When billionaire owner Steve Ballmer opened his checkbook to sign Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers acquired Paul George shortly thereafter, the franchise was immediately elevated into the championship picture.
Leonard was fresh off guiding the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, while George – a six-time All-Star – finally landed in a big city after starring in Indiana and Oklahoma City.
With two of the best two-way players in the game, the Clippers went all-in to build a super team that rivaled LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the crosstown Los Angeles Lakers. But after a collapse in the Western Conference semifinals at Walt Disney World Resort, the clock is ticking for these Clippers as they try to capture the franchise’s elusive first title.
In the aftermath of the devastating defeat, the Clips parted ways with head coach Doc Rivers despite going 49-23 this season and never finishing below .500 after he arrived in 2013. As Los Angeles searches for a new coach and attempts to pinpoint what went wrong, let’s look at the issues facing the team heading into 2020-21:
EMBRACE CHANCE TO MAKE FRANCHISE HISTORY
The star-studded Clippers could not translate their regular-season record into playoff success after finishing behind only the Lakers in the West.
They’ve finished with a winning record but failed to reach the conference finals in nine straight seasons – the longest streak of its kind in NBA history. The Clippers’ postseason woes were compounded by a horrific loss to the Denver Nuggets after they had been standing on the cusp of an all-LA West final with a 3-1 series lead.
One of three franchises that joined the NBA as an expansion team in the 1970-71 season, the Clippers – formerly known as the Buffalo Braves – have never won a championship or conference title. Heck, they’ve never even reached a conference final.
IMPROVE KAWHI AND PG13’S COMPATIBILITY
The Clippers gave up a lot to pair PG13 with Kawhi, sending five first-round draft picks, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Thunder to make it happen.
But the 10-year veteran George, who averaged 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists in the regular season, shot just 39.8% in the playoffs and failed to score more than 15 points in six of the team’s 13 games. He also struggled from the field this season when sharing the court with Leonard. And the difference was even greater during the playoffs.
With Kawhi on the court in the regular season, PG13’s field-goal percentage was 41.1 compared to 48.2 without him. During the playoffs, George shot 53.8% while Leonard was sidelined, a significant improvement on the 36.8% he managed with Leonard.
Stats Perform’s lineup data tells us that the Clippers had a plus-13.9 net rating with Kawhi and PG13 on the floor together during the regular season, which looks great on the surface. But a closer look reveals that they had a plus-10.1 net when Kawhi was on the court without PG13 and only a plus-1.8 net when George was on the floor without Leonard.
|Season||Lineup||Off. Rating||Def. Rating||Net Rating|
|2019-20||With Leonard, George||123.1||109.2||13.9|
|2019-20||With Leonard, No George||120.6||110.5||10.1|
|2019-20||With George, No Leonard||117.3||115.5||1.8|
ZUBAC OVER HARRELL
The Clippers should feel good about giving Ivica Zubac a more permanent role in the middle next season, and think twice before giving 2020 NBA Sixth Man of the Year and free agent Montrezl Harrell a massive contract.
Los Angeles had a solid plus-9.3 net rating with Zubac on the floor during the regular season, and that mark went down to plus-3.8 when he was on the bench or sidelined. In comparison, the Clippers had a plus-5.7 net rating when Harrell was on the court and an even better plus-5.9 net without him.
Perhaps what’s most telling is that the club had a plus-16.3 net rating with Kawhi, George and Zubac on the court but was less effective at plus-10.4 when Kawhi, George and Harrell played together. That was particularly the case offensively: Leonard, George and Zubac posted a 123.7 offensive rating, while Leonard, George and Harrell ended up at 118.7.
|Season||Lineup||Off. Rating||Def. Rating||Net Rating|
|2019-20||With Leonard, George, Zubac||123.7||107.4||16.3|
|2019-20||With Leonard, George, Harrell||118.7||108.3||10.4|
TRUST IN HISTORIC BENCH
Los Angeles reserves have averaged at least 50 points in each of the past two seasons. It’s the only two times a bench has put up that many points per game in the past 35 years.
The unit also averaged a league-high 110.4 minutes during the regular season. But in the 2020 playoffs, Los Angeles ranked third with 36.4 bench points and 88.0 bench minutes per game, relying much more heavily on the starting unit.
That didn’t bode well for a roster that is the fourth oldest (28 years, 153 days) in the league, behind the Houston Rockets (30 years, 179 days), Milwaukee Bucks (29 years, 321 days) and Lakers (29 years, 201 days). While the Clips outscored their opponents by an average of 61.0-54.8 in the first half during the playoffs, they were outscored 53.9-52.0 over the final two quarters.
STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION
Was it an overreaction to move on from Rivers after the Clippers were one win from the West finals, or had his tenure with the club run its course? Either way, Los Angeles is hoping the new coach can get the most out of Leonard, George and a talented roster that’s on borrowed time.
With Leonard and George eligible for free agency again after next season if they don’t exercise their options, this very well could be the last time we decide on evolution for this club.
Lineup data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.
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