Time is always difficult to process in the NBA sphere. Due to the pandemic, the last three years have felt crammed together as one.
For instance, it’s almost impossible to comprehend we’re about to enter the fourth season of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s partnership.
Leonard and George joined forces in July 2019, maneuvering their way to the LA Clippers with plans to rejuvenate the franchise’s championship hopes.
After a brief stint in mediocrity following the break up of Lob City, the Clippers were adopting a new identity and heading in a clear direction: Building a deep, flexible roster around a superstar wing duo – almost the complete antithesis of those teams centered on the traditional 1-4 or 1-5 pick-and-roll connection of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Under Doc Rivers, the first year of Kawhi and PG was a complete roller-coaster. From the start of training camp to the COVID shutdown, they battled injuries and lineup inconsistency. Even through the internal conflict of Leonard and George’s alleged ‘preferential treatment’ irritating others on the roster, they still managed to secure the No. 2 seed for the first time in franchise history. The Clippers were top-five in offensive and defensive rating despite the bumpy ride.
However, due to poor coaching strategies and abnormally awful shooting from Leonard down the stretch, they would ultimately meet their demise in the second round. LA’s blown 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets resulted in a coaching change and small roster tweaks on the margins.
It didn’t take long for the Clippers to put everything behind them and revamp the culture. In year one with Ty Lue at the helm, they shifted from a team that struggled in clutch situations to one that thrived against adversity.
They became the first team in NBA history to overcome two 0-2 deficits in a single postseason, snapping their 50-year curse of not reaching the Conference Finals. It would still become a story of bad luck for the Clippers, though, as Leonard tore his ACL in Game 4 of the second round, prematurely ending his playoff run. The team had to play without its most dominant force in the West Finals, which they still extended to six hard-fought games.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Leonard. On top of the injury costing him a potential championship, it guaranteed the following season would be dedicated to rehab. While there was speculation he could return last spring, the Clippers smartly kept any timetable close to the vest and prioritized his long-term outlook. After all, it’s never wise to throw any superstar into a playoff race when they’ve had very little time to ramp up.
Last season, with Leonard taking a long-term approach to his recovery and George missing 43 consecutive games with a torn UCL, Lue still guided them to a winning record (42-40) with the No. 4 halfcourt defense in the league. It was mostly a gap year for the organization, with the top priority being the development of rotation players and building chemistry on and off the floor.
Through the ups and downs of missing the playoffs last year, the camaraderie continued to grow within the locker room. To become the true comeback kings of the league, the Clippers had to be a tight group that trusted each other, held everyone accountable, and relied on their unbreakable culture to power them through rocky weeks in the schedule.
Lue’s communication skills and ability to relate to any player on the roster has created an environment where everyone is comfortable. The players appreciate the clear and defined roles from the start of training camp, while also loving the fluidity and flexibility of his coaching style — his players know their hard work and improvement will be recognized during the dog days of a season and factor into playing time.
With 2022-23 training camps starting next week, Lue will have an early look of one challenging task ahead: Finding the appropriate number of minutes for his fully-loaded cast. Because this was the first ‘real’ offseason since 2019 instead of a shortened one, title contenders are entering camp healthier and more rested.
LA will have both of its stars back on the floor and, due to a wise front office, a heap of insurance behind them.
Lawrence Frank’s construction of this Clippers’ rotation is the sharpest I’ve seen of any team president or general manager. From capitalizing on the sport’s most coveted talents (multi-positional wings) to rebuilding an asset base that was totally depleted in 2019 and mocked by fans over the last two years, Frank has relentlessly searched for improvements to the roster.
That’s not an easy objective for any team over the salary cap and hamstrung by a lack of draft capital. The trades LA has pulled off since acquiring their superstar duo have groomed their roster into a long, physical, and switchy group that can fit various playstyles.
The most surprising trade – yet the one that projects to be the most impactful – happened just seven months ago. When the Clippers dealt Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow, and Keon Johnson to the Portland Trail Blazers, it made the league give a collective double-take when Norman Powell and Robert Covington were included in the trade.
From an on-court perspective, it was a swap of one rotation player (Bledsoe) that didn’t have a real future with the team, in exchange for a dynamic scorer in Powell and a multi-faceted defender in Covington that will also stretch the floor in small-ball lineups.
After the trade, Powell’s time on the floor was cut short. He fractured a bone in his left foot, but ultimately returned two months later before the play-in tournament. In his limited time of just five games, he averaged 30.8 points per 36 minutes (21.4 per game) on a wicked 68.2% true shooting.
Covington, who played 23 games for the Clippers to end the season, shot 60.4% from two and 45.0% from three on nearly five long-range attempts per game. For context on how productive and valuable he was in their lineups, his box plus-minus (BPM) was plus-4.1 after the trade. George’s was plus-3.7 for the season, while Batum was their next-highest wing at plus-2.3.
While one Los Angeles team has quickly regressed to a play-in hopeful and pigeonholed itself stylistically and financially, the other has gradually built a flexible roster with a rock solid foundation.
It’s true the Clippers haven’t been fortunate enough in the injury department. They identified that problem last year and decided to surround Leonard and George with the deepest rotation in the league.
Entering this season, LA will have 12 guys with strong arguments for rotation minutes. Some of their second-unit combinations would make opposing starting lineups jealous.
At the back end of the rotation will be Amir Coffey, a 6’7” wing who took a major step forward last year and proved to be a positive-impact player that accepts any role. He ranked in the 80th percentile (among wings) in rim efficiency and above-the-break threes. He has fought for minutes over the last three seasons and just inked a three-year, $11 million contract. He’ll be a luxury piece to fill in when needed, or used as a trade chip if the team elects to consolidate.
Luke Kennard is also in danger of being squeezed out of the main rotation, although it’s safer to assume Lue keeps him in certain second-half lineups for a top-notch spacing weapon. In a year he was asked to increase his three-point volume, Kennard elevated to one of the NBA’s five best shooters. Even when he’s not handling the ball, he drags defenders away from the paint with his movement and dummy screens.
Lue also has to think about Terance Mann’s minutes. Every time he steps on the floor, the 26-year-old Mann supplies them with an energy boost, a transition ignitor, and pure athleticism they would otherwise lack. Mann will be critical for the Clippers’ small-ball units off the bench and could make the case for the closing unit if his catch-and-shoot accuracy keeps trending upward.
The table below is what the active roster will likely be for opening night. This doesn’t include rookie Moussa Diabaté, who signed a two-way contract.
In some ways, it’s a safeguard to have this many useful and experienced players waiting in the wings – pun intended.
Availability is bound to be an issue throughout an 82-game grind. For the Clippers, it’s practically a certainty. There will be random injuries from October to April. The team is banking on better timing with their absences and will utilize depth as a tool to reduce wear-and-tear on players’ bodies.
This type of insurance wouldn’t be a reality if the Clippers didn’t have the best advantage in sports: An owner that vehemently cares about winning and isn’t hesitant to spend. Although Steve Ballmer is the wealthiest NBA owner by a substantial margin, it doesn’t mean he’s obligated to exceed the salary cap. There are plenty of owners that could afford the consequences of being a luxury tax payer, but they choose to duck the tax with cost-cutting moves during the season.
Ballmer, having owned the Clippers since 2014 and sitting courtside for multiple heartbreaks, knows the value of continuity in basketball. He’s not blind to the importance of keeping a group together, especially if it has proven it can compete for championships. Thus, he’s aware of the financial requirements to go that route.
The Clippers currently have a payroll of $191,952,857 among the active roster spots, making L.A. the most expensive rotation in the league. They are slated to pay roughly $144.7 million in luxury tax penalties (14 players), giving Ballmer a total bill of $336.7 million to field this loaded, championship-contending unit.
Including luxury tax payments, it will be the second-most expensive bill in the league, behind the Golden State Warriors. Coming off a fourth championship in eight years, the Warriors will dish out nearly $189 million in salaries for 2022-23, in addition to $164.9 million in luxury tax penalties – Golden State will be in the repeater tax, carrying a harsher financial burden.
After the Clippers, the third-most expensive team will be the Brooklyn Nets. With their current deals, assuming the Kevin Durant saga is over, Brooklyn’s roster will cost $272 million after the tax bill.
Creating (and maintaining) a roster with this degree of malleability was always going to cost Ballmer a fortune. As long as they have Leonard and George secured under contract, he’s going to spend on the surrounding talent.
Above all else, the positional flexibility is what should elevate the Clippers to championship favorites this season. In the Western Conference bloodbath, they will encounter various styles of play that give them unique challenges.
Golden State may attack them with their own small lineups and force the Clippers to defend the greatest pick-and-roll player of all time in space. Teams such as Phoenix and Memphis might try to abuse LA with their size and athleticism in the frontcourt while causing havoc from the mid-range if the Clippers are in drop coverage.
Denver, the last team to beat LA in a series when Leonard was active, is the biggest wild card in the West. Not only do they have a center that nobody matches up with, but they have pull-up shooting with Jamal Murray returning and just enough scoring and playmaking on the wings to be a threat for the No. 1 offensive rating in basketball.
It would be far too early and foolish to dissect how all of these teams match up with the Clippers next April and May. If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that most teams look different in the playoffs than they do in the season opener. And the Clippers believe they have answers to every problem they’ll see.
From the standpoint of claiming a top seed, the Clippers should be first or second in odds to get the West’s No. 1 seed. Outside of LA, the only team with as much continuity and top-end talent to reach the 60-win mark would be Phoenix.
Considering the Clippers have never owned the top seed in their conference, it might be one of their main objectives for this year.
The added depth will play a major factor into their regular season record, which would naturally boost their odds in the playoffs if every series had to go through Crypto.com Arena.
I expect the Clippers to be extremely cautious with Leonard as he returns. Unless he specifically requests to play, you can almost guarantee he’ll be rested on back-to-backs. They have 15 back-to-backs this season, putting him at 67 possible games if that’s the plan the medical staff settles on.
Of course, that would be a best-case scenario and require optimal luck during every other game and week of the season. Everyone following the NBA knows things don’t always go according to plan.
If this is the one shred of luck they get with their stars’ health, it’s worth pointing out how destructive they have been together.
Leonard and George have been in the same starting lineup for 104 total games. No matter how you slice it or the valid excuses given, it hasn’t been nearly enough. In those games, the Clippers are 72-32, equivalent to a 57-win team over a traditional season.
That includes a 13-11 playoff record, which appears lackluster mostly because of Luka Dončić turning into Michael Jordan any time he sees the Clippers’ logo. Looking at the regular season numbers, they win roughly 74% of their games when Leonard and George are active — closer to a 61-win team.
Since the lineup data is separated by seasons, I manually went through and calculated the number of possessions Leonard and George have played together and the total points LA has scored with both on the floor. I included the playoff data for a complete representation. From there, we can find the offensive and defensive rating in all 104 games Leonard and George have shared the floor:
In nearly 5,500 possessions, the Clippers have scored 118.7 points per 100 possessions with their duo on the court while allowing just 107.1. Their net rating of plus-11.6 in those minutes is beyond stellar, especially considering the sample size. The team is hoping they can eclipse the 43 total games Kawhi and PG played together in 2020-21, which was a tick above the 37 from 2019-20.
By all accounts, Leonard looks completely healthy in his workouts and appears to be in better physical shape than ever. It would be impossible to prognosticate how much of an effect the ACL rehab will have on his style of play.
But with 15 months off to work on his body and get fully comfortable with his surgically-repaired knee, his impact will assuredly help the Clippers jump from a 42-win team to somewhere in the mid-fifties.
If he’s anywhere close to the same player who was torching Dallas and Utah for 30-plus points on efficient shooting in the 2021 playoffs, the Clippers have the upper hand for homecourt among all West contenders. Leonard’s career résumé suggests he impacts winning by simply being available:
So, should the Clippers be favored over the team who just reclaimed their spot at the top of the West?
Is this group better than both of the projected East juggernauts, Boston and Milwaukee?
Or should they remain third or fourth in NBA title odds, where they currently sit on most betting sites?
Bay Area fans immediately shouted once they read the headline. The Warriors are fresh off a 16-6 playoff run as the No. 3 seed, winning the championship despite their “big three” playing just 11 minutes together in the regular season. Altogether, the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green appeared in 23 of the 104 possible games.
They captured the title with arguably the least talented group of this Warriors dynasty (the 2015 unit has a case), and they had virtually no healthy reps with their full roster until the playoffs.
It’s hard to contextualize what Curry did to the Boston Celtics’ aggressive defense in the Finals and think he’s slowing down any time soon. For every 5% he loses in physical attributes, he gains 10% in veteran savvy and shrewdness.
With Thompson having a full season to showcase the defensive chops we witnessed in the Finals — while getting back to a comfortable shot selection that doesn’t include a ton of forced, contested mid-range looks — the Warriors aren’t going anywhere.
They should, at the very least, replicate their performance from last season (53 wins). At the moment, I currently have Golden State pegged for a 54-28 record, which would be higher if they didn’t lose such critical depth pieces in free agency. Steve Kerr will be trusting younger bodies in the rotation, so finding the right balance between veteran experience and a youth injection will have its pros and cons.
If the Clippers and Warriors are destined to meet in the 2023 West playoffs, it might be the one matchup that makes Golden State nervous. Where the Warriors strike fear in opponents starts and ends with how they attack pick-and-roll coverages. If you only have the personnel to play drop coverage, Curry will roast you. If the secondary option is trapping the ball-screen, he will give up the ball instantly and let Green pick you apart. Taking a half measure by “hedging” the screen will work a few times, but Curry always finds a window to shoot or attack a gap once you’re late to recover.
For Lue’s Clippers, switching everything will be a powerful tool to unleash against the Warriors – or any opponent that poses such a threat at the point of attack. This isn’t to say a lineup of John Wall, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Robert Covington, and Nic Batum would “shut down” Curry and the Dubs. But it would be a prime example of a defensive group comfortable enough to switch every ball-screen, daring Golden State to play in isolation on at least half of their possessions.
The blueprint was there for the 2018 Rockets, who routinely had the Warriors (with Durant) burning the shot clock, dribbling too much, and taking contested shots. There’s no question the Warriors have learned from their mistakes in the last four years and found every possible counter to a switch-heavy defense. With Leonard and George as two of the fiercest wing defenders in basketball, though, it would be the biggest challenge they’ve faced since those Rockets.
That’s without even getting into the other end of the floor, where Lue would pull a few cards out of his 2016 Finals playbook and use guard-guard pick-and-rolls to potentially compromise the Warriors’ defense.
Outside of San Francisco, the Clippers are simply the team I would trust to adapt to any situation, any matchup, and any lineup that may come out of left field. With the optionality LA’s roster is going to have with a bulkier Leonard playing the four and another point guard available to break down defenses, they will be in better position to force Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, and Dallas to adjust to them. In the past, it felt as if they were the reactors and always trying to make up ground.
Until we see the Suns look more adept going small or a little better with Deandre Ayton defending on the perimeter, the lasting moments of their series meltdown versus Dallas leaves too much of a sour taste to put them above LA.
We also haven’t seen Jamal Murray play in 526 days and counting. Michael Porter Jr. missed nearly all of last year. The same questions that apply to Leonard’s lengthy absence will also matter in the context of Denver’s season. Although the Nuggets employ the two-time reigning MVP, their depth worries me if Porter Jr. doesn’t take a massive step defensively.
The Clippers were adamant about addressing their two perceived weaknesses during the offseason, which were downhill/transition attacks and sharp playmaking. Signing John Wall to a two-year, $13.3 million contract with a team option in the second year could be the home run deal of the summer. It has very little risk attached while also giving LA another guard that still has a quick burst and will always be capable of making pick-and-roll reads once he clears the first line of defense.
While rebounding was certainly an issue last season, Leonard’s return likely helps them progress back to the mean in that department. The team is shallow on big-man depth, but Ivica Zubac has proven to be a durable machine in his stint with the Clippers. They will probably start the season without a designated backup center — at least in the traditional sense — but will have opportunities to sign or trade for a cheap option if Lue’s plan goes awry in the regular season.
Through brilliant roster building, the meticulous approach to roster development, and locking down two superstar wings on long-term deals, the Clippers have built a system that everyone around the league respects. Contemporaries, including the team they’ll have dethrone, are not taking LA lightly as threats.
Lue will have a few issues to juggle this season, notably with lineups. We’ll have to see how this team handles adversity that will inevitably show up in various forms. On paper, they should still be considered the most dangerous West powerhouse.
From day one, the Clippers have invited extremely high expectations. It’s time for them to live up to each one.