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NBA Free Agency Diary: How Good Are Kawhi’s Clippers?

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Dear NBA Diary,

Well, so much for the speculation that Kawhi Leonard would join the Los Angeles Lakers (or stay with the Toronto Raptors). After the Los Angeles Clippers stunned the NBA by signing Leonard and trading a massive haul of picks for Paul George, everybody is still trying to figure out exactly what just happened to the NBA in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

For starters, the Clippers vaulted themselves into the championship conversation thanks to the superstar combination of Leonard and George, plus the solid group of complementary players L.A. mostly retained around them. Here’s what our CARMELO projections (and depth-chart algorithm) think of their full-strength regular-season roster:

Kawhi’s Clippers should be among the West’s best

Projected full-strength regular-season depth chart for the 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers, based on CARMELO plus/minus ratings

EXPECTED MINUTES PER GAME PLAYER RATING
PLAYER PG SG SF PF C TOTAL OFF. +/- DEF. +/- TOT. +/-
Paul George 0 14 0 22 0 36 +2.9 +1.5 4.4
Kawhi Leonard 0 0 22 10 0 32 +2.7 +0.4 3.2
Patrick Beverley 25 0 0 0 0 25 +0.6 +0.3 0.9
Landry Shamet 0 16 9 0 0 25 +2.1 -1.5 0.6
Montrezl Harrell 0 0 0 1 22 23 +0.8 +0.7 1.4
Lou Williams 12 9 0 0 0 21 +2.4 -3.3 -0.9
Ivica Zubac 0 0 0 0 21 21 -1.9 +2.3 0.4
Maurice Harkless 0 0 7 11 0 18 -0.8 +1.3 0.5
Rodney McGruder 11 4 0 0 0 15 -1.1 -1.2 -2.3
Jerome Robinson 0 4 6 0 0 10 -0.4 -0.9 -1.3
Mfiondu Kabengele 0 0 0 4 5 9 -2.4 +0.4 -2.0
Terance Mann 0 1 4 0 0 5 -1.7 -0.6 -2.3
Team total 240 +4.6 +0.6 5.3
Expected wins: 54.2
CARMELO team rating: 1635

That projected CARMELO rating of 1635 would be good for about 54 wins per 82 games, and it ranks sixth in the NBA. On the one hand, that’s a huge improvement over last season, when the Clippers finished with a 1496 CARMELO that ranked 17th in the league. Then again, it also might sound underwhelming compared with early reports that Vegas bookmakers had shifted their odds to make the Clippers 2020 NBA championship favorites.

But in terms of regular-season projections (using full-strength rosters),1 things are just very wide-open at the top of the league right now:

CARMELO’s way-too-early 2020 regular-season rankings

Full-strength regular-season rankings for the Top 10 2019-20 NBA teams according to FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO player projections and current depth charts

Rk Team OFF. +/- DEF. +/- TOTal +/- Exp. Wins CARMELO
1 76ers +2.5 +5.2 +7.6 60.0 1700
2 Rockets +5.5 +2.2 +7.8 59.8 1698
3 Lakers +1.8 +3.6 +5.5 54.9 1643
4 Warriors +2.7 +2.6 +5.3 54.5 1639
5 Bucks +2.1 +3.2 +5.3 54.5 1638
6 Clippers +4.6 +0.6 +5.3 54.2 1635
7 Nuggets +3.9 +0.6 +4.5 52.6 1618
8 Jazz +1.4 +3.0 +4.3 52.3 1615
9 Thunder +1.1 +2.2 +3.1 49.5 1587
10 Pelicans -0.1 +2.7 +2.6 48.0 1572

Team ratings have not yet been rescaled to account for an average offensive and defensive rating of 0.0.

The new-look Philadelphia 76ers check in as the league’s most talented team, though the Houston Rockets (remember them?) aren’t far behind — assuming they aren’t torpedoed by their reported chemistry problems. The Clippers are firmly in the next tier of teams, those projected for roughly between 52 and 55 wins of talent, a group that also includes the Lakers, Warriors (remember them?), Bucks, Nuggets and Jazz.

There are also reasons to think that the numbers above are underrating the Clippers’ true power.

We’ll put aside questions about whether Los Angeles will really have a barely average defense — the metrics have disagreed with the eye test for years about the quality of Kawhi’s D — and instead focus on what might make these Clippers more formidable in the playoffs. For starters, we’ve added a new feature to CARMELO that accounts for players who routinely improve in the playoffs, and Leonard’s rating gets a major shot in the arm in that regard. Plus, many of the low-rated Clippers in the depth chart above see their minutes fall off in our playoff projection, rewarding L.A. more than most for having an extremely solid top seven in their rotation. Check out how many of their poorly rated players (in pink) see a major drop-off in minutes for the team’s full-strength playoff depth chart:

The better Clippers should play a lot more in the playoffs

Projected full-strength playoff depth chart for the 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers, based on CARMELO plus/minus ratings

EXPECTED MINUTES PER GAME PLAYER RATING
PLAYER PG SG SF PF C TOTAL OFF. +/- DEF. +/- TOT. +/-
Paul George 0 17 9 15 0 41 +2.9 +1.5 4.4
Kawhi Leonard 0 0 24 13 0 37 +3.2 +0.9 4.0
Landry Shamet 0 20 9 0 0 29 +2.0 -1.5 0.6
Montrezl Harrell 0 0 0 3 24 27 +0.7 +0.6 1.3
Patrick Beverley 25 0 0 0 0 25 +0.7 +0.3 1.0
Lou Williams 17 7 0 0 0 24 +2.3 -3.4 -1.1
Ivica Zubac 0 0 0 0 20 20 -1.9 +2.3 0.4
Maurice Harkless 0 0 2 17 0 19 -0.9 +1.2 0.3
Rodney McGruder 6 2 3 0 0 11 -1.1 -1.2 -2.3
Mfiondu Kabengele 0 0 0 0 4 4 -2.4 +0.4 -2.0
Jerome Robinson 0 2 1 0 0 3 -0.4 -0.9 -1.3
Terance Mann 0 0 0 0 0 0 -1.7 -0.6 -2.3
Team total 240 +6.4 +1.0 7.4
Expected wins: 59.0
CARMELO team rating: 1688

CARMELO thinks the Clippers will go from giving 60 of their 240 minutes per game to negative (below-average) players during the regular season to 42 during the playoffs, which means the Clippers will be rolling out at least four above-average players most of the time in the games that matter the most.

That still isn’t enough to make them West favorites in the system’s eyes, but the Clippers are now solidly in the discussion — and give or take a few moments of peak Lob City hype, that hasn’t been true for this franchise basically ever before.

Footnotes

  1. But excluding players such as Kevin Durant who are known to be injured for all or most of the 2019-20 regular season.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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