Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s movement to L.A. was years in the making. Now the Clippers may have the piece to tip the scales in their direction.
Kawhi Leonard has a habit of tipping scales of the NBA. He did so in 2014 as the skeleton key and LeBron James irritant of the Spurs’ last championship team, and again last season as the superstar that took Toronto from the brink of contention to the NBA Finals podium. It speaks a great deal to Leonard’s value, versatility and development that he won two Finals MVP awards by filling two vastly different needs for two different teams. Friday night (technically Saturday morning) he swung the balance of the league once again, this time in conjunction with Paul George, by signing a four-year, $142 million deal with the L.A. Clippers.
In teaming up together, George and Leonard change the perception of themselves, their new franchise and the Western Conference hierarchy. The fracturing of the Warriors’ dynasty created a vacuum that rivals in the West were eager to fill, but the Clippers may have done so in the most substantive manner. The Lakers paired Anthony Davis with James but sacrificed nearly the entire rest of their roster in the process. Upstarts like Dallas and New Orleans have shrewdly surrounded their young stars with capable veterans, but ultimately lack the firepower to contend with the cream of the West. Denver stood pat, Portland appears to have taken a minor step back and internal turmoil may hamper the aging Rockets. Utah solidified an already-sturdy foundation with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović but left itself vulnerable in exactly the places the Clippers are now built to exploit.
Leonard and George give their new team what no other in the NBA has — two gargantuan, superstar wings in their primes capable of sharing scoring and playmaking duties while blanketing opposing first options on the other end of the floor. There may be no cleaner fit, in theory, between two stars in the league. On-court partnerships between stars are nearly always clean due to the degree of talent at play, but the pairing of George and Leonard looks particularly seamless.
Leonard has proven himself capable of shouldering a first option’s burden on a championship team, even without a threat like George to complement him. George took a massive leap as a shooter and finisher last season and may be the only wing defender in the league who measures up to prime Leonard. Both offer supreme versatility on both ends without infringing upon how the other likes to play. They’ll be free to roam where they like without becoming overburdened.
Offensively, both stars should have plenty of room to operate and find scoring opportunities relatively easily. Their arrival will mandate a natural reorientation of an egalitarian offense that once subsisted on making purposeful decisions and fighting for every advantage. Now, those advantages will be baked into every Clippers possession as they direct their intensity through more efficient channels. Not only are Leonard and George fabulous all-around players, but they’re also two of the most accurate shooters in the world, and the attention opponents must pay them (never mind Landry Shamet, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams) off the ball will open avenues for the other to impose their respective wills. If a defense somehow manages to withstand Leonard’s methodical, punishing isolation game, it must still contend with George’s hair-trigger jumpers and slithering pick-and-roll forays.
The Clippers will be putting possessions in steady hands nearly every trip down the floor, with elite spot-up shooting and second-side playmaking to boot. What Leonard and George lack in passing acumen (relative to other superstars across the league), they make up for with surgical precision. They were the only wings in the NBA last season to post usage rates over 27 and turnover rates under 11 on above-average efficiency and were among the most efficient isolationists in the league. Williams’ dynamism off the bench will free Leonard and George to work off the ball as often as they like.
The outlines of a top-end defense are present, though they skew heavily toward the perimeter — adding two of an era’s preeminent wing defenders will do that. The range of players L.A. can capably cover now spans nearly the entire league, and few players are as disruptive as Leonard and George (who have a chance to form the most fearsome defensive wing tandem since… Jordan and Pippen?). If they don’t care to exert maximum effort on the ball, Doc Rivers has the option of deploying Beverley, Moe Harkless (undervalued in a salary dump by Portland) or Rodney McGruder there instead.
What separates Leonard and George is their ability, when fully engaged, to affect plays as help defenders in addition to hounding ball-handlers and sliding over screens. That will help shore up L.A.’s weak-side defense, but not completely cover for its lack of rim protection. The team can still use its mid-level exception to round out its back line. Still, in a hypothetical playoff series, when bigs lose defensive value, the Clippers have as active and versatile a cast as any team in the West.
Friday night’s machinations were years in the making. From George declaring in 2017 his desire to play in Los Angeles, to the Clippers trading star players (and their exorbitant contracts) in consecutive years, to the rift between Leonard and the Spurs’ medical staff, the Clippers to cultivate a star-friendly ecosystem and map out the best course for acquiring superstar talent. Now they may have the piece to finally tilt the balance their way.