The Golden State Warriors no longer appear be an unstoppable force, but a new superteam might have just sprung up down the coast of California.
And, no, it’s not the L.A. Lakers like everyone thought.
As Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports first reported late Friday night, Kawhi Leonard is leaving the Toronto Raptors to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. He’ll also have a new superstar sidekick in L.A., as the Oklahoma City Thunder agreed to trade Paul George to the Clippers for a “record-setting collection” of draft picks along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
As a result, the NBA’s latest parity era may be over before it started.
According to ESPN’s David Purdum, Caesars Sportsbook installed the Clippers as the preliminary title favorites at 11-4 on Saturday morning, just ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (4-1), Milwaukee Bucks (4-1) and Philadelphia 76ers (7-1). Although they aren’t commanding favorites like the Kevin Durant-era Warriors, who entered the 2018-19 season at minus-195 to win the title, per OddsShark, LAC just added two top-10 players to the core of a roster that went 48-34 last season.
Despite the long-term risk, calling this anything short of a coup would be misguided.
The Clippers gave up a mammoth haul to land George, including four fully unprotected future first-round picks, the Miami Heat’s 2023 lottery-protected first-rounder (which they acquired for taking Moe Harkless into their cap space), 2023 and 2025 first-round pick swaps and Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari.
Although it could come back to bite them in the middle of the next decade, that’s a price worth paying if it vaults you to the front of a wide-open title race right now.
Leonard is fresh off a season in which he proved he can be the alpha dog on a championship-winning team. After the Raptors load-managed him throughout the regular season, limiting him to only 60 games, he erupted for a playoff career-high 30.5 points on 49.0 percent shooting while guiding Toronto to its first-ever NBA title.
That’s a guy you move heaven and earth to acquire, especially considering he just turned 28 at the end of June. The Clippers now figure to have him for the remainder of his prime.
And in George, Leonard gets a picture-perfect sidekick.
The Palmdale native emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate in OKC this past season before late-season shoulder injuries slowed his momentum. He still managed to average a career-high 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and an NBA-leading 2.2 steals per game while drilling 38.6 percent of his 757 three-point attempts on the year.
Both Leonard and George are dynamic two-way threats and among the NBA’s best wing stoppers. Throw in starting pesky bulldog point guard Patrick Beverley and perimeter defense figures to be the Clippers’ calling card this year.
“I just think that if you’re a player in this league and you played against us, you know what we bring,” Beverley said during a recent appearance on ESPN’s The Jump when explaining how he’d sell Leonard on joining the Clippers. “We’re gonna play hard, and we’re gonna leave it on the line. You want to go glitz and glamour, that’s fine. Or you want to come and get your hands dirty and do some dirty work?”
The Clippers must now focus on the best ways to build around Leonard and George’s dirty work.
On Saturday, they agreed to re-sign restricted free agent Ivica Zubac to a four-year, $28 million deal, according to Wojnarowski. Considering Montrezl Harrell and rookie Mfiondu Kabengele are their only two other big men under contract at the moment, retaining Zubac was a necessity.
Don’t be surprised if the Clippers scour the free-agent market for another big to sign with the room exception or a veteran-minimum deal, as they’re still somewhat light on rim protection behind Zubac. DeMarcus Cousins is out (signed with the Lakers), but what about the soon-to-be-released Dwight Howard or even Joakim Noah?
Okay, those may not sound like great options (a decade late), but remember they’re only being asked to fill 10-15 minutes a night. Shot-blocking, defense-first bigs can still be found, especially when the Clippers have enough shooting to cover up for “traditional” centers.
Once they shore up that hole, it’s difficult to find a weakness on this team.
Beverley, Leonard and George will smother opposing guards and wings. Landry Shamet shot 42.2 percent from deep as a rookie and will help space the floor in the starting lineup. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams will provide microwave scoring off the bench.
Harkless can give Leonard or George a reprieve whenever one of them needs a night off and play small-ball four. Harrell is a high-energy big who can slot in as a small-ball 5 to give former NBA champion coach Doc Rivers his own version of Golden State’s Death Lineup.
The development of Shamet, Kabengele and Jerome Robinson will be quietly critical for the Clippers’ long-term upside, as they’ll be largely devoid of first-round picks after 2021. It’ll become increasingly difficult for them to replenish their supporting cast with young talent, which may cause their championship window to close sooner than expected.
That’s a gamble worth taking when the alternative was striking out on Leonard, especially if he otherwise might have joined LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the crosstown rival Lakers.
Although the Clippers have now asserted themselves as championship favorites, they’ll face plenty of competition for the Warriors’ vacated throne this year.
The Lakers have quickly pivoted to their plan B after whiffing on Leonard, adding shooters such as Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Quinn Cook to complement James and Davis. They also signed centers JaVale McGee and DeMarcus Cousins to reduce the wear-and-tear Davis endures during the regular season.
The Utah Jazz likewise loaded up this offseason, trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay in free agency. They’re quietly lurking as perhaps the biggest threat in the West to the Clippers, although the Lakers, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers would likely beg to differ.
Leonard’s departure from the Raptors thinned out the mix of contenders in the East, although the Bucks and new-look 76ers still lurk among the star-studded Brooklyn Nets and reloaded Indiana Pacers. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo figures to use his squad’s Eastern Conference Finals collapse as motivation, while the Monstars Sixers have doubled down on size after swapping out JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson and Al Horford this offseason.
The NBA’s title picture is as wide-open as it’s been since the 2014-15 campaign when the Warriors began their rise to power as James detonated one superteam in Miami to form another in Cleveland. As many as 10 franchises could talk themselves into being legitimate championship contenders this year.
After adding Leonard and George, the Clippers suddenly appear to have the inside track.