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The Clippers Are a Potential Juggernaut Hiding in Plain Sight

Los Angeles has some of the most efficient lineups in the NBA, and looks primed to fix the issues that led to last season’s playoff collapse

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Clippers are a much better team than last season. That doesn’t mean they won’t have another spectacular postseason collapse, but don’t just assume that they will, either. Their blowout win over the Warriors on Thursday moved them to 25-14, tied with the Lakers for the no. 3 seed out West. A closer look at their season reveals a potential juggernaut hiding in plain sight. Even if they don’t make a trade at the deadline, the Clippers have as good a chance as anyone of winning it all.

Los Angeles has a more defined identity in its second season with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The awkwardness of last season, when it was fitting its two new stars into a group that had already made the playoffs without them, is gone. The only players left from the Clippers’ Cinderella team from two seasons ago are Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Ivica Zubac, all of whom are playing smaller roles this season. The newcomers have bought into a system built around Kawhi and George. And those two are playing the best basketball of their careers.

Their dominance has been obscured because both have been in and out of the lineup with minor injuries and COVID-related absences. George has missed 11 games this season. Kawhi has missed eight. The two have been destroying the rest of the NBA when playing together, with the best net rating (plus-18.8) of any two-man combination that has played at least 500 minutes this season. Three of the top six combinations in the league belong to the Clippers:

Top Two-Man Lineup Combinations

Two-man combinations Team Minutes Net rating
Two-man combinations Team Minutes Net rating
George + Kawhi Clippers 581 plus-18.8
George + Ibaka Clippers 540 plus-16.0
Conley + O'Neale Jazz 524 plus-16.0
Gobert + Ingles Jazz 573 plus-15.7
Giannis + DiVincenzo Bucks 818 plus-15.1
George + Batum Clippers 604 plus-15.0

Both Kawhi (29) and George (30) are in the sweet spot of their careers. They still have the physical tools that made them stars, as well as a more advanced understanding of how to use them after being in the league for a decade. George (6-foot-8 and 220 pounds) and Kawhi (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds) are two of the biggest wings in the NBA, and two of the best shooters. Both are essentially mobile shooting platforms who can shoot over 99 percent of perimeter defenders. But just because they can make tough shots doesn’t mean they have to take them. They can afford to be patient, passing the ball back and forth until one has an open look. George is averaging the best field goal percentage of his career (49.5 percent), while Kawhi has his best (51.3 percent) in seven seasons, since he was a role player in San Antonio.

New head coach Tyronn Lue, an assistant under Doc Rivers last season, has the Clippers doing a better job of maximizing their strengths. They are playing at a much slower pace (25th in the NBA) than last season (eighth). Kawhi and George don’t need to play fast. They can walk the ball up the court and deliberately dribble into open jumpers, knowing they will have the more efficient half-court offense. The Clippers shoot so well that they get the same spacing in the half court that most teams get in transition. Every player in their rotation, with the exception of Zubac, is a knockdown shooter. Los Angeles is on pace to be the second-best 3-point shooting team of all time, right above the 73-win Golden State team in 2015-16:

Top 3-Point Shooting Teams of All Time

Team Season 3PA per game 3P%
Team Season 3PA per game 3P%
Hornets 1996-97 16.9 42.8
Clippers 2020-21 34.6 42
Warriors 2015-16 31.6 41.6
Suns 2009-10 21.6 41.2
Nets 2020-21 37.8 40.8

The NBA has become a make-or-miss league from 3, and no team makes more than the Clippers. Their entire team is shooting as well from deep as Kyrie Irving, who is tied for no. 26 among players this season in 3-point percentage. Their percentages will likely regress over the second half of the season, just because almost no team has ever shot this well. But they can only regress so far. Their top five players in minutes per game after Kawhi and George—Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka, Beverley, and Williams—all have long track records of excellent shooting.

Los Angeles quietly had one of the best offseasons in the NBA by adding Batum and Ibaka. Batum has resurrected his career after floundering on a rebuilding team in Charlotte, giving the Clippers another 6-foot-8 wing who can defend players at multiple positions, space the floor, and create for others. Ibaka has added a new dimension to the team as a stretch 5, allowing them to play five shooters on offense and still protect the rim on defense.

That versatility will be crucial in the playoffs. The Clippers were versatile on paper only last season. Rivers refused to adjust his lineup even as his team blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the second round. The numbers are staggering. Los Angeles had a net rating of minus-11.7 in 134 minutes with backup center Montrezl Harrell on the floor in the series, and plus-8.8 in 202 minutes without him. Harrell had no chance of guarding Nikola Jokic, and didn’t have the shooting ability to force Jokic to leave the paint on the other end of the floor. But Rivers insisted on playing Harrell in the second halves of games 5, 6, and 7 while Jokic torched him. He was like a World War I general ordering his troops to charge lines of machine guns over and over again, and then being shocked at the outcome.

To be fair, Rivers and Harrell weren’t the only ones who collapsed against Denver. But it’s hard for a team to have much confidence in themselves when its coach stubbornly sticks with a gameplan that everyone knows won’t work.

That won’t happen this season. The Clippers have lineups that are better equipped to attack centers like Jokic, either with Ibaka or Morris at the 5, as well as a coach in Lue who knows how to play the matchup game.

That was the key to their victory over the Jazz a few weeks ago. Lue downsized against Rudy Gobert and played Morris at the 5. Utah ended up putting Gobert on Beverley because there was no one else that he could guard. With all five Jazz defenders spread out along the 3-point line, the Clippers ran pick-and-rolls at Bojan Bogdanovic until they created an open shot. It was the kind of textbook playoff basketball they rarely displayed last season.

The Clippers still have issues. They have the no. 14 defense in the NBA despite having some of the best defenders in the league, while they are dead last in crunch-time performance this season (minus-26.4 in 45 minutes). That may be where their lack of a traditional point guard who can organize the offense rears its head. And it’s why they have been linked to Kyle Lowry in rumors. They could put together enough salary to trade for Lowry, but the franchise doesn’t have any future first-round picks or talented youngsters to really intrigue Toronto. Los Angeles could end up making a smaller move for someone like Tomas Satoransky at the deadline.

But a team with Kawhi shouldn’t be this bad in the fourth quarter, regardless of who is at point guard. Everything in Los Angeles ultimately revolves around him. He didn’t play well enough against the Nuggets last season, scoring only 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting in Game 7. The Clippers need him to get back to the superhuman level that he reached with the Raptors two seasons ago. The good news is they have a better team and a better coach around him than last season, and Kawhi has responded with the best regular season of his career. That should be enough to make the rest of the league worry about what they will do in the playoffs.