Just a year ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were riding the hype surrounding the acquisition of their two stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The impossible pairing of two of the game’s best two-way players, coupled with their intense depth off the bench, made them instant favorites to win it all.
It’s for this reason that no one could have foreseen their collapse against the Denver Nuggets. In near Golden State fashion, Leonard and the Clippers gave up a 3-1 series lead on the heels of a stagnant, isolation-heavy offensive attack that just couldn’t pay off their defensive efforts.
Clippers vs Lakers: LA has West’s two strongest teams
As it currently stands, the Clippers are the modest third seed in a competitive Western Conference and are only two games away from taking the first spot. But with the spectre of yesteryear’s performance hanging over the Staples Center, the hype has not been the same this year, and understandably so.
However, this is far from the same team that fell apart against Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. With a retooled all-around attack and a roster that’s addressed most of its flaws from Orlando, the Clippers are absolutely still in contention for a Larry O’Brien trophy.
Here’s a quick look at why the Clippers are still the biggest threat to LeBron and the Lakers.
They got better all around
Even the eye test speaks flatteringly of the team: they drive, kick, and play excellent, fundamental basketball on both ends of the floor. And so far, it’s clear that the biggest reason for the Clippers’ resurgent year so far has been their offseason moves.
Firing Doc Rivers was a tough decision for the Clippers organization, but it’s one that had to be made. Just a year removed from parting ways with their longtime coach, and the team looks completely retooled. Though not a big-ticket name in the coaching world, Ty Lue seems to have unlocked the Clippers offense and turned them into the offensive juggernaut they always had the potential to be.
Their superstars have gotten better individually, too. When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George take the floor together, they’re outscoring opponents by +16.9 points per 100 possessions. Leonard has shown marked growth as a playmaker this year, putting in his best passing season with 5.1 assists per game. He’s also in his third-best scoring season with 25.7 points per game on his second-best efficiency (.516 eFG%) in his career.
The emergence of dependable veterans and role players like Nicolas Batum, Rajon Rondo, and Serge Ibaka has also made all the difference for this Clippers squad. Batum provides competent defense and perimeter spacing, while Rondo’s playmaking has proven to persist despite his age. Ibaka has always been known for his rim protection and three-point shooting as a big, and his chemistry with Leonard from their Toronto days has not wavered one bit.
This depth should buoy them in the playoffs in more ways than one. Besides what they bring by way of production, Leonard, Ibaka and Rondo also bring championship pedigree to a team that already has the veteran playoff experience of Patrick Beverley and Marcus Morris.
“We just got high IQ players, unselfish players. No one’s out here looking to get numbers or looking to pad stats or looking to get their own. Like, everybody has bought in. That’s really the key to it. We bought into team basketball.”
Paul George on the Clippers offense pic.twitter.com/CTcv7kD9iB
— Tomer Pfizarly (@TomerAzarly) April 19, 2021
They’re still a defensive juggernaut
People seem to forget that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are still Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Those names are never something opposing teams want to hear in a sentence together, much less play basketball against. They’re still possibly the best two-way pairing of all time and can get a stop when it matters most.
However, their biggest problem so far has been consistency. Kawhi and PG can go and get a stop for you in any given possession, no doubt. But doing it continuously through an entire game and an entire season is a different conversation altogether. As a team, the Clippers are conceding an 11th-ranked defensive rating of 110.7 for the season. The Lakers are the first.
The silver lining is that they’re figuring it out. Since All-Star weekend, they’re only giving up 109.0 points per 100 possessions, good for 6th in the league. In that span, they’re also second in net rating (+9.1), second in effective field goal percentage (56.4%), and first in offensive rating.
And while team defense is very much an issue, where the Clippers excel is their versatility. In a seven-game series, adaptability can be just as important as a defensive gameplan, something the Clippers clearly have going for them. Numbers aside, they’re a defensive juggernaut solely because they have the personnel to trot out any kind of lineup to stay in step with the opposition. There aren’t a lot of teams as uniquely positioned to defend like they do when it comes to matching up. Ivica Zubac is more than capable of patrolling the painted area when size is needed, while Morris and Ibaka can be slotted in for small ball lineups.
1 more time. if u wanna see why the clippers are surging on defense & are now a top 10 defense in the NBA.
it’s effort like this. they’ve been defending their a** off the last 11 games or so. i wish this was the case earlier but w/21 games left, right on time & on schedule. pic.twitter.com/GvAe3A16ec
— Jamal Cristopher (@Clippers24seven) April 4, 2021
They can shoot the lights out
In spite of their prowess on the defensive end, the Clippers are also an offensive monolith by way of the three-ball as evidenced by their league-leading offensive efficiency.
It’s a shooter’s league now, and the Clippers have taken notice. Paul George himself said it best: everyone on the team can shoot the three-ball, save for defensive big man Ivica Zubac. Having this weapon in their bag gives George and Leonard the space to operate comfortably in the paint.
As it currently stands, Los Angeles has ten players on its roster shooting above 39% from distance. Since the All-Star break, the Clippers have led the league in win percentage (.783) and three-point percentage (42.2%).
If that wasn’t a big enough scoring punch, the Clippers also have five players averaging double figures in points per game, along with six others averaging at least 8. As a result, their 114.9 points per game as a team is good for 6th in the NBA. They’re not just a hot-shooting team, they’re also deep.
Considering the Lakers are only shooting 35.4% good for 22nd in the league, a series between the two LA teams could very well come down to which team can shoot the long ball better.
▪️ Season-high 21 threes vs. Minnesota
▪️ League-leading 42.1% from three
▪️ 7 players shooting at least 40% from three this season (min. 70 3PA)
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 20, 2021
They’re the underdogs this year
Among fans, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Lakers are coming out of the West once more.
With the way the Clippers fell apart a year ago, the scrutiny that came their way was certainly not undeserved.
With the recent injury of Jamal Murray on the Denver Nuggets, it doesn’t look like any other team in the West can keep up with the Lakers pound for pound.
It’s clear that the Clippers have their eyes set on the playoffs this time around. After their collapse last year, the Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly underdogs this year until proven otherwise. But that seems to be exactly where they want to be. The script has flipped for them this year, but Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are as good a bet as any to flip the script back.