In today’s NBA, it’s natural—almost expected—for a team to take on the persona and style of its star player. Steph Curry’s early Warriors teams absorbed his joy like a sponge; James Harden’s Rockets were full of isolations and stepback 3s; LeBron’s Lakers have become a paragon of consistency and showmanship; and in 2020, the Clippers became Kawhi’s caravan (and by extension, Paul George’s). Everything from the Clippers’ offense to their practice schedule seemed to be catered to their two new acquisitions.
Early on, that seemed like the ideal strategy: The Clippers never appeared to be fully healthy or a final product, but they won. A lot. They earned the no. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and led many to believe they had an extra gear that would show itself in the postseason. But the troubles of being a team so heavily situated around a superstar (or two superstars) became evident once L.A. stopped winning. Suddenly, double standards were exposed, and teammates chafed at perceived privileges that only Leonard and George had—such as personal trainers and security, choices in which games they wanted to rest, and Kawhi’s ability to commute from San Diego. The disjointedness the Clippers experienced all season—due to a lack of on-court continuity and off-court chemistry—was highlighted even more by the truncated way last season ended. The layoff hurt, and the bubble setting exacerbated things. By the time the Nuggets came back from down 3-1 in their second-round playoff series, they were simply pulling the last Jenga block on a tilting tower.
This season, though, things look considerably different. The Clippers’ superstar core of Leonard and George remains, but they have a new head coach in Ty Lue, as well as a host of new players around them—L.A. swapped Montrezl Harrell for Serge Ibaka, Landry Shamet for Luke Kennard, and Nicolas Batum for JaMychal Green. These changes are already producing promising results, as the Clippers have a league-best 17 wins. But the biggest and most important shifts are coming from inside the house, and they’re largely due to increased ball movement.
“We told [Kawhi, George, and Lou Williams] we’re going to play through them,” Lue said on Tuesday before his team faced the Nets. “It’s a fine line, because our three scorers are midrange shooters, so when they get to a spot, it’s easy to fire the basketball. But our coaching staff … everybody’s been on those guys about getting into the paint and making extra passes out for 3s, and they’ve been doing it and they’ve been making guys better.”
The Clippers players and coaches have had ball movement on their mind (and in their quotes) often this season, with Lue saying he’s all but forced it through his play calls. The numbers show it’s working. Both Leonard (5.3) and George (5.5) are averaging a career high in assists. As a team, the Clippers are passing the ball more than last season, and they’re up in every assist category.
Last season’s prodding, iso-heavy offense that ranked 24th in the league in assist percentage (57.1 percent) is now 19th (59.1 percent). And though the Clippers are playing at a glacial speed (29th in the league in pace), their ball movement has more than made up for it, keeping them in the top three in the league in offense. Watch the Clippers and it’s evident: even in half-court sets, they’re far more willing to ping-pong the ball around the court than let it get stale in Kawhi’s hands.
To be clear, that previous offense worked a lot of the time, with Kawhi showing again and again why he is one of the best midrange shooters in the history of the game. But where he used to have to make tough, fall-away shots, now he is leaning more into what he did in the first quarter against the Nets on Tuesday:
“They’ve always had the ability to playmake,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of George and Kawhi following Brooklyn’s close 124-120 win. “I think that there is a real level of trust with them right now because their teammates are shooting the ball so well and the pieces are fitting together.”
The Nets, now helmed by three iso-heavy players, offered the Clippers a good litmus test for their renewed emphasis on passing. For most of the game, the Clippers stuck to their successful strategy, but as George lamented after the loss, L.A. got caught up in Brooklyn’s style of play late in a tight contest. Even with Kawhi and George in tow, you’re not going to win an isolation battle against Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant.
The idea of generating more ball movement seems simple in theory, but in practice it requires both trust and communication—two traits that were not the Clippers’ strengths last season. George, for his part, has loudly declared that this group is different.
“It’s a new year, we’ve moved on. For some reason a lot of people haven’t, but we’ve moved on,” George said after beating the Pacers two weeks ago. “The chemistry is amazing. This team has a real bond, it’s fun, this team is locked in, we’re together. It is one of the best locker rooms I’ve been around and been in. Hopefully you guys see it, just how well we’re meshing, and we are going to continue to build off of that.”
Watching the Clippers this season, that refreshed chemistry is apparent. And, of course, winning always helps. But so does the effort that both George and Kawhi (who is now playing some back-to-backs after not doing so last season) are putting in to make things different. Case in point: While the Clippers are still under the influence of Kawhi’s demeanor—they’re mechanical and efficient in a way that eschews any thought of entertainment—he has, according to his teammates, also taken an initiative to be more involved.
“He’s been growing this year,” Reggie Jackson said after the Clippers beat the Thunder two weeks ago. “He talks more.”
Because of this, those around him have come to know what makes him tick, and in what kind of environment he excels.
“I’m not a rah-rah guy. I come out, tell my teammates what we need to do to win, see what’s happening out there on the floor without going all over the place,” Kawhi said after that same game. “Just being direct and [telling them] what needs to happen. That’s just how I play.”
“I think we have all grown to know that Kawhi is a man of few words,” Jackson said. “So when he’s in the zone, you treat him like a pitcher. Not too much to say, so for us we try to get [high fives] in at least to get the spirit going, we really believe in that.”
Whatever the shift in Kawhi’s attitude has been, it’s seeped into the rest of the team. And it’s quietly (how else?) putting him on pace for a historic season:
Kawhi Leonard is currently averaging 26-5-5 on 50-40-90. If he actually keeps that up, he'll be just the third qualified player in NBA history to ever do that over a full season. The others are Stephen Curry and Larry Bird (x2).— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) February 4, 2021
After dropping Tuesday’s game against the Nets, the Clippers promptly dominated the Cavs behind 36 points from George—whose efficiency this season is a hair above 50/40/90—and finished their road trip with a 6-2 record. One of the two losses was a game without George and Kawhi, who were out due to health and safety protocols. The other came without Patrick Beverley manning the perimeter on defense.
The Clippers’ hierarchy may be clearly defined, but they still rely heavily on players like Beverly for energy, Marcus Morris Sr. and Batum for catch-and-shoot makes, and Ibaka for an all-around boost on both ends. Ibaka quietly has been the Clippers’ smartest offseason addition, in part because of what he’s bringing to the court, and also because he seems to be one of Kawhi’s few confidants in the league. Plus, as Lue pointed out recently, Ibaka knows his role: get the ball to the team’s stars, and make shots when they return the favor.
There is room for improvement; the Clippers are not yet a finished product. As the game against the Nets showed, they’re still missing a capable point guard who can get the team into a fluid offense so that they don’t revert to fragmented possessions that end in bad shots. But even if George seems to be the one who catches the most heat when things fall apart, it’s Kawhi’s play that will ultimately determine how different this season can be. And so far, what he’s done on the court and said from the podium has oozed a different attitude.
“It really doesn’t matter to me about getting an assist,” Leonard said. “If I’m able to make the right play and my teammate gets the ball and they shoot it and make it, great. But if they’re able to get downhill or make another play just from the rotation, that’s what I want, to just play good basketball and share the ball.”
Sounds simple enough. But the Clippers know better than any other team that all the extra passing won’t assuage doubters until they can find success in the playoffs. A lot can change between now and then.