Clippers midseason report card: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George meshing well; defense, malaise only minor issues
The Clippers have yet to play their best basketball, and that's exactly how they want it
Following the most productive offseason in franchise history -- and one of the most shocking in NBA history -- the Los Angeles Clippers added not only reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, but also All-NBA forward Paul George, without losing much from an already deep and talented roster. The changes made them the consensus NBA title favorite entering the 2019-20 season, but so far their Staples Center roommates, the Lakers, have been the best team in the Western Conference.
As the Clippers approach the halfway point of the season with Tuesday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's as good a time as any to see how they've addressed the biggest questions heading into the season. We've put together a report card as well as an overall grade for the first 41 games of the season.
*Statistics accurate as of Jan. 12
Chemistry between Kawhi and George: A
The combination of Leonard and George seemed like a match made in heaven -- not only did the two stars want to play with each other, but their skill sets also seem to complement each other perfectly. Both are capable of being primary scorers but can also play off the ball. Both can tenaciously defend multiple positions with All-Defensive-first-team-level ability. But how has it actually played out on the court?
So far, so good. With Kawhi and P.G. on the court together, the Clippers have put up a net rating of plus-10.7 in 461 minutes together. As expected, the defensive rating is pristine at 102, and the offense is productive at 112.8. George and Leonard have thrived as spot-up shooters playing off the ball, and are both among the league leaders in the category at over 1.2 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology.
The problem is that they haven't played together very often. Due to a combination of injuries and load management, Leonard and George have only played in 18 games together this season. But the Clippers don't necessarily seem concerned with that. They want the All-NBA combo of Leonard and George ready for the playoffs, especially since the two stars have already displayed strong chemistry in the regular season.
Pick-and-roll offense: A
The bread-and-butter for last season's Clippers offense was the devastating Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick-and-roll, so when Leonard and George signed on it was natural to question how that offensive dynamic would be affected. Turns out they're just as good, and Kawhi and P.G. are also devastating as pick-and-roll ball-handlers, making the Clippers one of the best in the NBA in that regard. According to Synergy, they're sixth in the league in scoring for pick-and-roll ball-handlers at 0.932 points per possession. Williams and George are each in the 85th percentile or higher in terms of scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll when you include passes, and Leonard is no slouch in the 69th percentile. Leonard is destroying his previous career high with over five assists per game this season, and that's partly due to his ability to facilitate out of the pick-and-roll.
"What he's doing with us is even another level,"earlier this season. "So you can tell that is something that he's focused on over the summer -- to be a better playmaker. His passing ability is unbelievable."
With the defensive pieces and schemes that the Clippers possess, you would expect them to be pushing for the NBA lead in the category. So far they've been very good on the defensive end, but certainly not elite. They're seventh in the NBA with 105.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, but have been significantly worse since their Christmas Day win over the Lakers, allowing 113.9 points per 100 possessions over that span, 27th in the NBA. They've been without Leonard or George for a few of those games, but even without them there's no excuse for this roster to consistently give up that many points.
The area that stands out as a deficiency is pick-and-roll defense. They're 27th in the NBA, according to Synergy, allowing 0.943 points per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season, and they're allowing 1.125 points per possession to the roll man, which is 17th in the league. This is largely due to teams exploiting center Ivica Zubac, who has been a good rim protector but average when dealing with switches in pick-and-roll situations. Harrell, who gets the bulk of the center minutes including crunch time, has been slightly better but still falls below the 50th percentile in pick-and-roll defense.
This is partly due to defensive strategy, as Doc Rivers and the Clippers seem content dropping Zubac and Harrell on pick-and-rolls to eliminate shots at the rim, instead of living with mid-range jumpers and floaters from the opposition, traditionally some of the least efficient shots on the court. With defenders like Patrick Beverley chasing opponents from over the top, these shots become even more difficult.
But still, the fact that they're not getting stops in pick-and-roll has to be at least slightly concerning given that in the playoffs, that action becomes more and more prevalent down the stretch in close games. Limiting the impressive pick-and-roll combos in the Western Conference (LeBron James-Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic, Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert, Chris Paul-Steven Adams) will be essential in the Clippers' quest for a title.
Death lineup: A+
Part of the reason the Clippers were the title favorite entering the season is their devastating closing lineup of Beverley, Williams, Leonard, George and Harrell, and so far it's absolutely lived up to the hype. Those five have shared the court for only 46 total minutes in 12 games this season, but have generated a plus-20.8 net rating, including a stingy 81.2 defensive rating. If everyone's healthy, this is the lineup we'll likely see to close games in the postseason, making the Clippers an intimidating opponent in the clutch. This is part of the reason why Rivers doesn't panic when his team goes through lulls like the post-Christmas funk.
"It is what it is," Doc Rivers said, via The Athletic. "I can't change it. I don't panic about it or pressure about it. Tonight, what's the date? January whatever. There is not a lot that we can do about it today. If we play like that in May or April, that will hurt us. Then I wouldn't be good about it."
Overall Grade: A-
When the Clippers have been locked in, they've looked like the best team in the NBA. Due to injuries, load management and occasional malaise, we haven't gotten to see that level very often. That being said, they're still within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the West and have a top-five net rating. If and when the Clippers begin firing on all cylinders, likely as the postseason nears, they're going to be one of the scariest teams in the league.
"That is what we are. We are a work in progress. We got to keep getting better," Rivers said.
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