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Don’t Throw Dirt on the Clippers Just Yet

The James Harden era in Los Angeles has kicked off with a face-plant, but there’s reason to be optimistic about any team that employs Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Can the Los Angeles Clippers find an equilibrium with their newest star?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are easy to overlook and hard to underestimate. This is somehow their fifth year together on the Los Angeles Clippers, and almost every one leading up to it has been marred by poorly timed injuries and a sense that something dreadful is around the corner. Leonard is now 32, and George is 33. They haven’t competed in a playoff game as a duo since 2021. Not great!

But when both are healthy, there’s no arguing with their dominance. Since they joined forces, the Clippers’ net rating with Leonard and George on the floor is undeniable:

2023-24: plus-14.1 in 249 regular-season minutes
2022-23: plus-8.9 in 995 minutes
2021-22: Leonard missed the entire year with a torn ACL
2020-21: plus-17.6 in 1,028 minutes
2019-20: plus-13.2 in 890 minutes

Now, after the Clippers’ trade for James Harden, Leonard and George are at the dawn of a monumental, era-defining transformation that has kicked off with a face-plant: four straight losses that featured offensive confusion, poor spacing, unforced turnovers, constant lineup experimentation, and a costly knee injury to backup center Mason Plumlee that hasn’t exactly helped L.A.’s rebounding woes. With Harden on the court, the Clippers are averaging 102 points per 100 possessions, which is pitiful. Heading into Tuesday’s showdown against the Nuggets, they’re 3-6 overall.

It’s evident that Leonard and George must endure the type of growing pains that can eventually guide them where they want to go; they must embrace Harden and hope he accentuates their strengths. If not, this could be their last dance; the burden to succeed is heavy enough to split them up if another season ends in disappointment. Both are eligible for contract extensions that have not been signed. Both can enter unrestricted free agency by turning down their player options in July. But even in the midst of what’s become an ugly beginning, it shouldn’t be so bold to feel optimistic about what a team that employs George and Leonard can accomplish.

Despite being All-Stars (13 times between them) with malleable offensive skill sets and defensive versatility, Leonard and George have come up short every year they’ve been together. They’ve also never been surrounded by more talent than they are right now. Here are L.A.’s third-leading scorers in every season since 2020: Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, and Norm Powell. The point guards? Jackson, Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Terance Mann, and, for half a season after he appeared to have one foot out of the league, Russell Westbrook.

Now it’s Harden, a three-time scoring champion, two-time assist leader, and one-time MVP who’s one of the most productive shot creators in basketball history. Last season, at 33 years old, he averaged an efficient 21 points, a league-high 10.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds, and (crucially for the Clippers, a team that has struggled to draw fouls since they traded Lou Williams away in 2021) 6.2 free throw attempts per game. The onboarding process might take longer than the Clippers hoped it would, but Harden should eventually remove arduous playmaking responsibilities from Leonard and George’s plate. His presence prompts a considerable shift in how those two have operated throughout their time as teammates.

“[George and Leonard] understand, like, it’s been four, five years where we just played through those two guys only,” Clippers head coach Ty Lue said. “And so now I think with James, adding Russ last year, it gives those guys a chance to play off the ball. They don’t have to bring the ball up the floor. They don’t have to make every play. They can stand and get some catch-and-shoot 3s and some easy baskets as well.”

This is true. The Clippers’ success will ultimately depend on how their two star forwards interact, directly and indirectly, on the court, particularly alongside a singular force like Harden. Everyone will need to sacrifice, Harden will eventually do Harden stuff—high pick-and-rolls, stepback 3s, downhill drives that force defensive rotations—and the Clippers’ style of play will evolve, but this team won’t work unless all those changes serve Leonard and George, not the other way around.

Their partnership has always been fascinating and sensible, born out of Leonard’s desire to play in Los Angeles with a sidekick who could create shots for himself and others, defend multiple positions, and space the floor. George checked all of those boxes; at the time, he was coming off a sensational second season with the Thunder that yielded a third-place MVP finish.

Even if they can’t harmonize quite like, say, a point guard and center can, their pairing was seamless from the start. The first time Kawhi passed Paul the ball, all that potential crystallized into a terrifying reality:

“From the jump, it was pretty simple,” Ivica Zubac, the longest-tenured Clipper, told me. “They’re both high-IQ guys. They know they’re gonna get their shots. They’re gonna get their touches. So it’s pretty simple with them. And, you know, I think from the first year to now, they took a big step as playmakers.”

Aside from a slight dip in pick-and-roll volume when Lue took over after the Clippers collapsed in the bubble, there hasn’t been any dramatic modification in how or where George and Leonard attack. Last week, I asked George about the evolution of his on-court relationship with Leonard and what, if anything, is different today versus when they first came together.

“I think more than anything, our relationship off the court has grown, which allowed us to be even closer on the court and understand [each other] on the court. But it’s just reading … more than ever; we can understand each other and trust one another and complement each other’s games,” he said. “He’s secretly one of the best catch-and-shoot players. You know, a lot of times I’ll try to catch him in those situations. When someone has to play defense on him in a closeout, I mean, at that point, you’re at his mercy. … If the defender is flat guarding him, I try to spray the ball out to him, because he can either make a shot or catch them [out of position].”

(Since Leonard joined the Clippers, 194 players have launched at least 500 catch-and-shoot 3s. Only nine of them have been more accurate than he has.)

Striking the right balance isn’t simple, though. There’s a never-ending negotiation in any ecosystem inhabited by two superstar ball handlers. Guys who always want their hands on the steering wheel must ride shotgun on important trips up the floor. Up until now, the Clippers have managed to avoid that tension. Since 2020, when Kawhi and PG share the court, Leonard has averaged 22.9 direct touches per game, and George has averaged 22.7. In their four seasons together, George has run 3,344 pick-and-rolls, while Leonard is at 3,334. (There are 169 players who’ve orchestrated at least 1,000 of them since 2020: Leonard ranks third in points per possession, while George is fifth.)

Both are agile enough to curl off a pick and knock down a jumper. Both are large and skilled enough to set a screen and make a play off the opponent’s reaction. (There are 271 players who’ve set at least 500 ball screens since 2020; Leonard ranks first in points per possession.) Both can get to their spot with a live dribble or draw two defenders and then kick the ball out to an open shooter. Both spent the early few years of their career filling tighter roles on a playoff team that didn’t ask them to yield a high usage rate. “You can’t really tell which one is the star because they work together,” Clippers guard Norm Powell said.

They also tend to occupy the same space. Both like isolating at the elbow and enjoy post touches that force the defense to react to their initial move. Understandably, neither is a huge fan of standing around while another person runs the show, but that hasn’t stopped them from being an unstoppable tandem; they appreciate having at least one teammate whom they trust to initiate and close important possessions.

Leonard and George’s interchangeability is a big plus for L.A., especially when they hobnob off the ball. Take this signature flex action, a dizzying consonance of screens and cuts that are hard to stop when run on time and with purpose. It’s what happens when the protagonist in a kung fu movie cracks their knuckles and stares down an enemy. Here’s Leonard as he curls off Zubac’s pindown and then finds George in the strongside corner for 3.

A few possessions later, they run the same set, except Leonard decides to come off George’s cross screen. The Lakers aren’t any less helpless this time around:

Running this stuff on every play isn’t sustainable for a variety of reasons, but when executed in certain moments within the flow of a game—to stop (or start) a run or break up the monotony of a designed post touch, pick-and-roll, or elbow isolation—it’s a splash of volatility that forces defenses to think.

Under Lue, the Clippers have thrived by mixing scripted sets and random flow with clinical mismatch hunting. Lue’s playbook has broadened since he got the job, but his goal hasn’t changed: Get Leonard and George the ball where they want it, ideally against a compromised defense. There are drawbacks to that methodology when it leans toward predictability—even flawless half-court execution can foster idleness in teammates who aren’t directly involved time and time again—but it’s also hard to argue with the results.

“We got so many plays,” Zubac told me. “But we base a lot out of … me setting a pin-in for them in the middle of the paint, them catching at the elbow, and then going from there. And we got a lot of stuff for PG coming off of pindowns and a lot of flares and stuff like that. It got wider for sure, but basics—where we want them, like, the elbow and the post—that stuff has pretty much been in there from the jump. That’s where they’re most comfortable at, going iso, and it works for us. So don’t change it.”

Yet Harden changes that calculus in various ways. Before this season started, Lue emphasized cutting whenever Leonard or George had the ball. That can’t happen all the time anymore. “All training camp and the first five games, we’ve been telling our guys to make sure they cut when Kawhi and PG are coming off the pick-and-roll to give them space,” Lue said. “But when James handles the basketball, you know, try to be more spaced and just stay in our spots because he can make the pass and make the read. So that’s gonna be a little different for us, but it’s gonna take some time.”

Indeed it will. Redefining roles for players who spent an entire offseason, training camp, and preseason thinking they’d do something else is a challenge. Mann went from the starting power forward to having some vague duty off the bench. Westbrook will be off the ball more than he probably anticipated (until/unless he leaves the starting lineup). Zubac’s ability to finish hard rolls in the paint will be under a microscope.

As far as their system goes, the Clippers have to scrub laminated pages from their game plan and, if not start from scratch, spend the next several weeks and months polishing some intricate scripts. Too many options can be paralyzing, and the Clippers have hesitated their way through plays that aren’t likely to succeed until they’re smooth. They are not propulsive after spending years relying on two showstoppers who regularly take and make difficult shots.

But even since the Harden trade, we’ve seen glimpses of stuff that works. Take their opening play against the Mavericks last week, when George runs around a stagger screen as Harden and Leonard run a side pick-and-roll that Dallas switches. Leonard then works Kyrie Irving in the post.

When the Clippers ran it again, their timing was off before Dallas bailed them out with a three-second violation. Reps will help.

There were promising building blocks against Brooklyn, too. Here, Harden hits Leonard at the rim after he comes off a Westbrook back screen. The paint is clear because of George, who had sprinted to the strongside corner off a P.J. Tucker pick.

When the Clippers used this same setup on the next play, the Nets adjusted by switching the back screen and then doubling Leonard in the post before he could attack Cam Thomas. The action eventually turned into a Kawhi isolation and missed turnaround jumper. But quicker decisions would yield a better shot, and more time playing together should lead to quicker decisions. Even though they didn’t score, Mikal Bridges was so worried about preventing Kawhi from getting to his right hand that he left Harden wide open one pass away. The Clippers will learn to take advantage of similar opportunities.

Their flow isn’t zippy, but it doesn’t have to be. When a play falls apart, few can glue it back together better than Leonard or George. Bigger picture, they’re masterful problem solvers who have an entire regular season to sort out a complication and turn it into something that will make everyone’s job easier in the very near future.

Together, their dominance has been offset by bad luck, fragile ligaments, spells of lethargy, and (perhaps) more playmaking responsibility than any two-way wing duo can handle. But their talent, malleability, and production when they’re on the floor are impressive. Now, with years of shared experience, a clean bill of health, and a blend of All-Star talent and high-energy role players around them, Leonard and George are in position to do what once seemed inevitable.

There’s no guarantee that this will lead to a championship. But despite a tepid start to this new era that isn’t light on pressure, the connection Leonard and George share makes it easy to see why that goal remains realistic.