Clippers Thriving as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard Hit Their Stride
The Los Angeles Clippers rocked the basketball world when they assembled a dynamic duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the best two-way wings in the league. The pairing gave hope to Clippers fans that a title could finally be in the very near future.
However, due to injuries to Paul George and injury recovery and/or rest games for Leonard, L.A. has had both stars on the court in just 18 of its first 47 games. While the duo was good together, with a +10.6 net rating according to NBA.com, the Clippers had a 14-4 record in those games.
That seemed good enough as chemistry across the new-look roster was being built and rust was being minimized by its stars. Still, the small sample size presented reasonable worry in the big-picture playoffs conversation, especially with fellow Western elites like the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets getting off to even better starts.
Since then, however, George and Leonard have played 12 of 14 possible games together. They have a 9-3 record with a +14.3 net rating. The Clippers are on a six-game winning streak, including five victories against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. During their most recent game, they embarrassed the Rockets on national TV in Houston.
As Basketball Intelligence founder and TBW co-founder Ray LeBov once sardonically said, “They are better when all their best players play than when they don’t.”
As the Clippers roster continues to get to know one another, they keep getting better. They’ll receive their next big test against the cross-town rival Lakers on Sunday afternoon as both teams jockey for the No. 1 seed down the stretch.
When George is on the court, Leonard’s three-point shooting goes from 34.3 to 42.2 percent. Conversely, the Clippers run a lot of sets where they’ll park George on the weak side to maximize the space between the two stars, and he’s hitting pull-up and step-back threes on those looks.
It seems to work letting them take turns as the initiator on one side of the court while the other provides adequate spacing and the credible threat of a basket attack on the other:
Using the same sort of set, they’ll also run George through screens to get him the ball on drives to the hoop.
Or he’ll curl under the defense to spring for a three of his own.
Over the 14 games they’ve had some consistent play together, George is shooting 52.9 percent from two off Kawhi’s passes and 50 percent from three.
The chemistry isn’t working quite as well the other way, though.
Leonard is shooting just 44.4 percent off George’s passes in that span, but there’s another layer to that number: the other teammates. Having both stars on the court is making things easier for the Clippers tertiary players like Patrick Beverley, who is shooting 54.5 percent from deep when George feeds him the ball.
So, even if Kawhi’s numbers dip just a bit, the supporting cast is seeing their jobs get incredibly easier. That’s bad news for opponents that suddenly can only single cover (or afterthought rotate to) the overqualified likes of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Marcus Morris, etc.
Here the Clippers have Kawhi in the corner and George with the ball. George feeds Beverley. Leonard, somewhat hilariously, demonstrates his confidence that his teammate is going to drain the shot by walking back before P-Bev even takes the shot:
The defensive chemistry seems to be coming around, too. Over the last 14 games, L.A. is eighth in points allowed in the paint, eighth in opponents points off turnovers and fifth in defensive rating. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that they’re coming against mostly playoff-level competition.
Having 14′ 2″ of ridiculously mobile wingspan at the wings is such a tremendous advantage.
George and Leonard make it so hard to pass the ball inside that, if you try, there’s a good chance the pass is going to end up going for points in the other direction:
The Clippers also do a great job of closing out and contesting shots. They’ve been contesting 63.9 percent of shots of late, good for fourth in the NBA. And when those are bad shots, they tend to not go in. That results in L.A. also having the fourth-best allowed effective field-goal percentage at 43.4.
What’s most striking about their defense is not just how good it is; it’s how well it’s structured for the playoffs. This is not a gimmick defense. It’s disciplined and fundamental. It’s the type of defense that gets better when it has two days to plan against an opponent and make adjustments. It’s built around loads of veteran perimeter defenders, and that’s so crucial in the space-and-pace era.
When Beverley, Leonard and George have been on the court together lately, the Clippers’ defensive rating is a meager 98.8.
When you put two elite two-way wings together, you have a contender. When you surround those elite wings with myriad options on both sides of the court, you have a potential playoff juggernaut.
The Clippers went into this season playing the long game towards a championship run. That meant taking some flack for copiously resting their stars. That meant some legitimate worry about assuming a team can just “flip the switch” when it matters.
That’s meant some disappointing stretches where the work-in-progress chemistry has been tested, especially as other veteran role players (like Morris, Reggie Jackson and now Joakim Noah) kept getting sprinkled in as the season went on. That meant questions about whether there was an intentional, bigger plan in place to ensure this all came together in time.
But with each passing day that Leonard and George remain healthy, and with each passing game this collective unit logs together, the sample size only grows along with the chemistry.
As we near the crucial final stage of the title race, that decision and its basketball results are looking ever better.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.