How good can Clippers be if George, Leonard stay healthy?
On Monday, the LA Clippers beat the Boston Celtics, the team with the best record in the NBA, by 20 points. In that game, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for a sparkling 51 points (18-for-34 field goals, 11-for-15 free throws), 15 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 3-pointers and 2 steals. The Clippers held the Celtics, the leading scoring team in the NBA by both volume and efficiency (119.3 points per game, 62.0% true shooting percentage), more than 16 points and about 10 TS% points under their averages.
It was an impressive victory, and in the vein of Marvel Studios, one can’t help but ask: What if?
What if Leonard and George were healthy enough to play together for the majority of the rest of the season? What would that look like? Let’s explore.
During their first two seasons together, from 2019-20 through 2020-21, these were Leonard’s and George’s averages:
Leonard: 26.0 PPG (48.8 FG%, 88.5 FT%, 38.7 3P%), 6.8 RPG, 5.0 APG, 2.1 3PG, 1.7 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 1.3 TO
George: 22.5 PPG (45.4 FG%, 87.2 FT%, 41.2 3P%), 6.2 RPG, 4.6 APG, 3.2 3PG, 1.3 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.0 TO
So, when healthy and playing together, these two do almost the exact same things, but with Leonard a tick more productive in every area except 3-point shooting. Interestingly, George’s numbers over the past two seasons don’t reflect a big uptick in production with Leonard largely out or attenuated:
George: 24.1 PPG (43.3 FG%, 86.5 FT%, 36.5 3P%), 6.5 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.9 3PG, 1.9 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.8 TO
Compared with the two previous seasons, George clearly shot and dished the ball a bit more but at a lower field goal percentage and with more turnovers. Playing next to Leonard helped his efficiency enough to largely counter the slightly fewer touches.
So, this gives us an idea what the main two players might do on the court, but what about the rest of the Clippers?
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In this week’s FBA points rankings, there are seven Clippers in the top 175, including Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr., Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson and John Wall, in addition to Leonard and George. Other Clippers flirt with the fringe of the fantasy hoops radar, including Terance Mann, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard. They are a deep team, which is why they can remain competitive when one or both of their stars are on the shelf. But, what might these players produce if Leonard and George are largely healthy?
Well, to start, we have to point out the stat I left out of the two-year lines above: games played. From 2019-20 through 20-21, Leonard played in 109 of 144 regular-season games (75.7% of games), while George played in 102/144 (70.8%). While we are playing out a “what If they were healthy?” exercise, we should pay attention to one factor that’s going to be true even in the best-case scenario this season: Leonard is going to miss about a quarter of all games.
While George tends to miss games in chunks because of various ailments, Leonard misses one-half of every back-to-back and also has occasional maintenance days as a permanent part of matriculating through an NBA season. He started doing this back with the Raptors, after tearing a quad tendon with the Spurs, and I can’t see a scenario in which he stops doing this as he now recovers from his torn ACL. So, while we might “what if?” George into playing most nights, Leonard will be there at best three games out of four.
This is key, when projecting the other Clippers. Because while PG13 and Kawhi will produce big in just about any game they play regular minutes, the other guys will have the occasional big game while ultimately leveling out to more moderate averages. Take a look at the past six games, of which Leonard played in four:
Against Sacramento (no Kawhi): Zubac 13 points, 10 rebounds; Brandon Boston Jr. 18 points, 4 3-pointers; Mann 13 points, 3 assists
Against Charlotte (Kawhi): Wall 13 points, 12 assists; Jackson 13 points, 3 3-pointers; Batum 13 points, 4 3-pointers; Morris 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 3-pointers
Against Orlando (Kahwi): Mann 19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists; Batum 16 points, 4 3-pointers; Zubac 16 points, 10 rebounds; Jackson 15 points
Against Miami (no Kawhi): Jackson 20 points, 4 3-pointers; Wall 9 points, 8 assists; Morris 11 points, 4 rebounds; Batum 11 points, 3 3-pointers
Against Washington (Kawhi): Morris 19 points, 6 rebounds, 5 3-pointers; Wall 13 points, 3 assists; Batum 12 points, 4 3-pointers; Kennard 10 pts, 5 assists, 3 3-pointers
Against Boston (Kawhi): Morris 13 points; Kennard 12 points, 2 3-pointers; Mann 9 points, 7 rebounds
The point is, there were different “others” contributing in each game. Nothing flashy, and maybe not enough for permanent roster status in shallower leagues. But there could be three to six Clippers who are streamer options most nights, even if Leonard and George are both on the court at the same time.
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Let’s step outside of fantasy hoops for a moment and consider some futures.
The Clippers are 16-13 on the season, sixth in the Western Conference and second in the Pacific. The Pacific is particularly bunched up, with the top four teams separated by two games in the standings (and even the Lakers only 4.5 games back).
According to Caesars Sportsbook, the Clippers have the third-longest odds to win the Pacific (+375), behind the Phoenix Suns (-130), whom they trail by a half-game, and the Golden State Warriors (+300), whom they’re ahead of. In the 2019-20 season, the Clippers outscored their opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions when both George and Leonard were on the court together. The next season, the Clippers outscored their opponents by a whopping 17.8 PP100 with Leonard and George on the court together. Take it further that season, they outscored opponents by 19.9 PP100 in lineups featuring all four of George, Leonard, Zubac and Morris. In our “what if they’re healthy?” scenario, this could bode very well for the Clippers’ chances to make a run to potentially finish on top of the division.
In fact, think about those positive lineup scores, then factor in what it could mean for the Clippers in other futures markets. Per Caesars, the Clippers’ over-under line is set at only 45.5 wins, which is the pace that they’re already on with 16 wins in their first 29 games (55.2%). If George and Leonard are healthy, they’d project to significantly improve.
On the other hand, it appears that Caesars has already baked our “what if?” into the conference and NBA title odds, in which the Clippers have the second-shortest odds to win the Western Conference (+450) and the fourth-shortest to win the NBA championship (+900), ahead of many teams with better records. These odds make sense only if the expectation is that the Clippers will have their two stars available and thriving in the postseason.
Just some things to think about, on both the fantasy and the futures fronts. Now, it’s up to you. How likely do you think our “what if?” scenario is to becoming reality? Your answer will affect both your fantasy hoops trade strategy and your potential futures decisions. For me, the takeaways that caught my eye were on the futures side. I think the Clips could blow those 45.5 wins out of the water and that they have a very good chance to end up on top of the Pacific Division. In fact, I’m excited enough to end this article now and go explore those futures options more thoroughly. I encourage you to think this through and follow your own conclusions, but there are certainly some actionable trends — depending on your answers to one of the great “what if?” questions in the NBA.