You know the phrase death by a thousand paper cuts? The idea being that one cut won’t do noticeable damage but the cumulative effect of a thousand is too many to survive? Two games into this season, the Los Angeles Clippers already have an offensive system that can best be described as death by a thousand chainsaws.
“We don’t need to reinvent anything,” Doc Rivers recently told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. It’s true. Even without Paul George, the options are endless. Kawhi Leonard is that imposing. Lou Williams is that crafty. Montrezl Harrell is that relentless. Combine their strengths in one simple action and the result is destruction. And when Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green make shots (they’re a combined 14-for-24 from deep, which isn’t sustainable, but still), no defensive system on the planet can slow them down.
On Thursday night in San Francisco—an offensive performance that, according to Cleaning the Glass, was more efficient than any the Clippers generated all of last season—one plain action that directly involved L.A.’s three best available offensive players showed just how impossible stopping them will be.
The Clippers ran it on two straight possessions early in the second quarter, a stagger screen-and-roll that began with the ball in Leonard’s hands. Williams and Harrell set the picks while Moe Harkless and Green spotted up in the corners. Here’s what happened on the first go around:
The Golden State Warriors switch the initial screen, leaving Jordan Poole and Omari Spellman to try and contain a high pick-and-roll with Kawhi and Harrell. Good luck to them. Draymond Green sees what’s coming and drifts into the paint to take away a potential lob. The Warriors can live with a Kawhi mid-range pull-up, even though Kawhi mid-range pull-ups are lethal in their own right.
But instead of settling, Leonard hops middle and opens up a line of sight to the weakside, where JaMychal Green is wide open. Draymond reads Kawhi’s eyes and starts to race back towards his man, which then leaves poor Spellman alone to deal with the ball and his initial assignment. Dunk.
If there’s one knock to make on Leonard’s game, it’s playmaking. When measured by “best player in the world” standards, his vision isn’t as panoramic as LeBron James’ or James Harden’s. But plays like this obliterate that criticism. All Leonard needs to do is make an easy read then deliver the ball, which he’s more than capable of doing.
A few moments later, the Clippers settle themselves into the exact same alignment. Leonard starts on the left wing and dribbles right towards Harrell and Williams. The Warriors tweak their coverage at the start, with Poole showing instead of switching. Kawhi responds with a play that separates superstars from everybody else, dribbling behind his back to split the screen and once again engage Spellman in a high pick-and-roll. He fakes a pocket pass then snaps a tight in-and-out dribble that Spellman doesn’t fall for.
But this time, Green decides he isn’t leaving Harrell’s body. He sits in the paint, takes that option away, and completely abandons JaMychal Green on the opposite wing. Leonard immediately recognizes the coverage and fires a cross-court pass to his wide open teammate. Draymond races out as fast as he can, but balls always move faster than people.
This isn’t high level stuff, but that’s what makes it so terrifying. Guarding this action is difficult enough as is. Now swap JaMychal Green out for Paul George. Or Williams out for Paul George. Or put the ball in PG’s hands and have Kawhi set the first screen. Or let Lou Will cook with Kawhi spotted up in the corner as George and Harrell set him free with a double screen.
The Clippers aren’t even close to what they can be, and already they’re nearly unguardable. This is scary.