Ever since the Los Angeles Clippers created the NBA’s preeminent wing tandem in 2019, they’ve been the most confounding, enervating, thwarted contender in the league.
They’ve perpetually teased greatness but so often succumbed to bad habits; always dominant with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the floor, but never good enough outside of those joint minutes to make up for how infrequently they occurred. Three playoff series wins in four-plus years is currently all they have to show for the moves that cost them Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a half-decade’s worth of draft capital.
If you had to boil the frustration with this team down to two main issues, they would be the sporadic availability of their two superstar wings, and the lack of a true lead playmaker who could take the creation load off their shoulders. Coming into this season, Leonard and George had only been on the court together for about 40% of the Clippers’ regular-season and playoff games. When they did play, they were overburdened with the responsibility of creating shots for themselves and others, a problem to which the front office applied insufficient Band-Aids in the form of Reggie Jackson, Rajon Rondo, and Russell Westbrook.
So far this season, both those issues have ostensibly been addressed. Leonard’s played in all 27 of L.A.’s games, while George has missed only two. And James Harden is here, finally giving the team the lead guard it sorely needed for so long.
Trading for Harden felt like a last gasp of sorts. In the hopes of salvaging the Kawhi and PG era before it was too late, the front office bet a chunk of its dwindling stack of trade chips on an aging star who totes plenty of baggage wherever he goes. Which is why it was particularly alarming when things got off to such a rocky start, with five straight losses post trade that dropped the Clippers to 3-7.
Their offense during that stretch ranked 28th in the league, and with Harden on the court, it was worse than that. Actions were jogged through aimlessly, no one seemed to know when or where they should be getting their shots, and clean catch-and-shoot looks were routinely turned down. L.A. somehow ranked in the bottom 10 in turnover rate despite throwing by far the fewest passes per game.
A big turning point came when Westbrook volunteered to move to the bench and head coach Ty Lue replaced him with Terance Mann in the starting lineup. But even after that, the Clippers suffered their most embarrassing loss of the season against a Nuggets team missing Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon.
Since then, the Clippers have won 10 of 11, including nine in a row, with wins over the Kings (twice), Warriors (twice), Knicks, Mavericks, and even their boogeyman – the fully healthy Nuggets. They own the league’s best offensive rating (126.8) during this run. Harden’s rounded into form after understandably struggling on the heels of an offseason holdout. Peak Kawhi has poked his head out from behind the bushes. George is still gliding his way into effortless-looking buckets and passing-lane heists. Ivica Zubac is doing all the thankless dirty work at both ends. Mann takes on the primary point-of-attack defensive assignment most nights while playing like a low-usage big man on offense. The new starting lineup is plus-16.5 per 100 possessions. And Westbrook gets to be Westbrook off the bench.
One very simple yet extremely important component of L.A.’s turnaround has simply been getting comfortable taking the open catch-and-shoot threes right in front of their faces, rather than doing this:
Those record scratches were all too familiar through the team’s first month with Harden, and while Harden himself was the worst offender (shooting off the catch has been a longstanding bugaboo for him), Leonard and especially Mann gave him a run for his money. The Clippers still attempt fewer catch-and-shoot threes than any team, but they aren’t passing up nearly as many of those looks. Considering they’re already the best isolation-scoring team in the league, that’s all that really matters.
The beauty of these Clippers and their enviable assembly of offensive talent is that they can thrive by playing simple basketball. Leonard, George, and Harden all get two defenders on the ball or get help shaded their way when they target weaker defenders in pick-and-roll or iso from the top or from the free-throw line. They all draw nail help on their drives. There’s pretty much always an opportunity for a weak-side cut, a skip pass to the corner, or an easy kickout for an open-wing three. They can hunt mismatches for Leonard or George, clear out a side, and expect a good outcome: Leonard chiseling his way to a short middie that might as well be a layup, George hitting a silky turnaround over a smaller defender, or a hard double-team that forces the defense into rotation.
At the same time, their expertise and comfort level as self-creators can become a crutch. This team looks most frightening when it’s mixing in actions that feature all of its best players working in unison. We’ve seen a lot more of that lately:
The Clippers continue to rank last in passes per game and first in iso frequency by a healthy margin, but they’ve injected more purpose into even their one-pass possessions. Tellingly, they’re second in the league in points in the paint (57.1 per game) over their last 11 games, after ranking 21st (45.4) in their first 11 following the trade. There are enough pick-and-rolls to go around for all three of their featured players, but Harden is the clear primary initiator when they’re all on the floor, and they’ve settled into a rhythm with go-to pet actions for each guy: double drags for Harden, staggered away screens and Iverson loop cuts for George, mid-post isos and snug pindowns for Leonard.
Leonard, in case you weren’t aware, has been on a ridiculous heater, averaging 29.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 61/50/96 shooting splits (73% true shooting) during the win streak. After a sluggish start to the season that had some wondering whether age and multiple knee surgeries were finally catching up to him, he’s back to driving the ball with ferocity and cooking one-on-one matchups with his combination of brute strength, nimble footwork, short-area burst, and line-drive touch.
He’s never been a super-high rim-frequency guy; he prefers to operate in the short-mid or floater range, and this season he’s taken a career-high 35% of his shots from that zone. He’s hit 52% of them, including 63% over the last 11 games. And when he does get all the way to the rim, he shoots 80% there.
Crucially, we’re starting to see Leonard reap the fruits of Harden’s arrival. The shift to more of an off-ball role initially had him disengaging and lapsing into passivity, but he’s figured out how to use Harden’s passing and on-ball gravity to his advantage. He’s now able to access his favorite spots on the floor without having to work quite as hard. Leonard is being assisted on more of his field goals and spending less time with the ball in his hands than ever as a Clipper. In fact, this is less touch time and self-created offense than we’ve seen from him since 2015-16:
Not coincidentally, he’s having the most efficient scoring season (63% true shooting) of his career. Reducing the shot-creating attrition that comes with his physically punishing brand of offense feels like a positive step toward keeping him healthy.
Harden has been deferential as a Clipper – his 19.5% usage rate is a career low – and he quickly developed pick-and-roll synergy with both Zubac and Daniel Theis (the latter has fit in beautifully as a screen-roller and interior defender off the bench, a role L.A. needed to fill after Mason Plumlee’s injury). The aforementioned double ball screens are a great way to get Harden interacting with Leonard or George, since one of them almost always serves as the first screener in those actions. Zubac and Theis tend to slip out of the second one, but they’ve also incorporated a fun wrinkle by occasionally flipping that to an inside screen so that Harden can split the defenders:
As he’s gotten more comfortable, Harden has increasingly started to hunt his own offense, most notably with a barrage of step-back threes in the fourth quarter against the Pacers on Monday night. He’s applying a completely different level of paint pressure now than he was while playing his way into shape early on. He’s also scoring more efficiently than ever (67% true shooting), thanks in part to all the attention his new teammates command.
And while his instinct is often to slow the game down, he’s also creating gobs of open-court opportunities with wicked hit-aheads and touch passes that incentivize everyone else to run the floor hard and seal early:
L.A.’s had the league’s third-most productive transition offense over its last 11 games, compared to 21st beforehand, per Cleaning the Glass.
When the Clippers were struggling to find their footing offensively after the Harden trade, it obscured the fact they never missed a beat at the other end of the floor. They’ve been a top-10 defense all year, and they’re currently the only Western Conference team to rank in the top seven on both sides of the ball.
George isn’t quite the on-ball defender or screen navigator he once was, but he remains an ace team defender who plays the tag-and-recover game as well as just about any wing in the league. Leonard has been bringing it on the defensive end all year, even back when he wasn’t looking very Leonard-like offensively. He’s almost exclusively playing the four now, which means he’s spending less time guarding top scoring threats and more time wreaking havoc as a weak-side helper. Mann’s proficiency at chasing ball-handlers spares both of them the exhaustion of doing so, at least until crunch time.
Zubac is a criminally underrated drop defender and rim-protector who’s allowing opponents to shoot just 48.6% at the basket, the fourth-best mark among players who contest at least five shots there per game. Harden still concedes his share of blow-bys, but as a low man, he’s played some of his most dialed-in defense in years, making proactive rotations and all manner of swipe-down steals. Westbrook, despite remaining an oft-inattentive ball-watcher who’s susceptible to back-cuts, is working his tail off as an on-ball defender, and he’s always a threat to rip someone on the low block with an aggressive dig.
It all adds up to this feeling like the most complete team constructed around the Leonard-George nucleus. They’ve never had more playmaking, they’ve never been more potent in the open floor, they’re not nearly as jump-shot reliant as they used to be, and the defense remains airtight.
Everyone will rightly spend the season waiting for the other shoe to drop on the health front, but for now, it’s hard to find any other holes to poke in the Clippers’ case as a true championship contender. With all three of their best players on expiring contracts and approaching their mid-30s, it may be now or never.