The NBA landscape underwent a seismic shift this summer. The Los Angeles Lakers got Anthony Davis, the Brooklyn Nets got Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (starting in 2020-21, probably), the Houston Rockets got Russell Westbrook, the Philadelphia 76ers got Al Horford, the Boston Celtics got Kemba Walker, and the Utah Jazz got Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovich. The list goes on. However, the Los Angeles Clippers won free agency.
They paid an enormous price, including a record setting number of draft picks and key players from a year ago that was maybe too hefty for Paul George but not too hefty for the assurance that they’d be getting Kawhi Leonard.
The Western Conference is loaded, but the Clippers probably should be – and probably mostly are – considered the favorites to win both their conference and the NBA championship.
Scoring against this team will seem an insurmountable task at times. Opposing teams’ top-three perimeter creators each will be tasked with going against a First-Team-All-Defense-caliber defender. Leonard and George are the best of the best when it comes to shutting down guards and wings, and Patrick Beverley will hound opposing guards (and even far bigger players; see Kevin Durant).
The biggest question mark with this Clippers team is health. George underwent surgery on both shoulders this summer and told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne on Sunday that he is targeting a “November-ish” return. If the Clippers decide to handle load management with Leonard like the Toronto Raptors did a season ago – Leonard played in 60 of 82 games and still was banged up by the NBA Finals – and do the same with George, once he’s back, they may not win the West in the regular season. But that’s not the end of the world. Less importance has been placed on the regular season ever since the exhausted 73-win Warriors wheezed their way to a Finals loss.
Even if the Clippers load-manage their two superstars, this team is deep enough to make the playoffs without much issue. Beverley is an elite defender and a very capable spot-up shooter. Landry Shamet was surprisingly great as a rookie and is a terrific shooter who also can handle some point-guard duties. Montrezl Harrell is a big, bouncy, rim-running big and a great roll man. Maurice Harkless is a big, defensive-minded wing who can’t be left alone outside. Lou Williams remains perhaps the best spark plug in the league. Ivica Zubac is an able center on both ends of the floor. JaMychal Green is a good rebounder who has evolved into an effective floor-spacer from the “4” spot.
Count ’em up. That’s seven legitimate NBA rotation players to aid George and Leonard. And that’s without mentioning Rodney McGruder, who was productive in Miami, or Patrick Patterson, who was a good stretch big in Toronto but has been mostly a corpse the past two years in Oklahoma City.
As long as they Clippers can make the playoffs and stay healthy once they get there, they should be favored to win a championship.
Other than the potential issue of health, there are two discernible weaknesses for the Clippers.
First, thinness in the middle. Zubac and Harrell are solid players, but the rest of the roster is better than solid. Zubac is the only real center on the roster, and if he goes down with an injury, they may be in trouble. Plus, they don’t have a floor-spacing center (unless Patterson has a resurgence and is able to fill that role at times, which is unlikely). Centers who can shoot 3s and protect the rim – the Myles Turners and Brook Lopezes of the league – are the ideal big men in today’s league. This issue shouldn’t be overblown, since center is the least important position and the Clippers are so good everywhere else, but the Clips should probably try to find another big man (during buyout season, perhaps) in case of emergency, if nothing else.
The other possible weakness is the lack of elite playmaking. George and Leonard are tremendous players; when it comes to stars who can shoot, score and defend, you’re not going to find any better players in the league than those two. But neither are outstanding passers. The point guard, Beverley, is more of an off-ball 3-and-D guard who isn’t much of a creator. There really isn’t an elite distributor on the roster. It could be the case that this won’t be an issue, that the Clippers will simply be so talented and well-coached that the lack of playmaking won’t really matter all that much. It’s really difficult to project how much of a flaw this will prove to be before seeing this team in action, but Leonard and George are such dominant scorers that, surrounded by all that shooting and defense, they can probably propel a team to a championship despite a flaw or two. No team is perfect, after all.
The Los Angeles Clippers check off all the boxes required to be a championship contender: Starpower, multiple stars who can get you a bucket down in crunch time, elite perimeter and wing defense, a good coach, depth and shooting. If you squint, you can spot a couple of weaknesses, but this team, if healthy, has the best roster in the NBA.