Doc Rivers enters the 2018-19 NBA campaign at the helm of one of the most highly anticipated teams in Los Angeles Clippers’ franchise history. The arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George turned what was a middle-tier playoff team into a title contender, and their versatility gives Rivers loads of flexibility when it comes to schemes and matchups.
However, as talented as Leonard and George are, the Clips can’t simply roll the ball out and expect to magically win a title.
It’s a crowded, wide-open title race, especially in the Western Conference. The Clippers are loaded but don’t “out talent” most of the top teams even on paper, much less in practice. Those with the best game plans, chemistry and late-game execution will have a better chance to take the crown.
Rivers has more offensive firepower at his disposal than he’s had in years, however, so he can draw up some devastating sets that create huge spatial problems and matchup nightmares for opponents. Now that L.A. finally has star wings with size and skill, it can attack the rim more consistently from the perimeter.
The Clippers will likely find their bread and butter (as all teams do) and largely stick with that down the stretch. But it’s always wise to tweak some of the usual schemes to maximize a new-look rotation like LAC’s. Optimal sets will include some specific actions and also allow for the teams’ superstars to read the defense and react creatively.
Let’s take a look at a few key offensive sets that will capitalize on L.A.’s fresh roster composition.
Horns fake flare
Ideal lineup: Paul George (Handler), Landry Shamet (Shooter), Ivica Zubac (Screener), Kawhi Leonard (Corner), JaMychal Green (Corner)
The Clippers have used a steady diet of various “Horns” sets in recent years. That base formation (point guard above the key, two players at the elbows, and two spread to the corners) offers plenty of spacing and high-screen possibilities. The ball-handler, floor-spacers or rim-divers all have a decent chance of getting buckets.
Rivers used to deploy Horns sets to get high-low action from Blake Griffin to DeAndre Jordan, and he’ll still try to get some high-low passes down to Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. But now he will likely sprinkle in perimeter-oriented sets more often.
One of the most deadly Horns plays he can run with the current Clips involves perimeter misdirection. Dubbed by Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops as “Horns Flare Ricky,” this set aims to get the best shooter open. On the 2019-20 Clippers, that shooter could be Landry Shamet, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Lou Williams. (So many great options!)
It starts with the point guard dribbling from the middle toward the right side of the floor. That signals the shooter, who is stationed on the right elbow, to come set a screen for him. Then the shooter flares off a big toward the weak side, only to have the big man flip the screen for him to curl toward the ball:
This set keeps the defense scrambling, and the spacing works beautifully if the two players in the corner are decent shooting threats.
Shamet might be the best catch-and-shoot asset for this play (42 percent on catch-and-shoot triples as a rookie). However, though George, Leonard or Lou Williams aren’t traditional off-ball specialists, they each offer more versatility after the catch if the initial shot isn’t open. And if the defense does a good job stymieing the fake-flare comeback, the play could flow into a handoff or pitch back to the point guard coming toward the middle.
Balance Swing Downhill
Ideal lineup: Patrick Beverley (PG), Paul George (Receiver/Shooter), Montrezl Harrell (Screener), Kawhi Leonard (Receiver/Driver), JaMychal Green (Corner)
Here is a play that gets a shooter an opportunity and a playmaker some space heading toward the basket. It starts with a dribble handoff (DHO) on the left side of the floor, ideally with a shooter like Shamet, George or Williams receiving the ball with space to launch a shot or drive.
If the recipient of the handoff doesn’t have an open shot, he swings the ball to a wing on the right side (like George or Leonard). The instant he receives the rock, a big man immediately sets a back-screen for him to drive toward the rim. There should be enough space for a rhythm mid-range jumper or a foray all the way to the cup.
The Clippers ran this set smoothly during Sunday’s preseason win over the Shanghai Sharks:
Rookie Terrence Mann fluidly utilized the screen to hit a stop-and-pop jumper, though Williams, Leonard and George would certainly be even more devastating in that role.
This set would be most dangerous if George comes off the DHO on the left side and Leonard is the receiver on the right side. Leonard is especially deadly from mid-range (47.2 percent from 10-16 feet and 46.4 from 3-10 feet last season) and around the basket (70.1 percent within three feet).
It’s almost impossible for the defense to adequately help and recover against that formation. If defenders over-compensate toward the middle, they’re vulnerable on the perimeter. If they stay attached to their respective matchups, L.A.’s stable of slashers will hunt the rim. Rivers should run this set frequently to test opponents’ priorities.
Double high-screen or DHO plus high screen variations
Ideal Lineup: Lou Williams (PG/Back-Screener), Kawhi Leonard (Receiver/Driver), Montrezl Harrell (Screener), Paul George (Corner), JaMychal Green (Corner)
Several NBA teams run double-high ball screens or high DHO’s with ensuing pick-and-rolls to spring their ball-handlers free. The Clippers ran a few variations of this setup last season with some intriguing results. They freed up then-rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams for some favorable opportunities, and they also created pick-and-pop chances for their bigs.
L.A. will have exciting personnel combinations for these sets this season. They can use Zubac or Harrell as the initial hand-off/screener, and then use JaMychal Green or Paul George as the second screener and pick-and-pop target.
Green was the beneficiary of their double-pick set a few times last season. His pick-and-pop handiness translated to 40.3 percent on catch-and-shoot treys in 2018-19.
Here’s an example of him stepping into an open jumper thanks to the setup from Sweet Lou:
In 2018-19, that popping screener could not only be Green, but George, Leonard or even Harrell sometimes. Obviously, George and Leonard could serve as handlers and put loads of pressure on the defense to collapse.
Nick Hauselman of Bballbreakdown noted a great back-screen wrinkle thrown into the DHO-plus screen action. The Raptors ran it for Leonard last season, and it’s a set the Clippers also run. The player who makes the initial handoff wheels around and screens for the driver after the latter comes around the first screen.
Hauselman explained how both teams run it, but especially check out the space it generates for the handler and how it dismantles the defense from the inside out:
As the clip illustrates, this play could result in an open dunk or a kick-out to open shooters. It all depends on how much the defense retreats or shifts. The Clippers have an awesome combination of shooting and slashing to weaponize that set all season long.
These are just a few of the sets Rivers can unleash on Western Conference opponents. Once he finds optimal lineup combinations, this group could develop enough chemistry to have a championship-caliber offense by the end of the season.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball