When the LA Clippers acquired both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer on matching contracts that allow opt-outs in 2021, they announced to the league that not only are they ready to contend, they’re going all-in for it right now.
That point was further emphasized at the trade deadline when they sent out the last remaining 1st-round pick that could be traded for Marcus Morris Sr. Going into Thursday’s shorthanded loss in the NBA restart, the result was the fourth-best record in the league (44-20) backed up by the third-best point differential (+6.5). You wouldn’t make a bet at an online casino against the Clips improving on their outstanding point differential.
However, in the Clippers' 64 games before COVID-19 struck, Leonard and George only played together in half of them due to load management and injuries to the latter’s shoulders and hamstring. Taking a deeper look at how the partnership has fared reveals that the West’s No. 2 seed is an even bigger threat for the title than they appear.
Dominance when both play
Pairing together arguably the best two-way wings in the world didn’t come without questions. How well would they play off of each other? Who plays shooting guard and who plays small forward? Can they both stay healthy?
Durability has already loomed large as George missed the first 11 games following offseason surgery on both shoulders and then another 10 in January with a hamstring strain. When he is on the floor, CleaningtheGlass.com shows that George has spent 56% of his minutes at shooting guard and 41% at small forward with minimal time elsewhere. Meanwhile the 6-7, 225-lb. Leonard played at small forward for 75% of his minutes, 11% at shooting guard and 15% at power forward. This would seem to match conventional wisdom with George being more agile to chase guards while Leonard possesses more raw strength to battle bigs occasionally. But really, does it matter in the modern era of positionless basketball? Both are capable of locking down any perimeter threat and have developed into knockdown shooters comfortable playing with or without the ball.
That combination of versatility and skill has produced outstanding results: the team is 24-8 when both stars play, which equates to 61.5 wins over 82 games. Exporting game logs from Basketball-Reference.com, they have a +8.4 point differential in those contests, which is better than the Lakers +7.4 and second only to the Bucks’ outrageous +11.2. Taking it a step further and looking at net rating (point differential per 100 possessions), NBA.com’s Comparison Tool has tracked Leonard and George at +11.8 in the 760 minutes when they share the floor. So in those 23.8 minutes per game, the team performs at an even higher rate than Milwaukee, who leads the league at +10.7 for the season, and that volume of minutes will only increase once they get into the heat of the playoffs.
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When one sits, the other makes plays
It’s no surprise that both have had their workloads monitored thus far, especially since keeping Leonard out of back-to-backs worked to great effect in Toronto. George is playing his fewest minutes per game over a full season since his rookie year in Indiana.
The good news is that in addition to their dominance playing together, both have shown the ability to carry the team when asked to perform a solo act with a 20-9 record when one star plays. Before PG-13 made his debut, The Klaw led L.A. to a 7-2 start in the games he played (they are 0-3 when neither are active), and then had his hottest stretch with 33.8 points per game during the 7-3 run without his wingman in January.
Although the team didn’t perform at as high of a level overall with a +5.4 point differential belying that 14-5 record, the two-time Finals MVP once again showed that he can step up when needed. Once again sorting through exported Basketball-Reference game logs, here are the splits for Leonard:
Conversely, George has only had to operate alone on 10 occasions that were mostly spread throughout the season after an initial 2-1 spurt to start his campaign. The smaller sample size produced interesting splits with just a 6-4 record but an impressive +7.3 point differential thanks to a couple of huge wins. Three of the losses were by six points or fewer, so his increase in usage rate was able to keep the team in these games with hotter shooting and more free throws despite fewer minutes. It will be worth watching which star anchors bench units in the playoffs since both are clearly capable of having the offense run through them.
Post-All-Star Weekend Dominance
With Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell not yet cleared to play in the bubble, the Clippers fell short in a narrow loss in their first game back, but they were in fine form right before the season went on hiatus.
After George didn’t play in the first game following All-Star Weekend, the extra time off paid dividends to the tune of a 7-1 run with a staggering +14.6 point differential. As they continue to build chemistry together along with the addition of Morris, they have shown without a doubt that they are a top threat for the title.
While the new forward is one of the free agents with the most at stake in the bubble after a slow start to his individual numbers, he has had a positive impact while on the floor. The new starting lineup of those three-plus Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac blitzed teams for a +19.4 net rating in 124 minutes together. When the two Sixth Man of the Year candidates are cleared from quarantine, the depth and versatility of possible lineups will be even more dangerous. It all starts with Leonard and George, and that partnership has proved worth the price it took to put together.
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