Can slow and steady bring the Clippers a championship?

“You had the last five years,” screamed Patrick Beverley towards Stephen Curry. “The next five years are mine.”

It was October 25, 2019, at the Chase Center when the Los Angeles Clippers’ hype reached its fever pitch. They had just beaten the Golden State Warriors, 141-122, and Beverley was particularly chirpy towards Curry and the Warriors. He was feeling himself. As the Clippers’ heart and soul, his emotion spilled towards the rest of the team. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on deck, presumably, the Clippers had no way to go but up.

Presumably.

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After that win against the Warriors, the Clippers’ season turned into a roller coaster that ended abruptly courtesy of the Denver Nuggets. They squandered a 3-1 lead during the Western Conference Semifinals. Their championship dreams were squashed. It was the worst possible ending to what Clippers fans thought was going to be a dream season.  It was a nightmare that turned into reality.

After a drop that low, you expected the Clippers to make dramatic changes during the offseason to flip the script.  There were some moves. They replaced a coach who blew 3-1 leads (Doc Rivers) with someone who overcame such deficits (Ty Lue). To beef up their frontcourt and shooting, they acquired Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum and Luke Kennard, players who could help with those two parts of their game.

All three are trusted entities in the NBA, but none of them felt big enough to get people to believe again. The assumption was the Clippers’ main engine as a team was broken, and the moves they made were the equivalent of changing this car’s tires. It looked good aesthetically, but in terms of overall performance, it was pointless. Some would even go as far as to say that it was a lost cause. It didn’t feel like it was worth it to follow this ride the Clippers were going to embark on this season.

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A quick look at the Clippers this season and it feels like nothing much has changed. They currently stand at 15-5, just half a game behind the Jazz for the second seed. Kawhi and PG have been steady while their depth has provided a lot of production. None of this is brand new information. Everyone knows they’re talented enough to finish at the top of the West. What everyone needed was a grand transformation; something that could convince that they’d truly exorcised the demons of their crash in the Bubble.

But grand transformations don’t happen overnight. Executing it requires time, patience, and trust in the small changes that happen daily. Look at the Clippers closely and there are subtle changes in their play that could prove to be valuable for a potential, deep Playoff run.

Here are three stats that have stood out from the Clippers this season, and how they compare from last year:

ORTG and DRTG from Hollinger’s Team Statistics from ESPN, Percent of Points (3PT) and Percent of Shots Attempted (3PT) from NBA Stats

There’s been a noticeable drop in terms of the Clippers defense, going from sixth in the league last year to 13th this season. It isn’t that dramatic of a fall, however, and the Clippers’ personnel can be trusted upon to turn on their defensive intensity come Playoff time.

What stands out is how much the Clippers’ offense has improved. They boast of the league’s most efficient attack and most impressive is how they’ve been getting their buckets. It starts and ends with their two stars, Leonard and George.

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We’ve associated each star with a specific archetype. Leonard is the elite wing who terrorizes defenses with his savvy midrange play. George, on the other hand, is the best second option you could ask for thanks to his steady spot-up shooting and world-class, all-around defense. The problem last season was, they embraced it to a fault and instead of synergizing their talents, they played as individuals. The lack of chemistry ultimately led to their doom.

That hasn’t been the case this season. What we’ve witnessed are two elite wings who have acknowledged their strengths, used them to further amplify their games in the team setting.

Stats from Basketball Reference

Leonard and George are currently averaging career-highs in assist rate while posting some of their lowest career usage rate numbers with awesome scoring efficiency. While it’s early into the season and their percentages will likely drop, it’s still indicative of a change in approach from the two stars.

They’ve looked less hesitant to work off each other. Instead of fearing that they’d get in each other’s way, they’ve blended their talents to help lead an offense that’s on pace to be one of history’s very best.  

Leonard and George aren’t the conventional playmakers NBA Twitter has been looking out of the Clippers. What they are, however, are talented and skilled wings who are making the most out of the empowerment Coach Ty Lue’s given them. It only makes sense for Leonard and George to listen. It was Lue, after all, who implemented the Two Crowns system that turned the Cleveland Cavaliers into contenders during the mid-2010s. The Clippers have been running a similar attack, just in a manner that anchors itself on Leonard and George’s strengths.

Photo from Getty Images

The season’s only started and it’s too early to say whether the Clippers have done enough to flip the script. The good thing is, it looks like they themselves acknowledge that reality.

“We’re going to lose some games, man,” said Marcus Morris Sr. “Biggest thing is not to get too high or too low.”

Slow and steady wins the race. Time will tell whether this way will work out for the other team from LA.