It’s hard to poke holes in what the Los Angeles Clippers are doing. They have two All-Star and cornerstone wings in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Both players are good for over 20 points per game and have multiple appearances on the NBA’s All-Defensive team. They added Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka over the off-season to help add versatile size. Both were moves that were a clear step towards their cross-stadium rivals: the defending champion Lakers. The Clippers have bench depth at multiple positions in Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, and Ivica Zubac. The Clippers have ten guys get over 19 minutes per game, an indicator that their rotation is both well used and well prepared.
But the LA Clippers are missing something. For whatever reason, under both Ty Lue this year and Doc Rivers a year ago, when the game is on the line the LA Clippers run sets involving Leonard and George running action for each other. That seems like a no-brainer at its surface. It’s the Clippers’ two best offensive players running some form of a pick and roll. Whether it’s Leonard’s short rolling to the short corner along the baseline or George popping out for three above the elbow-break, the Clippers’ end of game set is (relatively) predictable.
This is a problem when the opposing team has multiple, good wing defenders. Leonard and George are just one inch and five pounds different in size. Running these actions against a team with two-or-more good wing defenders just leads to a switch. If your wing is discernibly big enough and quick enough to cover Leonard, they can cover George and vice versa. And if they’ll do an “ok” job on one, they’ll likely do an “ok” job on the other. That’s not an easy task in actuality, but covering George and Leonard both require the same type of defender.
And that “type” of a defender? The big, long, rangy wing defender that can switch matchups? That’s the type of defender good playoff teams have several of. So while it isn’t a huge problem for the regular season Clippers it has been and will be in the postseason.
This was very clear in the Denver series a year ago. Last year the Clippers found themselves up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and were up by 12 at halftime looking to end the series in a gentleman’s sweep. The Clippers attacked Nikola Jokic’s drop coverage on Zubac and continued to get easy points. Jokic, in a full backpedal, was no match for Leonard or George.
This series is most remembered for how the Nuggets went from Point-Jokic to lighting Jamal Murray on fire. But there was a noticeable thing that happened in that comeback. During Game 5, when Murray was steering the offense, the Nuggets rotated Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr, Paul Millsap, and one of those Plumlee brothers (Mason Plumlee, but who’s keeping track).
That’s four guys, between six-foot-seven and six-foot-ten, that can guard multiple positions. Denver stopped dropping and started switching. And, while Murray was fueling the offense, the defense was getting stops.
In each of the games after that, as Denver eventually overcame the three-to-one lead, The Nuggets spent big chunks of the second half of the series in lineups that featured at least two, if not three, of those four defenders. It’s not that Millsap is a “Kawhi-Leonard stopper.” It’s that he’s no less of one than Grant or Porter. The Nuggets lived with that switch. They didn’t mind having an undersized defender on Zubac if it meant they could easily transition a switch on the screen with Leonard or George.
And the Clippers did not make them pay for that. Thus it was the Clippers who aid, as they lost the series four to three after leading three to one.
But that was a Year Ago…
This happened again just before the All-Star break when the Clippers played Milwaukee. In the last four minutes of the game, the Clippers’ offense hit a notable rut. A Paul George missed lay-up made the inevitable “Clippers choked” highlight reel. That layup, which came off a pick and roll between Lou Williams, was the best look LA had. Leonard and George attempted and missed all nine field goals in the final four minutes for the Clippers.
George was clowned on Twitter for missing the” bunny,” but truthfully that was the best action they could have run. Even if that specific instance ended in no points, the Clippers needed to keep running it because it exploited better matchups.
The Bucks have a very talented defense in large part because of how versatile they are. Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are long, strong defenders that can handle post-ups and penetration from the perimeter. Forcing them to switch, as LA tried to do several times down the stretch, works for Milwaukee. Sure, Middleton isn’t as good a defender as Antetokounmpo or Holiday…. But he isn’t bad. He is the right size. Thus the Clippers don’t gain much if anything. NBA analyst Nekias Duncan covered this well just after that game.
So yes, the thunderous Antetokounmpo dunk was the dagger. But the loss, for LA, happened on the other end. Leonard made a baseline jump-shot with 4:01 remaining to go up by four points. The Clippers never scored again and lost by five.
What’s Wrong with the Clippers?
It’s not that Lou Williams, perennial Sixth Man of the Year, can’t be a threat here. As was mentioned, the lone clutch-time action between George and Williams resulted in a (missed) layup. But Williams himself is a streaky scorer, hence the Sixth Man role. And as a playmaker, he’s averaging 3.7 assists per game. Lou Will’s most effective as a jump shooter both off the dribble in the midrange and catching and shooting in the corners. The 34-year-old wing-master is a great role player, but LA needs a creative guard to puncture the defense.
But truthfully, Williams is the closest Point Guard the Clippers have as an answer. Patrick Beverley distributes the ball, but won’t command attention as a scorer. Reggie Jackson plays the least of the three, and his defensive liabilities don’t give confidence he can play crunch time minutes.
What’s wrong is the guy the LA Clippers need -a scorer and playmaker to get involved in actions with Leonard and George down the stretch- isn’t on their roster. Yet.
Houston, We Have a Solution?
What team has a playmaking Point Guard that can score and facilitate? Are there any of those guys on teams plummeting like a sinking ship? Need something to prove?
The Houston Rockets would have to send some cash along the way to pay for it, but Houston’s John Wall would be an ideal candidate to fix the LA Clippers’ problems. In exchange for Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, two Clippers who are in their mid-twenties, and thus fit in the Rockets’ current timeline, Houston could propel the Clippers and Wall into true Western Conference favorites and build a team of players on the same timeline. On the floor, Wall would be able to put his foot on the gas when Leonard or George were managing their loads, and they could return the favor when he rested his Achilles. And when the three are suiting up together? It’s going to be tough to defend. Especially in these late-game scenarios.
Wall necessitates a different defender than Leonard or George. The kinds of bodies that do well against Leonard or George are too big to stay in front of Wall. A Wall-Leonard pick and roll would force the defense to do something other than switch. Flat-footed forward switches onto Wall? He has proven he can still race past them to the basket. The speedy guard tries to stick Leonard or George? Both guys will back them down on the block. The Clippers just hope George makes more of those layups than he misses.
The biggest issue in the trade is Wall’s contract. He’s currently owed $41.3 Million a year for the next three years. That’s hard on the books, but Houston would be receiving a handful of lighter contracts. With picks and draft capital as sweetener, things Houston has demonstrated interest in, the Rockets could return the favor by paying off a lot of Wall’s 2021 money in the here and now.
Houston isn’t losing this trade as much as people think. The Rockets get two guys who fit their timeline, and (we assume) multiple picks to force them to pay off some of Wall’s money owed. That said, this trade could still present some problems…
Clippers’ Other Options?
Kyle Lowry has, to this point, become so talked about as an “under the radar” trade piece that he feels over and above the radar. Lowry would absolutely fit in and solve the Clippers’ late-game issues because he would be able to create off of the aforementioned pick and roll for both himself and others. Lowry has averaged over 6.5 assists per game for nearly a decade, and his decision-making coming off of a Leonard or George screen would give defenses fits. That said, he’s probably the most expensive option in terms of assets.
If the Clips sought a younger scoring threat at point guard, they need to look at Charlotte. With the emergence of LaMelo Ball and last year’s growth of Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier would be an attacking guard that could puncture the defense off of a pick and roll while Leonard flared to the short corner or George popped beyond the arc. Rozier has scored over 18 points per game in both seasons he’s been a starter, and he has shot over 40-percent from three. Thus, if Leonard or George ran alternate offenses he could still stretch the floor off the ball.
Another to see would be Wall’s backcourt teammate, Victor Oladipo. Oladipo’s contract expires this offseason, so the gamble would be serious. Kawhi Leonard has a player option for next season and is within his rights to leave the team. The Clippers could simultaneously lose two of their best three players if an Oladipo acquisition went south.
But if it didn’t, Oladipo actually makes a lot of sense. Oladipo is a slighter perimeter player than Leonard and George, but he is a capable shooter, scorer, and distributor. He would be more dangerous on the pick and roll than Williams or Beverley, but able to spot up when Leonard or George ran different actions. The downside with Oladipo is the same as it’s been in Houston and as it was in Indiana: his health. Oladipo has only played 66 games since 2018. In Houston, he’s missed at least one end of back-to-backs as a part of his recovery regimen. It should be noted that this shouldn’t impact his availability in the playoffs because they won’t be asked to play back-to-back days.