The Los Angeles Clippers started the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets in the 2019-20 playoffs down 8 points, but they had on the floor a premier playoff closer in Kawhi Leonard and a fellow superstar in Paul George. The two had won their minutes together during the playoffs and regular season by a whopping 277 points. Despite looming storm clouds, the Clippers had reasons for confidence.
Instead, Leonard and George combined to shoot 0 of 11 from the floor in the fateful final quarter. The Clippers missed their first 11 field goal attempts of the quarter as they were ignominiously bounced from the playoffs.
As the NBA barrels toward the playoffs again, the Clippers are once again in prime position: According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based prediction model, they are the team most likely to win the championship. And yet, on the surface, L.A. seems unchanged from last year’s iteration. It is still heavily reliant on its stars — both again have usage rates above 28 percent — and its net rating of 5.9 is even slightly worse than last year’s 6.3. So why should we expect a different outcome?
In the months since that devastating loss, the Clippers have systematically addressed the weaknesses revealed and exploited in that series. As a result, they are equipped now to succeed in the same scenarios that meant their demise against the Nuggets.
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In the 2019-20 regular season, the Clippers relied on the ability of individuals to create for themselves, with four players in the top 25 in the league for most pull-up twos attempted per game, and Leonard leading the whole league with 7.5 per contest. Those pull-up jumpers stopped falling in the series, and the Clippers didn’t have enough other sources of offense to compensate.
The Clippers didn’t need to replace their offensive identity that revolves around the individual talents of Leonard and George; in fact, the Clippers actually take more pull-up twos this year than last.1 Shot-making remains the name of Los Angeles’s game; per Second Spectrum, in Marcus Morris Sr., Leonard and George, the Clippers roster three of the top 30 players who make shots at higher rates than the quality of the looks would predict.2 Making difficult looks remains Los Angeles’s bread and butter.
But if difficult shots aren’t falling in the playoffs, L.A. needs other options. And so the team has buttressed its ability to convert difficult shots with an increased capacity to create easy ones.
The Clippers added dramatically more spacing to the roster, and they are now the most accurate team from distance. Newcomers Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard are both shooting above 40 percent from deep, and Serge Ibaka is at 35.2 percent. And returners like Morris, Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley are all shooting better from deep this year than last. As a result, Leonard and George have more spacing to work with, and their main actions reflect that.
Leonard’s efficiency in pick-and-roll situations cratered against Denver. That could be the area in which he is most improved this season. Per Second Spectrum, pick and rolls run by Leonard or George are more effective this year than last, as Leonard improved from a middling 0.987 points per chance last year to 1.121 — the best high-volume rate since Second Spectrum began recording data in the 2013-14 season.3 George’s mark this year of 1.091 points per chance ranks third in that same span. Teammates are shooting 45.3 and 45.1 percent on triples after a pass from Leonard or George, respectively, after notching 34.6 and 41.7 last year.
The changes have gone deeper than better play from the stars. When Leonard or George aren’t scoring, the Clippers are still able to create good offense. Lineups without Leonard or George are scoring 114.4 points per 100 possessions this year4 — a big improvement on last year’s 109.4.
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L.A. has also benefited from its pickup of Rajon Rondo, who has emerged as a secondary creator. Unlike Lou Williams, who filled that role last year, Rondo doesn’t settle for the same difficult pull-up twos that Leonard and George love. In fact, he takes the lowest frequency of midrange shots of any point guard, according to Cleaning the Glass. Correspondingly, his tenure with the Clippers has been his most efficient individual stint as a scorer, as he’s been fantastic around the rim. His passing remains a weapon, and he’s led L.A. in shots created for teammates off the pass.
Batum is a productive shooter and passer — shooting more accurately than every Clipper who took at least four triples a game last year except George — but he also unlocks the team’s offense in other ways. Per Second Spectrum, he’s set a higher frequency of screens than ever before in his career, and it’s been a key aspect of the Los Angeles offense. He’s a wing screener whose ability to make contact and force switches allows Leonard and George to choose their defensive targets — a useful tool in the playoffs that makes pull-up jumpers slightly easier.5 In terms of points per possession generated off his picks, he’s the fourth-most-effective screener on the Clippers this year.6 Lineups with all three of Batum, Leonard and George have a net rating of 16.0 in over 600 minutes. The only three-man Clipper lineups that managed to reach that net rating or higher last season played far fewer minutes.
Ibaka has also made his mark, replacing center Montrezl Harrell. In the Nuggets series, the Clippers were outscored by 37 points with Harrell on the floor, setting the lowest plus/minus on the team, and the team’s offensive rating was 16.1 points higher with him on the bench. He actually shot well from the field, but he failed to boost his teammates’ offense, offering no spacing while attempting only six shots outside the paint and passing for only three assists versus his 51 shot attempts. Pick and rolls with him as the screener scored only 0.917 points per chance, per Second Spectrum. Ibaka is a far more willing passer and has a smooth stroke from distance; he’s been out with a back injury since March, but when he returns, his presence should help his teammates become better scorers.
Combine their increased spacing, the variable number of threats and the expanded means through which they create shots, and the Clippers’ halfcourt offense has shot from the eighth-best last year, scoring 98.2 points per 100 halfcourt plays, to the second-best this season, managing 103.6 points per 100 half-court plays. The pull-up threats and shot-making are still there, but so too is the quick-decision, high-pass offense that is more often associated with modern basketball; per Second Spectrum, the Clippers went from 26th in the league last year in number of possessions with five or more passes to 10th this season. They lead the league in efficiency in such scenarios.
The Clippers have also survived games this season in which Leonard or George miss their pet 2-point pull-ups. This season, they are 3-1 when either Leonard or George shoots 33 percent or below from 2-point range on over 10 attempts, with wins over playoff teams in the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. Last season, they were 3-3 in the regular season and 0-2 in the Nuggets series.
Despite their improvements around the edges, though, the Clippers can’t change their narrative until the playoffs. They can’t redeem postseason disappointment with regular-season success; they were championship favorites in FiveThirtyEight’s model entering last season’s playoffs, too.
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Of course, planning to overcome a specific difficulty doesn’t ensure success. On May 1, the Clippers faced the Nuggets once more, with both teams jostling for playoff seeding. On the surface, the game looked more like a replay of one of their playoff games than a demonstration of the Clippers’ new groove. Leonard and George by and large missed shots they created for themselves, combining to shoot 4 of 12 on pull-up twos, and L.A. managed only 104 points in the loss. But beneath the surface, the Clippers did try new things. Rondo created 28 shots for teammates, though they made only eight; in last year’s Denver series, Williams led the non-Leonard or George Clippers in passing for teammates’ shots, and he created only 11.9 per game. The Clippers did approach the game differently.
Yet they still lost. It might be reductionist, but the loss could be pinned in part on George having shot 5 of 21 from the field, the fewest field goals he’s made all year while attempting 20 or more. The loss showed that the Clippers can scheme around the edges, but their shot-making stars have to convert for them to beat the best teams. No matter how much L.A. may have committed to overcoming their deficiencies, it remains tied to Leonard and George’s identities of play. That’s the blessing and the curse of building your team around two self-creating superstars.
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