While much of the promise for last season’s Los Angeles Clippers, then fresh off acquiring both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, fizzled out during their disappointing run in the NBA playoffs in the Bubble, an impressive showing from three of their acquisitions during the 2020-2021 offseason, a “new” head man on the sidelines, and better chemistry between a hot shooting George and rounding into form Leonard proves that the excitement in Los Angeles is not just reserved for the defending champions.
The Clippers acquired veteran forward and “Kawhi’s best buddy”, Serge Ibaka this offseason in free agency. Ibaka, averaging 11.5 points in nearly 25 minutes of play, may not be posting huge box scores but his play on the offensive and defensive ends has resulted in his best plus-minus in 6 seasons (5.5) dating back to the 2015-2016 with the Thunder. Ibaka has played well for the Clippers, essentially replacing Montrezl Harrell who signed with the other team in Staples, by spacing the floor on offense (he’s shooting 50% from the floor) and helping defend smaller players after pick and roll switches on defense.
The Clippers other veteran pick up this offseason, former “swiss Army knife” in Portland, Nicolas Batum has also been a revelation for the Clippers this season. He has guarded the opposing teams’ best perimeter player at times, initiated offense, and seemingly knocked down every open shot that the Clippers primary ball handlers and creators this season, George and Leonard, have created for him so far. Batum is boasting an impressive positive 7 plus-minus to go along with 9.9 ppg, 5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1 spg and less than 1 turnover per game in 28 minutes per game thus far. Batum similarly spreads the floor too, as mentioned before, evidenced by his 43% 3 point shooting percentage.
Beyond the veteran pick ups the Clippers made this offseason, they also gave former Piston, Luke Kennard, 24 in just his 4th season, 64 million for 4 years. Kennard, though playing mostly in lineups with reserves, has not disappointed as a legit floor spacer and secondary ball handler. He has played 23 minutes per game, scored 9 points per game (on 50% shooting from 2 and 3), and dished nearly 2 assists per game compared to just 1.2 turnovers per game.
Former NBA journeyman and NBA Finals winning head coach of the LeBron James – Kyrie Irving – Kevin Love led Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue has been a part of many NBA Finals teams as a player and head coach. However, after he was promoted from assistant to head man this past offseason, taking over after Doc Rivers’ departure to Philly, the pressure of leading the playoff disappointing and reportedly bickering Lakers little brothers seemed to be as great as any.
Thus far, Lue has been up to the challenge. The Clippers, the best 3 point shooting percentage team in the NBA, currently sit atop the NBA standings with the Lakers, whom they beat on opening night, at 15-4. They are 7th in scoring per game at 114.9 a game (conversely, they sit at 8th in opponent’s points per game) and lead the league in 3rd quarter scoring at 31.3 so far this season (hello halftime adjustments). Though they have lost big leads to teams in some losses, as well as lost by a franchise record 51 points to the Mavs, Lue seems to be pressing all the right buttons for the new look Clippers.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were mostly disjointed last season. George was coming off two offseason shoulder surgeries and Kawhi played poorly by his standards mostly. Even more, as oft-mentioned, the pairing ultimately failed to live up to expectations, flaming out in the postseason after leading the Denver Nuggets 3-1 during the semifinals of the Western Conference Playoffs in the “Bubble”. This season however, the story seems to be different. George apparently can’t miss and his stellar all around play has him as a dark horse MVP candidate.
For the season, George is averaging 24 ppg, 6 rpg, and 6 apg while over 50% from 2 and 3 and 91% from the free throw line. Leonard, despite what some idiot wrote about his early season play, has been rounding into form, scoring, assisting, rebounding, and defending at a high clip the last 5 games. Leonard, meanwhile, is averaging 25 ppg, 5 rpg, and 6 apg while shooting 50% from 2, 45% from 3, and 88% from the free throw line.