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Why Clippers are the 2020 NBA Title Choice in Battle for LA

Sean Deveney for Bookies.com

Sean Deveney  | 6 mins

Why Clippers are the 2020 NBA Title Choice in Battle for LA

It’s not just that the Clippers, in a pair of stunning Friday night maneuvers, were able to bring in two of the NBA’s Top 3 scorers from this year’s playoffs, free-agent Kawhi Leonard and ex-Thunder trade target Paul George.

That would be enough to justify the excitement that immediately overtook Clipperland on Saturday. It’s also what the Clippers were able to get in the bargain.

With George and Leonard, the Clippers have the foundation of a roster that has the potential to be the top defensive team in the NBA. And if you’re looking to Southern California to pick next year’s NBA Finals winner, it’s defense that will set apart the winner, and no team’s defense has shaped up quite like the Clippers defense has in the last 24 hours.

Of course, the Clippers were able to lure Leonard away from the Lakers, their in-city rivals, setting up a Los Angeles-centric battle for the Western Conference. Sure, the Lakers have the game’s biggest star, LeBron James, as well as Anthony Davis.

Why Clippers are the 2020 NBA Title Choice in Battle for LA 1
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can turn their attention to guarding others.

But the Clippers have been installed as the top choice for 2020 NBA champs here in the summer’s early stages at +275, just ahead of the second-choice Lakers at +375.

That’s with good reason. Start with the defense, and it’s clear the smart money for fans of NBA betting is with L.A.’s red-and-blue.

Meet Rex Kalamian

One reason to be enthusiastic about the Clippers D is the system implemented last season by assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who came to L.A. from the Raptors after interviewing for their head-coaching position.

Kalamian’s aim when designing a defense for the Clippers was to take away easy opportunities for opponents, especially fast-breaks and corner 3-pointers. There was success with that, as the chart below shows.

SeasonTransition Points
Allowed (Rank)
Corner 3-pt
Attempts (Rank)
2017-1819.1 (25)7.4 (26)
2018-1918.8 (14)5.6 (3)

Kalamian’s game plan achieved what it set out to achieve, a reduction in transition baskets and a massive cutback in the Clippers’ willingness to concede corner 3s. The problem, though, was that the Clippers’ personnel was not up to snuff.

Guard Patrick Beverley was coming off knee surgery and struggled early in the year. Forward Luc Mbah a Moute was never healthy and played just four games. Guard Avery Bradley had trouble coming back from abdominal surgery and was traded to Memphis.

The Clippers as a whole were nothing more than a mediocre defensive outfit last year, allowing 110.4 points per 100 possessions, 19th in the NBA. They still managed to win 48 games, thanks largely to the NBA’s ninth-ranked offense (111.4 points per 100 possessions) and fifth-best true-shooting percentage (57.5).

Perimeter Shutdown

Before free agency, the Clippers had a good defensive framework, with Kalamian’s system and a solid primary interior defender, Montrezl Harrell. By the end of the season, Beverley had worked back into his typical suffocating defensive style.

Remember that in the Warriors-Clippers series in the first round of the playoffs, Beverley had gotten entirely under Kevin Durant’s skin, despite giving up eight inches in the matchup.

Now, Beverley will be joined by George, who was third in the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year balloting. Full disclosure: I voted in this year’s awards and had George first on my ballot. I put him there because George so frequently handled the opposing team’s best player for the Thunder, who had the fourth-ranked defense in the league this year.

George is an outstanding perimeter defender, but at 6-9, he can handle himself anywhere on the floor.

With Leonard, who has two Defensive Player of the Year award wins to his credit, this is the most intimidating defensive lineup in the league. Last year, the Clippers limited the switching they did because they lacked versatility, but Leonard and George can each guard four positions and small-ball centers. This is already a much more versatile group.

What’s more, the Clippers are getting two guys who enjoy defense, who are willing to make effort plays, dive on the floor for loose balls and work to disrupt passing lanes. That shows up in the numbers — George led the league in deflections (3.8 per game) and loose balls recovered last year (2.1), while Leonard was sixth in deflections (3.2) and seventh in loose balls (1.7).

That fits right along with the heart-and-hustle identity guys such as Beverley and Harrell helped the team establish last season. The difference now is that the Clippers have added two heart-and-hustle players who happen to be superstars.

COUNTERPOINT: Why the Lakers Should Still Be the 2020 Favorites

Picking & Rolling With Kawhi And PG13

The Clippers’ defense should get dramatically better with George and Leonard as the centerpieces, but the offense only needs slight improving. Dropping in two players who combined to average 54.6 points last season is bound to do at least that.

The Clippers will need an overhaul to accommodate the new guys, but the positive for coach Doc Rivers is that the backbone of the Clippers’ offense — the pick-and-roll — does not need to go anywhere.

While every team in the modern NBA leans on the pick-and-roll, no team used it more last year than the Clippers, who ran a play for the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll on 22.8 percent of their possessions, most in the league. They got 23.2 points per game from the play, second in the league.

But the Clippers’ new duo will allow Rivers to get more creative with the play, which mostly went through star reserve point guard Lou Williams.

With Leonard and George, Rivers can join the new wave of coaches relying on non-traditional initiators of the pick-and-roll — that is, a 6-9 forward like George or a 6-7 forward like Leonard — rather than the usual point guard.

Both of the new Clippers is especially good at running the pick-and-roll. George averaged 6.6 points on the play, running it on 24.5 percent of his possessions. Leonard averaged 6.4 points on 26.8 percent of their possessions. Each ranks in the Top 20 in points scored as pick-and-roll ball handlers, and Williams was third, at 10.6 points. That’s three of the NBA’s Top 20 pick-and-roll creators in one lineup.

George (1.02 points per possession) and Leonard (1.01 points per possession) are also two of the most efficient scorers on the play, ranking in the Top 10 percent of all players.

That will be especially important in the playoffs, when teams tend to run more pick-and-roll and the need to be versatile with the play over the course of a series goes up.

That’s what this is all about, after all—the playoffs. George and Leonard have changed the landscape of L.A. basketball, the Western Conference and the entire NBA. But it’s still only the Summer of 2019. For the Clippers to truly cash in on the potential of this roster, on both sides of the ball, they’ll need to perform in the Spring of 2020.

They’re set up better than any other team to do that.

About the Author

Sean Deveney for Bookies.com
Sean Deveney
Sean Deveney has covered sports for more than two decades, writing for Sporting News, appearing as a guest on radio shows nationwide and on TV for ESPN, Comcast, CNN and FOX