Which surprise NBA contender is for real?

The 2023-24 NBA season has reached its halfway point and a few surprise teams are vying for contender status, but which one is for real?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Chicago Bulls
Oklahoma City Thunder v Chicago Bulls / Michael Reaves/GettyImages
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Are the Los Angeles Clippers championship contenders?

The Los Angeles Clippers entered the 2023-24 season with two gigantic questions. Kawhi Leonard was coming off another knee injury, Paul George hadn’t hit 60 games played since 2018-19, and both were up for extensions. One of those questions has been answered, with Leonard extending his stay for another three seasons, but George has yet to put pen to paper, and this might be the final season of this era of Clippers’ basketball. 

After a solid 3-1 start to the season, the Clippers felt they lacked the upside to claim their first championship and traded for James Harden, going all-in on the aging future Hall-of-Fame trio of Leonard, George, and Harden. Overall, the trade was met with a lukewarm reaction, and there was a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Saying the start of the James Harden era in Los Angeles was “disastrous” would be an understatement. The Clippers lost six in a row, looked dead in the water, and every basketball savant who had ripped the trade two weeks earlier took a victory lap in the name of their genius. Then, a real basketball savant, Clippers head coach Tyron Lue, pulled Russell Westbrook from the starting lineup, then handed the keys to the offense completely to Harden, and the Clippers have gone 25-7 since. 

The fact that the Clippers rank fourth in net rating (plus-6.0) and sixth in offensive rating (120.6) is incredibly impressive, considering they spent the first quarter of the season floundering. Since they ended their six-game losing streak on Nov. 17, they have torched the league to a 123.8 offensive rating and a plus-7.5 net rating. The Clippers have spent the past two months performing like a contender powered by a championship-quality offense. 

While the introduction and assimilation of James Harden is the easy catalytic moment of the Clippers’ season, Kawhi Leonard going from merely good to game-wrecking MVP is probably the single biggest reason for their current surge. Over the first 10 games of the season, Leonard averaged a solid 20.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.7 turnovers on 45.8/42.4/76.5 percent shooting splits. His average per game plus-minus was plus 4.5, and while those are excellent numbers, they’re well off his established levels of performance. 

However, after his concerning opening 10 games, Leonard has averaged 24.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and only 1.6 turnovers per game on 54.4/45.1/90.8 percent shooting splits. His per-game plus-minus increased to plus-9.2, and the Clippers have gone 23-5 in games he has played. Leonard getting back to peak performance might have been spurred by the arrival of James Harden, but it’s his revival that makes the Clippers a dangerous team. 

The biggest concern for the Clippers’ title chances is their defensive rating of 114.6 is 14th in the league. They’re around average in each of the four defensive factors (opponent effective field goal percentage, forced turnover rate, defensive rebounding rate, and free throw to field goal attempt rate), which can be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a lot easier to go from bad to okay than it is to go from okay to good. 

The Clippers are a real threat to win the Western Conference. They’re playing at an incredibly high level and have the top-tier talent to match. No team in the NBA has better top-three than the Clippers triumvirate of Harden, Leonard, and George. The only question is if the Clippers can ratchet up their defense in the postseason, and with the age and experience of this roster, that’s a distinct possibility. The Clippers are legitimate contenders this season but are still a step below the Denver Nuggets.

Verdict: Yes, but not favorites