L.A. Clippers’ Depth Gives Them Leg Up in Battle for the West

When a team acquires Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the same offseason, that’s bound to draw a grand majority of the headlines.

But the Los Angeles Clippers’ work on the margins this summer could further separate them from the rest of the Western Conference in the championship race. They’ll need that, what with so many moving parts across the roster, especially in the early going while chemistry is still being developed.

Before the Leonard-George dream came to fruition, the Clippers kicked off the summer by finagling their way into the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade. They absorbed Moe Harkless’ $11 million salary into their cap space and got a 2023 first-round pick from the Miami Heat—which they’d later send to the Oklahoma City Thunder for George.

Harkless might have looked like an unimportant throw-in at the time, but he started 53 games last season for a Portland Trail Blazers squad that made it to the Western Conference Finals. He shot only 27.5 percent from deep last season, but he drilled 41.5 percent of his triples the year prior, and his 6’7″ frame gives him the versatility to defend multiple positions.

Harkless has come off the bench during his four games with the Clippers to date, and he made a notable impact in the first two outings.

Oct 26, 2019; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Maurice Harkless (8) against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During the season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, he finished with a team-high four steals to go with 10 points, four rebounds, two triples and two blocks in 29 minutes. Against the Golden State Warriors two nights later, he chipped in a well-rounded 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three assists, two rebounds, one steal and one block in 24 minutes.

Harkless isn’t going to single-handedly make or break the Clippers’ season, but having a reliable, starting-caliber two-way forward coming off the bench makes life that much more difficult for opposing wings.

The Clippers’ offseason victories didn’t stop with Harkless, however.

After landing Leonard and George, they quickly came to terms with fourth-year center Ivica Zubac on a team-friendly three-year, $21 million contract. Zubac hammered the Warriors on Thursday, scoring six of the Clippers’ first eight points en route to a 16-point, 10-rebound outing in only 18 minutes.

Oct 28, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac (40), Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller (40) and Charlotte Hornets forward PJ Washington (25) go for a rebound in the first half of the game against the at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Zubac made less of an impact against the Lakers on Tuesday, finishing with only eight points on 4-of-4 shooting and one rebound in 10 minutes, but his value lies in the flexibility he gives head coach Doc Rivers. The big man will be able to feast against an undersized frontcourt like Golden State’s, whereas teams with unicorn-esque bigs—such as the Lakers and Anthony Davis—might lend themselves to different frontcourt matchups.

On that front, the Clippers also managed to retain JaMychal Green this offseason on a two-year, $9.8 million contract (via the room exception). The Clippers initially acquired Green and Garrett Temple ahead of last year’s trade deadline by sending Avery Bradley to the Memphis Grizzlies, and their ability to re-sign Green this summer gave them badly needed frontcourt reinforcements.

The 6’8″, 220-pounder is undersized for a full-time center, but both he and Montrezl Harrell can serve as small-ball 5s whenever Zubac gets played off the court. Green knocked down four triples against the Lakers in only 18 minutes, and he hit three against the Warriors on Thursday, too.

To round out their frontcourt, the Clippers took a flier on Patrick Patterson with a one-year, $2.3 million veteran-minimum deal. Patterson struggled the last couple seasons with Oklahoma City but had previously been a valuable supporting cog with the Toronto Raptors.

Oct 28, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Patrick Patterson (54) looks to pass the ball defended by Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams (2) in the first quarter of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

He was quiet against the Lakers, finishing with four points and three rebounds in 17 minutes, although he erupted for 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting (6-of-10 from deep) in 28 minutes against the Warriors two nights later. Once George returns to the floor—he’s likely out until mid-November as he recovers from a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries—Patterson figures to shift back to the bench. Until then, he’ll serve as a valuable fill-in starter at the 4, justifying his $2.3 million salary.

Those underrated offseason moves only served to complement the Clippers’ already strong supporting cast.

Lou Williams is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year who has the inside track to become the first-ever four-time winner this season. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Harrell was damn near unstoppable even before Leonard entered the fold, and as SB Nation’s Michael Pina noted, it’s only becoming more dangerous with The Klaw in the mix.

Harrell is the quintessential energy big whose per-minute production looks like a glitch in the Matrix. At 6’7″, he isn’t an elite shot-blocker or three-point shooter (he has only 32 career attempts from deep), but his ability to set screens and maneuver creases makes him one of the NBA’s best roll men.

Meanwhile, second-year 2-guard Landry Shamet—who the Clippers acquired in the Tobias Harris trade ahead of February’s deadline—adds some much-needed floor spacing with his long-range shooting ability.

Oct 28, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers guard Landry Shamet (20) takes a jump shot in the first quarter of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

After apprenticing under JJ Redick in Philadelphia to start his career, Shamet drilled 42.2 percent of his triples as a rookie and has gone 10-of-23 from deep over the Clippers’ first four games this season, earning himself a no-brainer Team Option on his final year:

Add all of that up with returning All-NBA-level defender (and professional irritant) Patrick Beverley, and the Clippers’ supporting cast is second to none. Once George returns, the Clippers’ second unit may even be better than the starting fives of the league’s bottom-feeders.

That depth might not last forever, though.

Harkless, Harrell and Patterson are all set to become unrestricted free agents in July. Green could join them by declining his $5.0 million player option for the 2020-21 season. Williams, Zubac and Shamet are all signed for the next two years (if not longer), but the Clippers’ bench could take a significant hit this coming summer.

That just means the salary cap is functioning as intended.

Teams aren’t supposed to be able to hoard starting-caliber players on bench-unit salaries. Harrell, who’s earning $6.0 million this year, figures to earn twice as much (if not more) in next summer’s sparse free-agent market. Harkless could be in line for a hefty raise as well depending on whether he recovers some of his lost luster from last year.

Although the Clippers’ future appears exceedingly bright after they opened the season with victories over the Lakers and Warriors, circumstances change quickly in the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets figure to enter the title fray in 2020-21 once Kevin Durant returns from his torn Achilles, and one blockbuster trade could cause another superteam to emerge out of nowhere.

The 2019-20 season might wind up being the Clippers’ best chance of winning a title with this core, though ring-chasing veterans may start lining up to join them in future seasons. And while Leonard and George are sure to draw most of the headlines during that championship push, don’t underrate the contributions from L.A.’s supporting cast.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Early Bird Rights.

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