Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Could playmaking be the Clippers’ Achilles heel?

The Clippers added two elite two-way perimeter stars but neither Paul George or Kawhi Leonard has much track record as a passer. Could this be a problem?

After a summer full of seismic shifts and full-out Steve Ballmer enthusiasm, the Clippers are entering the 2019-20 season as favorites to win the title. And those high expectations are justified. Last year’s scrappy 48-win team captured the imagination of fans outside of just Los Angeles, even managing to steal two wins off of the (admittedly complacent) Warriors in the first round. Now, the Clippers have added two legitimate superstars, while keeping their core largely intact. With all due respect to Danilo Galinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is an upgrade and a half.

The Clippers have a struck a balance of depth and superstar power unmatched by any team in the league, and with a pair of the league’s top two-way players and a squad full of gritty bucket-getters, they have a chance at dominance on both sides of the ball.

But the Clippers have one key weakness that threatens to limit their offensive ceiling: their passing. Although both Kawhi and PG are elite scorers, they are below-average distributors. The graph below plots the relationship between players points and assists per game.

As you can see, both of the new Clippers’ assists rates fall well below where you might expect, given their ability to score. In fact, these two stars could form a potentially historic combination of passing-averse scorers. Last season, Kawhi put up 26.6 points per game but only 3.3 assists per game, while George put up 28.0 and 4.0. While there’s no guarantee that they will replicate those numbers playing together, doing so would land them as only the second pair of teammates in history to both average over 25 points and under 5 assists per game (Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English did so for the Nuggets during the 1982-83 season).

But the problem extends past just the Clippers two stars. Based on all players’ assists and turnovers last season, I projected team-wide assist-to-turnover ratios for the coming season based on updated rosters. Heading into the season, the Clippers are forecasted as a bottom-ten team in assist-to-turnover ratio, just one spot ahead of the Knicks.

That ranking would leave them well below Kawhi’s previous two title teams — last year’s Raptors ranked 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio during the regular season and sixth during the playoffs, while the pass-happy 2013-14 Spurs finished third in the league. While all that might not sound like a big deal, historically there is a strong relationship between a team’s assist-to-turnover ratio and their overall offensive rating. The graph below shows this relationship for all regular season teams between the 1999-2000 season and last year:

Put simply, teams that pass better and don’t turn over the ball score at higher efficiencies on average. Interestingly enough, assist-to-turnover ratio has increased league-wide in recent years, likely due to the increase in 3-pointers, which are assisted at a higher rate.

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Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The Raptors might look the Houston Rockets as an example, who ranked second offensive rating last season, despite ranking 24th in assist-to-turnover ratio. However, replicating the kind of individual offensive brilliance that James Harden showed last year is probably too much to ask.

The Clippers should be really, really good and may get by on defense alone. But to live up to their lofty expectations, Kawhi and George may have to expand their games and to succeed in ways they haven’t before. In a league that’s wide-open, the Clippers will have to get better at finding teammates who are too.

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