The Clippers have the pieces for an elite perimeter defense. But will their average rim protectors end up being a weakness to exploit?
No team had a better offseason than the L.A. Clippers. They landed the best player on the free-agent market in Kawhi Leonard, and Leonard convinced Paul George to force his way out of Oklahoma City so they could team up. The two players are only under guaranteed contract for two years apiece (they each have player options for the 2021-22 season) but the Clippers should be inner-circle contenders for each of those two seasons, and considering they each went to Los Angeles with the intent of playing at home and with each other, the Clippers should feel good about the prospect of them sticking around beyond that period.
In addition to their new stars, the Clips are returning the core of a roster that went to the playoffs in last season’s Western Conference. With the exception of Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — who have been replaced by far superior players in Leonard and George — every major rotation member from last year’s team has returned. Patrick Beverley is back. Lou Williams is back. Montrezl Harrell is back. Landry Shamet is back. Ivica Zubac is back. Even JaMychal Green is back. And the Clippers also added Moe Harkless to that group, giving them another flexible piece for the frontcourt.
This is a team with shooting and playmaking and individual creativity; size and length and high basketball IQ; and all of it topped off with three of the very best perimeter defenders in the entire league.
Beverley will be able to go full bore on defense more often than Leonard and George; but when all three are at the top of their respective games, he might actually be the third-best defender on his own team, which is completely insane. Beverley can credibly guard literally any perimeter-based player in the league — he was L.A.’s preferred defender on Kevin Durant just a few months ago. His combination of tenacity and instincts routinely frustrates opposing offenses, and with Leonard and George and occasionally Harkless flanking him, he should be freed to put even more pressure on opposing ball-handlers, knowing that smart and capable defenders will be there to help even in the rare case that he gets beat.
Due to their wealth of defensive talent on the wing, the Clippers will be able to throw a ton of different looks at the best scorers and creators in the league. They have the luxury of choosing between Leonard and George to guard the opponent’s best wing, and if they want, they can have Beverley do it, too. If Leonard or George is sitting for injury or load-management reasons, Harkless has plenty of experience guarding those types as well. It’s possible all four of those players could guard a given opponent in the same game. Have fun trying to game-plan for a specific defender; you might not see the same guy across from you for more than a few minutes at a time. And if you do, it’s likely that guy is one of the small handful of best players in the world at what he does, so you’re in pretty deep trouble to begin with.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Clippers’ defensive talent is almost entirely concentrated on the perimeter, and that neither the most dangerous on-ball creator (Williams) or off-ball sniper (Shamet) in their backcourt is a plus defender.
The team’s three primary big men, meanwhile, ranked 44th out of 71 qualified centers (Zubac), 25th out of 92 power forwards (Harrell), and 86th out of 92 power forwards (Green) in ESPN’s Defensive RPM last season. The rim-protection numbers for both Harrell (opponents shot 56.2 percent when he was within five feet of both the shooter and the rim, per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, putting him on par with players like Nikola Vucevic and Karl-Anthony Towns) and Green (64.8 percent, on par with Julius Randle and DeAndre Ayton) are subpar; and Zubac was played so completely off the floor during last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors that you could be forgiven for having thought he was awarded a roster spot through some sort of in-arena contest and ended up as the starting center.
Given the strength of the defense on the outside and the relative weakness on the inside, coupled with the relative importance of interior defense compared to perimeter defense, it will be fascinating to watch how this Clippers season plays out if for no other reason than it will be a test case on the true importance of defending at specific levels of the floor. After all, even if you accept that it is more important and more impactful to be best on defense near the rim, the path to get there almost always begins at the perimeter anyway.
Cutting off driving lanes, jumping into passing lanes, forcing ball-handlers into inopportune spots on the floor — all of those things prevent access to the paint in the first place. The Clippers will presumably be an elite defense in all of those areas, and if they are, that may help them cover up for the fact that they do not have like-quality defenders working behind them.