Moore: The Time Is Now to Bet the Clippers to Win the NBA Title
Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers.
If you’re going to bet the Clippers to win the NBA title, now’s probably the time.
World Wide Wob has made his official prediction that the Clippers are going to win the trophy come June. ESPN’s Zach Lowe has reasserted his preseason proclamation that the Clippers are going to hoist the banner.
The Clippers are 10-0 this season when fully healthy, which is a rarity, but there’s enough context to think there’s probably something there. Now I do think some of this is timing. The Clippers have cherry-picked spots to get teams at the right moment and played guys when they’ve had an advantage. They also have caught teams off guard with their recent intensity; the Nuggets were not expecting a playoff-level of effort from a pretty casual Clippers team last Thursday. But they’ve also just annihilated teams. So we need to look at them, and we need to make the case.
I will admit to you now a certain apprehension. There’s something about this team that I can’t put my finger on as to why I continue to not quite be sold. After digging into numbers and watching a lot of clips, I’m still not sold. But I also can’t point you to anything to back up that apprehension.
I was going to do a deep dive on their whole team for you, offense and defense. But look: they have great personnel, run a good system and are effective on both sides of the ball. Their numbers are inconsistent game to game because they’ve been without so many players due to injury or load management, night to night. I don’t think you can just take this stretch of them at full strength and go “that’s who they are!” Nor do I think you can just take who they were the whole season and ignore the missing guys.
It’s a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, disguised as an enigma.
But here’s the big thing:
THE CLIPPERS HAVE BIG-TIME PLAYERS TO MAKE BIG-TIME PLAYS: AN EXERCISE IN WHICH CLICHÉ NARRATIVES ARE TRUE
The Clippers have roughly the same offensive efficiency as the Bucks, 112.8 for the Clippers compared to 112.4 for the Bucks. Milwaukee is considerably better defensively. The Bucks shoot the highest expected field goal percentage in the league at 55.3%; the Clippers are 11th at 53.2%.
But how you feel about the two sets of scorer-shooters is the difference between why so many don’t believe in Milwaukee and why the Clippers are considered the title favorites by so many of the same people.
Friday night, the Bucks lost to the Clippers in a game in which they shot 12 of 43 (27.9%) from 3-point range and shot just 7-of-19 on unguarded jumpshots (per Synergy Sports). You can take this all sorts of ways.
“It’s proof of how regular-season teams can’t handle playoff defense (even though that defense routinely gave up wide-open looks to good shooters)!”
“It’s just random variance that won’t happen very often (even though it happened to the Bucks essentially three straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals last year)!”
The reality is both somewhere in the middle, and outside this, and it’s where the Clippers are so good.
When things get tight in playoff circumstances, when the margins are so small, you need the ability to hit tough shots. And the Clippers are better built for that than any other team in the league.
Kawhi Leonard’s best trait offensively since his ascension to God-mode in 2017 has been the quality of his performance no matter the context. Most players are great under certain conditions. James Harden is an excellent step-back 3-point shooter, has a great floater (he worked on a lot) and is great at drawing contact or fishing at the rim. LeBron James is excellent in the post and feeling out contact to find his shot in a number of select moves.
Leonard, however, is just insanely efficient no matter how he’s being used. He’s not 90th percentile in any key area like so many great players are. But he’s 70th percentile or better in so many. To wit:
There’s no area he’s not lethally efficient at. And he’s one of the best –maybe the best — tough-shot makers in the league:
You’ll see him hunt down switches routinely. Leonard likes to find smaller defenders and then track them down to work them in isolation. He just muscles past Gordon to draw the foul here:
Dennis Schröder is tough and long, but still undersized and Leonard just rises and fires, no problem:
He rises up in traffic with multiple defenders converging and has absolute control and confidence:
This just isn’t something the rest of the league has. James can do it, but not as reliably. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s jumper is better, but not in traffic.
It would be one thing if it were just Leonard. But it’s not. Paul George, Marcus Morris, and Lou Williams can all make these shots. That’s what they excel at offensively. The Clippers are not built to create spot-up, open looks, but they get a fair amount of those, too. If they need Landry Shamet to knock down an open jumper, he can reliably.
Morris believes in his scoring ability on par with George and Leonard, and that’s a mistake. But he’s also making an incredible amount the last two years. Even if he wastes some possessions, the conversion rate in the playoffs give them an inherent edge.
The big issue trying to defend the Clippers? There’s not a coverage that works. I’ve watched them beat:
ICING the pick and roll (forcing the ball-handler away from the middle by jumping the screen)
Putting two on-ball to get the ball out of the primary ball-handler’s hands:
Layering the defense at multiple levels:
There’s not a strategy that hurts them. The Lakers have issues with switches because it puts a lot of burden possession after possession on James. The Bucks have issues with multiple-level defense because of the aforementioned shooter issue. (Note: If the Bucks’ shooters get hot, everyone’s doomed. I want to make this clear. The Bucks will destroy any team in the league, the Clippers included, if their threes hit at a high efficiency. I just don’t have faith they will. See: Conference Finals, Eastern, 2019.)
This is the crux of it. It’s not that the Clippers are the best pick-and-roll team, or the best spot-up team. They’re not the best at the rim, or from 3-point range.
But they’re good enough in all those areas to make any game come down to a handful of possessions that hinge on making tough shots against tight defense … and they have more guys to make those shots than any team in the league.
That’s their best case.
ABOUT THAT DEFENSE
You don’t really need me to do a full breakdown for you of what makes a team with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley a great defensive team.
What’s interesting is that the Clippers are actually 24th defending the pick and roll vs. scoring attempts from the ball-handler. They drop coverage most of the time, and stay home on shooters, which is why including pass-outs, they’re ninth-best vs. the pick and roll. They allow just 44% shooting on passes out from the pick and roll.
They are the best team defending spot-up attempts, because they can cover ground and constantly help one another:
While the Clippers often drop the big in their scheme, they also have the ability and will routinely blitz weak ball-handlers. The Clippers don’t change scheme to cover for their weaknesses, they attack your weakness.
They’re also opportunistic. Here the ball-handler has the ball knocked away from the backside coming off the screen, and chases it to the corner. Beverley calls out a switch and jumps on him like a ninja. He’s never got a chance:
I don’t believe in their frontcourt. No matter how good Ivica Zubac looks, I will continue to believe he can be exploited. But the numbers are what they are. The Clippers are 11th defending shots around the rim non-post-up, and third-best in the league defending post-ups.
A big part of Sunday’s Lakers-Clippers matchup will be Anthony Davis in the post. Davis has struggled with knocking guys off their spot in the post, it’s why he’s so dependent on drawing fouls. He doesn’t get one here in their first matchup, and it helped turn the game:
The Clippers will face Nikola Jokic, potentially, in the playoffs. But the other perimeter weapons for Denver will struggle vs. the Clippers’ perimeter length, allowing them to help and recover.
The Rockets’ small ball will need to make shots which it did not last week, but it will also need to find ways to stop the Clippers’ tough shot-makers. The Clippers, more than any other team, are comfortable going small with either JaMychal Green or Marcus Morris at center (Jeff Green’s around, too).
The Clippers have lineup versatility for a scheme that doesn’t differentiate a lot. Whereas the Raptors are constantly throwing different schemes at their opponents, the Clippers are basically doing the same thing every play, with different personnel.
And this is a key thing: they’ve managed their weaknesses.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are largely a disaster defensively. You can pick on them, consistently. With Kawhi Leonard off the court, they surrender 108 points per 100 possessions.
But these two sub-par defenders, with Leonard on-court, give up less than 100 points per 100 possessions, which would be best in the league for the season.
Lou Williams with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? 97 points per 100 possessions.
Lou Williams with Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard: 92 points per 100 possessions.
The lineups which should bleed defensively — that teams should be able to pick on — are all excellent. Their best defenders raise up and cover for those lineups, and they all cook offensively.
THE PLAYOFF DNA
When we talk about “this won’t work in the playoffs,” or “they’re built for the playoffs,” no one ever really defines that. But the closest thing I can come up with is that the Clippers don’t have areas where teams can target them.
You can’t dare their role players to beat you offensively, because they have multiple tough shot-makers and knockdown shooters on the floor (with good finishers) at all times. You can’t pick on their weaknesses defensively, because they are too good at covering for those with personnel strength while also attacking your weakness.
Leonard is key to all this — no surprise. He can guard LeBron James, one of maybe three players in the league who can. He can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of maybe three guys in the league who can. He can make shots over any coverage, and has improved demonstrably as a passer and in his strength to brush off bigger defenders and finish inside.
People will reduce the Clippers to “I’m taking them because of Kawhi Leonard,” but that’s reductive. It’s how the Clippers can beat you in the margins that so often win playoff series, while those same regular-season dominant teams struggle in finding the advantage in regular-season margins in the playoffs.
It’s not about the big things with the Clippers. They likely won’t crush every team through their postseason run. But they will win enough, in the toughest of moments. That’s their argument to win the 2020 NBA title.
The Clippers were +600 in preseason and are currently still as high as +325 at some books as of this writing. That number will likely decrease, and it will not be more profitable to roll them over series by series. They will likely be favored in any series, through the Finals. If you’re going to get in … now’s the time.