The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
How did we get here, where the Los Angeles Clippers are the NBA’s model franchise?
The Clippers are the odds-on favorite to win the 2020 NBA championship, and for good reason. From top to bottom, the Clips are unrecognizable from the laughingstock they were for decades. It is remarkable how quickly they have turned the organization around in the five years since Donald Sterling was forced to sell, completely rebuilding a top-heavy roster constructed around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into a 48-win team that added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George over the summer.
Incredibly, the Clippers now feature the deepest-pocketed owner invested in winning, the most robust front office in the league (if not the best), one of the few coaches who boasts experience with quickly coalescing a hastily constructed title contender and arguably both of the top two-way wings on the planet. We do not talk about that last point enough. In Leonard and George, the Clips acquired the two players best suited to usurp LeBron James’ throne as the most talented small forward alive this season, and both of them have experience pushing him to the brink at the height of his powers. Now they face that challenge together.
Leonard carried the Toronto Raptors to the title this past June with one of the most impressive singular playoff performances we have ever seen, culminating in his second Finals MVP award. The first of those came as a result of his work opposite James in the 2014 Finals. Prior to his shoulders giving out on him, George was a legitimate regular-season MVP candidate last season, enjoying his best season in a career that featured back-to-back Eastern Conference finals battles against James’ Miami Heat.
The Heat represent one of the few historical superstar pairings on the level of Leonard and George. James and Dwyane Wade. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. These are the comparisons, so long as Leonard and George enter the playoffs at full strength. That is the biggest question facing the Clips. Maybe the only question. Can Leonard and George respectively endure on a left leg that required load management and two shoulders that necessitated surgery?
Granted, they are not the only MVP-caliber duo this season. James is now paired with Anthony Davis on the Los Angeles Lakers, and Russell Westbrook joined James Harden on the Houston Rockets. (Kevin Durant will presumably play alongside Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets in 2020.) The Lakers and Rockets are among the biggest threats to the Clippers, and both also come with questions. The most notable one facing each: Who assumes the alpha dog status? On the surface, that friction does not exist between Leonard and George, two understated superstars who respectively thrived in primary and secondary roles last season.
Even if you were to argue that James and Davis deserve equal or greater footing than Leonard and George — and I would argue that the former’s age opens this to more serious debate — the Clippers feature waves of depth unmatched by the Lakers and most any team spending some 70 percent of its salary cap on a pair of aces. This was a playoff team that just upgraded from Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to a pair of in-their-prime All-NBA performers at the NBA’s most coveted position.
Pick your poison between Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, two guards whose skill sets allow coach Doc Rivers to set the Leonard-George combination to either defensive or offensive beast mode. Mo Harkless, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder are all capable of spelling Leonard and George for stretches on the wing. The further development of Landry Shamet only furthers those lineup possibilities. Let us not forget Shamet was a Team USA candidate prior to his withdrawal in early August.
The shallowest position for the Clippers is at center. They ended last season starting Ivica Zubac and bringing Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Zubac came as a gift from the Lakers. He is an agile 7-footer with solid rim-protecting instincts who is still working on stretching his offensive capabilities. The hardworking Harrell emerged as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season, forming one of the best pick-and-roll partnerships in the league with Williams and outmuscling everyone on the defensive end.
The lineup most often used with Harrell at center outscored opponents by 18.2 points per 100 possessions last season, and that was with Tyrone Wallace and Mike Scott manning the two forward spots. Beverly, Williams, Leonard, George and Harrell have the potential to be an absolutely devastating lineup, blending an enviable combination of grit and skill. Subbing Shamet in for one of the guards does little to weaken a quintet that on paper strikes a balance between players who thrive with or without the ball.
There will be opportunities to further upgrade the roster. Consider the centers that changed hands on the cheap last season. The Clippers have good reason to trust in Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, Jerry West and a stacked basketball operations staff. And Rivers is no small piece to the puzzle. He commands respect from a locker room like few others in the coaching field, and he reestablished his reputation last season as one of the best motivators in the league. His experience navigating the chemistry issues both on and off the court between Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo will be invaluable this season.
The health of Leonard and George is really the only reason to be skeptical of their title chabces. George has been a limited participant in training camp and likely will not even play until November, but that still gives him six months to work his way back to peak Playoff P. Leonard is now fully aware how best to manage his health over an extended campaign. The luxury of the Clippers’ depth is that they do not necessarily need to rely on both superstars night in and night out during the regular season.
Other teams might feature high-end All-Stars, but few pairings are capable of both dropping 30 points a piece on one end and shutting down the opponents’ two best players on the other. George finished third in the voting for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, and he may not be the best candidate for either on his own team this time around. It is an exceptional combination made all the more exceptional by the collection of talent around them throughout the organization.
The odds that the Clippers would become the envy of the NBA once seemed impossible. Now, they look like a lock.
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