NBA Season Preview 2019-20: 5 biggest questions for the Los Angeles Clippers

HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 6: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers and Lou Williams #23 of the LA Clippers shares a laugh during the game against the Shanghai Sharks on October 6, 2019 at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jay Metzger/NBAE via Getty Images)
HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 6: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers and Lou Williams #23 of the LA Clippers shares a laugh during the game against the Shanghai Sharks on October 6, 2019 at Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jay Metzger/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After a huge offseason, the Clippers might be the NBA title favorite. But how will they fit their pieces together to reach that ceiling?

In a summer of seismic change across the NBA, the L.A. Clippers somehow managed to out-splash the rest of the league, simultaneously adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to one of the deepest and friskiest rosters in the Western Conference. The Clippers’ first-round battle against the Warriors begged the question of what the team might do with a superstar (or two) to elevate and fill gaps between an interesting — yet limited — cast of role players.

We’ll soon have our answer. Leonard and George transformed the Clippers, overnight, into a playoff lock and arguable championship favorite in 2020. Still, questions remain about how the two will coexist and how their arrival might affect the harmonious balance L.A. achieved in 2019. Here, we’ll dive into some of the team’s most pressing questions — the answers to which could quite literally determine the Larry O.B.’s home a year from now.

1. Where will the Clippers finish in offensive efficiency?

Given the talent and depth on this team, a top-10 offense feels all but preordained, and a leap into the top five is well within reason. The beauty of pairing two players like Leonard and George is the optionality that comes with it. To place the ball in one’s hands is to free the other to be involved elsewhere — working in off-ball screening actions, establishing position on the block or pulling his man out of the play. They’re flexible enough not to impose upon the space Williams and Harrell need to work their two-man magic, yet indomitable enough that Landry Shamet needn’t stray too far from his comfort zone. Both are immutable creators of their own offense, while the rest of the team abounds with the shooters and shot creators to foster symbiotic accentuation.

At the very least, the Clippers will have two elite floor spacers on the wing, but George and Leonard are clearly so much more than that. They’re both proven drivers of efficient offense as a primary ball-handlers, yet neither needs the ball to be effective. Each ranked in the 86th percentile or better last season as both pick-and-roll ball-handlers and spot-up scorers and is more than capable of creating in isolation. The Clippers were the most pick-and-roll-reliant team in the NBA last season and operating out of ball screens accounted for roughly a quarter of both Leonard and George’s overall offense (though both Toronto and Oklahoma City used ball screens as a team at middling rates).

Rivers has the option to keep the offense simple, putting best creators in ball screens and daring opponents to stop it, but also the room to be more imaginative. Neither Leonard nor George compiled any meaningful data sample as a roll man last year, but both could be effective in that position. That two-man game could open avenues for either to attack the rim with or without the ball and teammates to orbit around them as their defenders stargaze.

Perhaps the lone weakness of L.A.’s offense will be a lack of conventional playmaking. Neither star is an outstanding creator for others, while Williams’s is more of a learned passer than an instinctive one. Beverley has juice off the bounce but is a “point guard” mostly by name and stature. It will be up to the incumbent Clippers to learn how best to orbit around Leonard and George, but also necessary for the stars to stretch their playmaking abilities with a deep and versatile ensemble around them. They aren’t surgical floor generals like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo but can keep possessions moving by initiating drive-and-kick sequences and making simple extra passes.

Save for Williams and Harrell’s two-man magic, last year’s Clippers ran offense by committee: a pick-and-roll would lead to someone attacking a closeout would beget a kick to the wing and swing into a corner 3. The absence of a prototypical pass-first setup man could occasionally impede the flow of the offense, but it could also be freeing; it leaves the offense subject to improvisation by some of the world’s best solo artists and allows creation to come in several different forms. But it does put more on individuals to manufacture their own shots without the benefit of an elite passer to set the table. This won’t be the fluid, whirring system Leonard ran in San Antonio, nor should it be the predictable, plodding offense in which George played during the past two seasons. L.A. has room to work in between, with weapons at every position and the depth to adapt to the stylings of two stars who set an impossibly high baseline.

2. What intensity level do the Clippers bring to the regular season?

Really, this is a question of George and Leonard’s health and the team’s approach toward resting them in the regular season. Despite coming off the best seasons of their respective careers, both of L.A.’s superstars enter the 2020 season under shrouds of injury concerns. Leonard spent over a quarter of his Toronto tenure in street clothes as a precaution against re-injury of a right quadriceps injury, and even as he cut down rival after rival in the postseason, Leonard did so with a limp. The strategy paid obvious dividends for the Raptors, but it raises questions of Leonard’s availability for the upcoming season. At present, Leonard says he plans on playing the majority of the season with no unusual limitations, and frankly, taking a cautious approach with Leonard might be the Clippers’ best course of action — especially given the depth and talent throughout their roster.

George’s situation is more uncertain. After finishing third in the 2019 MVP race, he and the Thunder flamed out in the postseason due in large part to Damian Lillard’s heroics, but also to a host of nagging injuries to George. The forward underwent two shoulder surgeries — one on each side — this summer, and it could take more than a quarter of the season for he and Leonard to step onto the floor as teammates. L.A. is well-equipped to handle absences to either of its superstar wings – Moe Harkless, Rodney McGruder, Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green can all slide between multiple positions — but any prolonged absence significantly cuts into the team’s ability to coalesce into a championship contender and for Rivers to sort out exactly how each player fits into that pursuit.

Assuming reasonably good health, this team has enough on-ball creation and sheer talent to earn homecourt advantage without unnecessarily straining itself. Leonard’s presence alone should create a fairly high baseline of offensive efficiency while Williams, Harrell and Shamet offer varying degrees of steady, night-to-night firepower to snatch wins out of the fire during the doldrums of the season.

But still: missing a chunk of the season at once raises a different set of concerns than dispersing 20 games of rest over an 82-game season. It leaves open the possibility of setbacks and exacerbation, without George even having the chance to reestablish his level of play from a season ago. His and Leonard’s games were made to complement one another and torment opponents on both ends of the floor, and when healthy, only the Lakers boast more two-man firepower. The Clippers’ first priority should be ensuring they’re both available when the stakes are highest. It’s just unclear how often we’ll see them together before then.

3. How will the Clippers defend LeBron James and Anthony Davis in a theoretical playoff series?

These Clippers are fashioned in the image of the Warriors-era NBA. They are flush with rangy, like-sized personnel and the roster fit is, on paper, clean and intuitive. The Lakers, meanwhile, feature two of the more anomalous talents in the game’s history next to an otherwise conventional outfit. That will pose a difficult challenge for any team and a fascinating matchup for their intracity opponent.

The Clippers are one of the few teams — if not the only team — in the NBA with multiple defenders capable of genuinely making LeBron James’ life difficult. Both George and Leonard have the length, strength and agility to bother James, and each has frustrated him in past postseasons. Moe Harkless, though relatively unproven in that role, could prove an effective primary defender for stretches as well. The Clippers have the coaching and collective smarts to keep James off-balance over the course of a series. (It should be noted that any defensive success against LeBron is relative. He will impose his will no matter what. Opponents can only hope to control the extent to which he dominates.)

The trouble, however, comes with Davis. For all their length and depth on the wing, the Clippers are thin at center — particularly defensively — and perilously vulnerable to Davis singlehandedly turning a series. If the Lakers downsize and play Davis at center (which they should), JaMychal Green could emerge as the Clippers’ best option to defend him. Assigning George or Leonard that matchup could leave them physically overmatched and the team without two valuable help defenders and LeBron irritants. Harkless, who spent crucial playoff minutes at center with the Blazers, feels a bit light in the shorts to handle Davis. Montrezl Harrell would need to improve monumentally and Ivica Zubač is too slow. Green, while slightly undersized relative to Davis, has the length, speed and tenacity to match up adequately and plays a small enough role on offense to exert maximum effort against Davis for extended minutes.

Realistically, it will take more than a single defender to slow Davis. The Clippers will likely use multiple primary defenders and show a variety of help schemes. That will involve featuring Leonard and George — the team’s two best all-around defenders — in most every conceivable capacity. When fully engaged, both are nearly unshakable on the ball and impossibly disruptive away from it. That allows them to defend either Lakers star or take away space as help defenders, depending on what the situation demands.

As the season progresses, we’ll get glimpses at possible strategies either team could deploy against one another and likely perceive both the Lakers and Clippers differently than we do now — over a week before the season even starts. All that will be left is for the teams to actually meet up with one another in the playoffs.

4. Where will the Clippers finish in defensive efficiency?

In the playoffs, L.A. can likely make do by playing smaller lineups without a true center to maximize its skill and defensive versatility. But the regular season is a different sort of race, run under a separate set of conditions. Having a reliable, consistent defensive presence at the rim has greater value on a nightly basis in the regular season than it does in shorter postseason sprints, and a team like the Clippers, in particular, would prefer to spare its stars the pounding of playing excessive minutes in small lineups.

L.A. might not be able to put 48 — or even 38 — minutes of competent interior defense on the floor every night, which could leave them vulnerable to crafty pick-and-roll operators, relentless drivers and post-up brutes. It’s unclear if any of the Clipper centers can sustain heavy minutes as the team’s defensive anchor, yet at least one of them will have to try. Williams, while brilliant offensively, will handicap the team’s defense when he checks in for Beverley. It’s more difficult for wings like Leonard, George and Harkless to impact a team’s entire defense on the scale dominant rim-protecting bigs can.

Rivers will surely find ways to scheme around his smaller personnel, and he does still have perhaps the best perimeter defensive duo since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. It’s hard to see the Clippers falling any lower than 15th in defensive efficiency and at their best, they could be one of the most suffocating units in the league. But on a per-possession basis, the baseline may not be quite as high.

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5. How will Doc Rivers manage the frontcourt rotation?

If the Clippers lack flexibility at any position, it’s center. Harrell, for all his efficient and energetic offensive work off the bench, isn’t the same force on the other end of the floor and might not produce in the same way against staring units. Rivers might start Ivica Zubać, as he did last season, and use Harrell to close games. While the 21-year-old Zubać filled in nicely at center after the trade deadline, the job description is different for a young big when his team’s stakes rise the way the Clippers’ have — let alone when opponents continually try to exploit him in the postseason.

Zubač offers more value on defense than on offense, but playing off of two dominant two-way forwards could simplify his offensive role while augmenting his defensive value. He’ll need to improve as a roll man and reduce his turnovers to win consistent time, though a lesser role could help in both pursuits. Green could emerge as Rivers’ best option by season’s end. Though he lacks prototypical center size and activity around the rim, his ability to stretch defenses could help pry open more space for Leonard and George and make L.A.’s dynamic defense even more versatile. Green has drilled 37.7 percent of his 3s over the last three seasons and nearly half of his shots as a Clipper last season (24) came from long range. That shooting and defensive versatility was instrumental in L.A. pushing the Warriors to six games in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s possible he’ll have more use at center in the playoffs than in the regular season, but he gives Rivers an avenue toward limiting Zubač’s role and aligning Harrell’s minutes with Williams’ on the second unit. Even so, Clippers are left without much bulk at a position that demands it. Even a minor injury could squeeze L.A.’s rotation uncomfortably thin, and thus tax Leonard and George unnecessarily. The Clippers would be wise to frisk the trade market for a proven, reliable center or, if necessary, wait until one becomes available via buyout.