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Losing Kawhi Leonard Forced The Clippers To Become A Modern NBA Offense

After acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a two-day coup during the summer of 2019, the Los Angeles Clippers played offense like a team from the league’s pre-analytic past. They were consistently among the leaders in pull-up twos attempted, as stars and non-stars alike had green lights to create shots for themselves in the midrange. Last year, they were among the league leaders in post-ups and played with the second-slowest pace

But necessity is the mother of invention, and when the Clippers found themselves tied 2-2 against the Utah Jazz last playoffs, suddenly missing Leonard, they needed to invent something.

In the following two games, both Clippers wins, Los Angeles took nearly half of its shots from deep after a 3-point frequency of 43.2 percent through the first four games of the series. In its closeout win, it used 20 percent of its possessions in transition; only four of its regular-season games equaled or surpassed that threshold. Like Leibniz and Newton inventing calculus independently, the Clippers invented their own version of modern NBA offense in their moment of need. Despite returning to their old habits in a series loss to the Phoenix Suns the following round, with a 3-point rate of 43.3, the Clippers haven’t looked back since. 

There’s no single factor that’s responsible for the change in approach. Aside from losing Leonard, the roster looks much the same as last season. Instead, a series of small tweaks have combined to add up to a moderate overhaul.

Los Angeles’ offense has reallocated some of its midrange attempts to behind the arc:

This year, the Clippers are using 17.0 percent of their possessions in transition, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Last year, they used only 13.5 percent in transition, the sixth-lowest rate. Most of their added transition attempts have come on missed shots; they’ve jumped from 25th last year in pushing after live rebounds to fourth this season, moving from running after a quarter of their defensive rebounds to almost a third. It’s possibly the result of an intentional stylistic change; with George -- who was close to a net neutral for on/off transition frequency last year -- on the floor, the Clippers get out in transition more frequently than without him. In the same spirit, the Clippers are initiating possessions out of the post only about half as often as they did last season.

As a result, the Clippers are now 14th in average shot quality after ranking 24th in 2020-21, according to PBP Stats. They’re fighting to win basketball around the edges, as a math contest, rather than through sheer ability. The new deployment of the old roster is critical to that goal.

Wings like George, Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum are spending far more time at power forward and even center than they did last year, and downsizing is a creative way to inflate transition and 3-point frequency. Luke Kennard is also finding a groove, with the best on/off differential on the team. Kennard is also in the midst of his second consecutive season hitting over 40 percent from deep, and his shooting is critical to Los Angeles’s spacing. The team defense has also been significantly better with him playing after the inverse was true last season. Playing the most minutes of his career, Mann has emerged as one of the team’s leading scorers off the bench, and he also has been a driver of the Clippers’ changing shot attempts. Among the starters, Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson are shooting the highest rate of threes of their careers.

Center Isaiah Hartenstein has been Los Angeles’s most important offseason addition. His presence is integral to a defense that leveled up from ninth to second in overall efficiency after losing Leonard. Critical to that improvement has been choking off clean looks around the basket: The Clippers rank fourth in opponents' effective field-goal percentage at the rim. Per Second Spectrum, Hartenstein contests the third-highest rate of field-goal attempts in the paint,1 and opponents shoot 9.39 percentage points lower than expected with Hartenstein contesting -- a rate comparable to Rudy Gobert’s number on the season. He has blossomed as one of the league’ best rim protectors, fearsome even when defenders use the rim as an obstacle, and he uses verticality to contest shots without fouling. Partially as a result, the team also plays more frequently in transition with Hartenstein on the floor than on the bench. 

It’s not just the supporting cast that has adapted. Without a co-star like Leonard beside him, George has evolved into a new type of player. His scoring efficiency is down, but his assist rate has ballooned to 27.7 percent this year, the highest of his career and a top-five rate among wings and forwards. Even when he finds himself open for pull-up jumpers, he has often deferred for better looks from behind the arc. George has long attempted fewer midrange shots and more triples than Leonard, so in a sense it is logical that the Clippers have followed his stylistic lead without Leonard.

Illustration of a basketball court.

Related: Our 2021-22 NBA Predictions

But George has actually tweaked his play. Even though the rate of his passes that lead to shots is comparable to last season’s, he is throwing fewer “fluff” and more attacking and interior passes, according to Second Spectrum. When he creates for others out of the pick and roll, he reaches the paint more often this year than last, which creates more space for teammates’ shots. When he passes out of isolation, the resulting shots are more likely to be threes than midrangers, which were more common in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Even though he’s shooting more midrangers himself, his passes lead to fewer. He’s pushing more in transition, even after opposing makes. Like the rest of the team, George has made tweaks, not overhauls. But those collective tweaks are adding up.

There are elements of modern NBA offense that remain foreign to the Clippers. They still don’t attempt many shots at the rim. Per Second Spectrum, they are still a bottom-10 team in potential assists per 100 possessions, with similar rates this season and last.2 That is likely because George, Jackson, Morris and others still love to hunt pull-up jumpers. Team success remains tied to the individual successes of shot makers, but now the shots are just a little easier.

Of course, shot location matters, but hewing to analytically friendly looks does not guarantee they’ll go in. According to a study from The Ringer, shot location correlates less with shot success this year than in years past. And despite their newfound modernity, the Clippers are the 24th-ranked offense this year after ranking fourth last year and second the year before. Talent matters more than philosophy. With Leonard and George, the Clippers were so talented that they could easily score without abiding by the mantras of the modern analytics movement. Now they are hustling and grinding for points. As a result, the Clippers are 13-12 and fifth in the West. They finished last season in fourth. The Clippers aren’t scoring like they did last year, but they’re making it work the best they can.

Maybe the Clippers will keep that hustle and grind when Leonard returns, as he could do as early as March, and maybe a marriage of analytics and talent will finally push them over the top. But for now, they’re just like everyone else without Leonard. And like everyone else, they’re realizing that cheating the math helps score the basketball. We'll learn when Leonard returns whether that lesson remains internalized or if they devolve back into an offense better suited to a previous era.

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  1. Among defenders with at least 10 shots contested in the paint.

  2. 44.78 percent in 2021-22 and 43.77 in 2020-21.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.