third team. He’s handling the ball just as much this season, finishing just as efficiently, and collecting the same prolific counting stats.

Entering Sunday’s games, George had the exact same true shooting percentage as LeBron James this season, on a nearly identical usage rate.

Paul George Statistics Per 36 Minutes

Season Team Points Rebounds Assists Usage Rate True Shooting
Season Team Points Rebounds Assists Usage Rate True Shooting
2017-18 OKC 21.6 5.6 3.3 24.8% 57.0%
2018-19 OKC 27.4 8.0 4.0 28.5% 58.3%
2019-20 LAC 26.2 7.2 4.7 29.7% 57.9%

While George has retained his numbers, Leonard has actually improved with his new team. The reigning Finals MVP is still scoring at will, still shooting with incredible efficiency, still defending with ferocity when fully engaged. And now he’s distributing the ball better than ever before.

The Clippers project even better in a playoff atmosphere because of those stars, and beyond that duo, the team boasts considerable depth. Remember, the team’s point differential in games without both stars is still equal to Houston’s seasonlong mark, and better than those of ostensible contenders like Denver, Utah, Miami, and Philadelphia. That performance speaks to the players who surround the stars, or fill in for them on nights off.

Come playoff time, Leonard and George are locks to play late in games—and then coach Doc Rivers can mix and match the remaining three spots depending on the situation and opponent. He could play small, inserting trade deadline addition Marcus Morris and two guards. He could play bigger, with Morris, Montrezl Harrell—enjoying a spectacular offensive season in his contract year—and one traditional guard. Within the guard rotation itself, he could focus on shooting (Landry Shamet) or scoring (Lou Williams or Reggie Jackson) or defense (Patrick Beverley).

Whatever the permutation, the Clippers’ playoff lineups will feature no easily exploitable weak link, like those that have stymied other multi-star units in recent seasons. (Remember, for instance, an aged Derek Fisher nabbing crunch-time minutes for the Durant-and-Westbrook Thunder.) The Clippers don’t merely have five solid players to share the court down the stretch; they have too many to play together. It’s possible that sure continuity is preferable to flexibility, but in a playoff field that could force the Clippers to contend with teams as stylistically varied as the Lakers, Rockets, and Thunder, a mutable, dependable veteran roster will help the Clippers match up with any opponent.

Although the team’s defense has seemed to disappear at points this season, or come and go in spurts, it still ranks fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions. And any lineup with Leonard, George, and Beverley shouldn’t be a problem when the games really count.

The offense, which also ranks in the top five, should be similarly potent in the playoffs, particularly if Leonard and George can increase their minute totals. Leonard is averaging 32.3 minutes per game this season, after averaging 39.1 last postseason, during which he played the most total playoff minutes for any player since LeBron in 2012-13.

The Clippers count six players—Morris, Shamet, George, Beverley, Leonard, Williams—with an above-average 3-point percentage this season, on at least four attempts per game. That’s the most for any team. The Lakers, for comparison, count only two, one of whom (Markieff Morris) is a brand-new member.

In end-of-game situations, they should be able to manufacture points from a variety of sources. Based on the numbers entering Sunday’s games, Harrell is scoring in the 83rd percentile of roll men this season, while Williams, Leonard, and George all rate well as high-volume ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. And Leonard ranks in the 83rd percentile of isolation scorers, after placing in the 84th percentile last season.

It’s still unclear how any Western opponent will guard both Leonard and George over the course of a seven-game series. More broadly, it’s unclear whether any Western team outside the Staples Center has the defensive chops to make a deep playoff run: The two L.A. teams are the conference’s only clubs that rank in the top nine in defensive rating.

None of these advantages mean the Clippers are guaranteed to advance far in the playoffs, of course. An ill-timed injury would ruin their best-laid plans, and even assuming health, it would be nice for George—who has played 30 minutes in just three games since December—to prove he can handle a larger workload before the postseason. They might need to figure out the best defensive matchup against a dominant big man like Anthony Davis, with the undersized Harrell their best option as a big (though the Clippers have handled the Lakers in two wins this season).

Still, the Clippers have the depth, star power, and two-way chops to succeed. FiveThirtyEight’s model considers them a narrow title favorite. The Clippers are just fine. Their season doesn’t really start until the playoffs, anyway.