With Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Los Angeles Clippers have added two of the NBA’s seven best players, a pair of perennial MVP candidates who are smack dab in the middle of their primes with more room to improve. They directly and indirectly complement each other in obvious ways, and after spending most of their careers in winning situations alongside fellow megastars, they have a natural synergy that’s born from being familiar with sacrifice and accepting it.
Both possess skill-sets designed to be lead dogs on their own teams – each finished in the 97th percentile in usage percentage last season, per Cleaning the Glass – but it’s not hard to see how they peacefully coexist. They aren’t known as playmakers, but both can comfortably navigate through any possession, on or off the ball, in ways that force a defense to account for every step. When they share the court, they’ll loosen the floor for each other by keeping the other team off balanced. When they instead star as the solo act alongside a crew of sensible role players, they should have a fun time mowing through bench units with an assurance that whenever they need to rest, a proven system can step in to remove pressure from their shoulders. Los Angeles’s offense is in terrific hands.
But it’s the other side of the ball where the Clippers can flex in ways that not only separate them from every other team in the league, but arguably every other team of the last 20 years. We haven’t seen a defensive duo this potent since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen turned basketball courts into lonely, vulnerable prairies.
When healthy and unbothered by the responsibilities that come with life as any franchises’s only star, George and Leonard are the two most imposing perimeter defenders in basketball. Leonard has won two Defensive Player of the Year awards and has made an all-defensive team every year aside from his rookie year and 2017-18, when he missed all but nine games with a quad injury. George has made All-Defensive team four times and led the league in steals last season. Each approaches that end with nuanced, game-changing force, and a level of confidence that’s impossible for others to duplicate without tumbling into reckless behavior. When they reach, they also teach.
Both have become irrepressible offensive fireworks, but they initially forged their identities with defense as their DNA. Leonard and George etched names for themselves by snuffing out the opponent’s best scorer, knowing they weren’t drafted in a slot high enough to demand 20 shots a night. Both guarded prime LeBron James in the playoffs early in their years without crumbling. They’re versatile and long and smooth, sure, but also committed. It’s not easy to screen either one off their initial assignment, and they impact the other team’s approach no matter where they stand on the floor.
Great offensive players have gravity, meaning they attract attention whether they have the ball or not, as if they’re a bright light drawing in a floating moth. But Leonard and George have an inverse “anti-gravity” effect on the other end. Instead of attracting players from the other team to their geographic location, their mere presence is a natural repellent.
Swing the ball towards either one at your own risk. Use their man to set a ball screen, and pray they don’t spring out and trap the handler 30 feet from the rim — or, even worse, switch onto the play’s initiator and muzzle things another way. Both have spent a majority of their careers forcing offenses to rearrange their entire game plan, making them venture outside their comfort zone before a set is even called. As one coach told Sports Illustrated’s (and now Clippers executive) Lee Jenkins about Leonard back in 2016: “You go at him, you’re asking for trouble.”
A great defense can be built around either one, so to have both at the same time isn’t fair. Factor in point guard Patrick Beverley and new forward Maurice Harkless as ideal complements, and the Clippers have a defensive unit that’s imposing enough to strip most teams of their offensive identity. If your momentum is generated by stars who draw help and then find the open man, what happens against a team that doesn’t need to help?
Consider the Clippers’ potential playoff opponents. How will the Houston Rockets handle the George/Leonard duo if one guards Harden, Beverley sticks Chris Paul, and the other member of the George/Leonard duo sticks to Clint Capela to switch Houston’s pick-and-roll and vaporize the play? Houston can hunt for lesser defenders and/or develop a system that involves more player and ball movement, but in crunch time of a tenacious playoff game, they may lean on the isolation-heavy style they know. Problem is, what they know plays right into L.A.’s hands.
Then consider the Portland Trail Blazers or Utah Jazz. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley will all be forced to attack a defense that sees virtually no drop from its best and second-best defender. Can the Denver Nuggets bully them down low with Nikola Jokic, or will it not matter if/when Jamal Murray gets erased from the equation? What can the new-look Lakers do?
The Clippers’ personnel opens up so many different options. They can be uber-aggressive (which is how the Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed George last season, with shades of LeBron’s Miami Heat), or be more conservative and let the action come to them. George and Leonard are deadly on the ball, but in certain matchups, the Clippers can also mess around by throwing one onto a non-threat, then turn him loose in passing lanes as a roving security guard. Safe plays will sit below a flashing yellow light: proceed with caution. George and Leonard will throw off timing and make offenses either think a beat too long or act a split-second too slow. Hesitate or rush, either way you’re toast.
Health definitely matters, with George coming off shoulder surgery (no small matter for a defender who fights over dozens of ball screens every night) and Leonard limping his way through a historic Finals run, during which his defense toggled between brilliant (against the Milwaukee Bucks as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s primary defender) and lackadaisical (he wasn’t himself on that end through most of the Finals). The rest of the roster has questions, particularly in the rim protection department, where Ivika Zubac and Montrezl Harrell are the only big men right now. Should the Clippers match up against the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals – or the crosstown rival Los Angeles Lakers, who now boast Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins — size will matter.
But there should be plenty of opportunity to add more between now and when the buyout market opens up in the middle of the season. This is a team that had a bottom-third defense for the last two seasons, and was forced to stick Beverley on Kevin Durant with their season on the line in this year’s playoffs.
Things are different now. Leonard and George are the backbone of a title contender that can do things nobody else can. And on paper, that arguably makes them the team to beat.