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Los Angeles Clippers

The terrifying potential of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the LA Clippers

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Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (NBA Getty Images)

Even though the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets each made big moves this offseason, there's no doubt the LA Clippers won free agency.

Not only did they land Kawhi Leonard, who was widely considered to be the No. 1 free agent after Kevin Durant went down with a torn Achilles in the NBA Finals, the Clippers managed to pull off a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George, a six-time All-Star in the prime of his career who was a finalist for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last season.

There are some risks involved in both deals - Leonard battled through a leg injury in the playoffs even after sitting out almost a quarter of the regular season due to "load management" and George underwent surgery on both of his shoulders at the season's end - but there's no denying that they give the Clippers the star power they need to stake their claim as the best team in the NBA, next season and beyond.

Playing alongside each other will take some adjustment, however, mostly on George's behalf. In his second season with the Thunder, George saw his usage rate jump from 25.7 percent to 29.5 percent. The offence was centered more around him as opposed to Russell Westbrook, which helped George post averages of 28.0 points and 4.1 assists per game, the former being a career-high and the latter tying the best mark of his career.

In Los Angeles, George might have to take more of a backseat to Leonard, to the point where he's more of a 1B again as opposed to a 1A.

It wouldn't necessarily take anything away from what George does well. The two have games that should complement each other if they can figure out the right dynamic, with Leonard being one of the league's best scorers with the ball in his hands and George being a knockdown shooter. Something as simple as having Leonard run a pick-and-roll with Ivica Zubac or Montrezl Harrell, both of whom are excellent screeners and rollers, while George makes himself available for kickouts on the perimeter should give defenses fits.

George was an elite scorer on spot-ups and off of screens last season. According to NBA.com, he ranked in the 96th percentile with 1.27 points per possession (Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry levels of efficiency) and the 85th percentile with 1.10 points per possession coming off of screens (think CJ McCollum and Kevin Durant). The combination makes him the most prolific and well-rounded shooter Leonard has ever played with.

Leonard isn't a big-time playmaker for others - it's the only real weakness anyone can point to in his game - and yet those reads should be simple enough for him to make them consistently. It helps that George is a massive target. He has similar measurements as Pascal Siakam, who was on the receiving end of more of Leonard's assists last season than anyone else on the Toronto Raptors, per NBA.com.

When George has the ball in his hands, Leonard will return the favour. He's not the scorer off of screens that George is, but he's an excellent standstill shooter. That's important because George was among the league leaders in pick-and-roll scoring in his final season with the Thunder.

Leonard and George won't be limited to running pick-and-rolls with the team's bigs, either. They'll be able to screen for one another, as well as Lou Williams, who finished behind only Lillard and Kemba Walker in pick-and-roll scoring per game last season.

"They'll pick-and-roll everyone to death," an assistant coach in the Western Conference told NBA writer Sean Deveney. "I mean, they did that last year, it was most of their offense. But now they have two guys who can hit you with it from different positions, and they are as good as anyone at it. It is not just Lou, it's PG and Kawhi, too."

With each of them being capable of breaking down mismatches in isolation, it'll also give the Clippers an answer to teams that switch a lot on defence. Each of them should have more than enough space to work with in those situations, as the Clippers can surround Leonard, George and Williams with shooters in Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green. They each shot 40.0 percent or better on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, save for Williams, who made 36.8 percent of those opportunities.

Catch-and-shoot (2018-19 season)
Player 3PM 3PA 3PT%
Paul George 2.2 5.4 40.0
Landry Shamet 2.2 4.9 45.1
JaMychal Green 1.2 2.9 42.0
Patrick Beverley 1.1 2.7 41.0
Kawhi Leonard 1.0 2.5 40.8
Lou Williams 0.6 1.6 36.8

As smooth as the fit could be on offence, the new-look Clippers might be at their best on defence.

The Clippers now have the two best wing defenders in the league in Leonard and George, plus a former All-Defensive First Team selection in Beverley, who has a reputation as one of the league's most fierce on-ball defenders. They can each guard multiple positions - point guards, shooting guards and some small forwards in Beverley's case, the same in addition to power forwards and some centres for Leonard and George - and Leonard and George are consistently among the league leaders in steals and deflections.

The three of them alone give the Clippers the foundation to have a top-five defence. They can switch across the board, and Leonard and George will shut down passing lanes with their collective length.

"I think this team has the capability to be just as good (as the 2008 Boston Celtics) when you look at it," one-time Coach of the Year and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau told Jovan Buha of The Athletic. "I think it'll be seamless. You're talking about two elite defenders that guard multiple positions, multiple effort guys, never quit on plays. Both guys are very unique. Even if you can get by them, they'll come from behind and get the ball.

"I think when you add in Patrick Beverley on the ball, 94 feet, and then those guys up in passing lanes, it'll be very hard to score against them."

The Clippers even have depth behind their two All-Stars in Rodney McGruder and Maurice Harkless, both of whom have the versatility to take some pressure off of Leonard and George when needed.

The only hole the Clippers currently have defensively is at centre. Despite being a solid rim protector, it's hard to believe Zubac will play upwards of 25 minutes against the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the playoffs, and Harrell is more offensive-minded than defensive-minded.

If they can address that problem - beit in free agency, ahead of next season's trade deadline or on the buyout market - health might be the only thing that can prevent these Clippers from competing for multiple championships.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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