Can Paul George and Kawhi Leonard social distance their way to a title?

It's rare to see both of them on the court at the same time for the Clippers

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Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
Image: Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers are a bifurcated roster. Without one or both of their wings, they are in a steep nosedive. There are three different incarnations of Ty Lue’s rotation. The Kawhi Leonard Clippers are almost mechanical in their execution as the two-time champion keys the offense. Paul George’s Clippers are the sweet and sour version we’ve gotten used to since the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

Leonard and George are the blockbuster co-op thought to be Western Conference favorites for the 2023 NBA title. Instead, they’re practically splitting custody of the starting lineup during the regular season and playing like a team divided at the midsection. For 25 of the Clippers’ 42 games they’ve played this season, Leonard and George have played without the other, or neither has suited up.

Missing one star for large chunks of the season is one thing, but not having both around for intermittent periods is an obvious drag. When the Clippers play together, they’re 9-6 and can humble opponents with their perimeter defense. A month ago, they appeared to be hitting their stride by pouncing on the Celtics in a 113-93 evisceration of the defending champs, but January is when wayward contenders begin to course correct.

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The Clippers’ season so far

So far in 2023, Clipperland’s six-game losing streak has dropped them back to a .500 record and there’s no end to this skid in sight. George’s hamstring strain forced him to miss seven games in December, but the aggravation of his strained muscle on Jan. 5 will keep him sidelined for several more games. The injury occurred after the Clippers erased an 18-point deficit to the Heat while George drove the lane. With Leonard out, the Clippers dropped their fourth straight.

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Fortunately for the Clippers, the Western Conference cyclone has allowed the 21-21 Clippers to remain within striking distance of a top-3 seed in the West.

In the games George has played without Leonard, his inconsistency has been a theme. George has always fluctuated between the ideal two-way, three-level scoring wing and a mistake-prone albatross. He’s 60 percent all-universe, and 40 percent as likely to crash for 35 minutes a night.

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The polar opposite of George is Leonard’s robotic brilliance. However, Leonard has been ramping up for months. In his last months, Leonard has been available for a full slate of games, and with his minutes restriction lifted, he’s firing on all cylinders once again.

Two years ago, these Clippers were on the verge of advancing to their franchise’s first NBA Finals. Leonard’s marshmallow ACL put the kibosh on their 2021 playoff run and their entire 21-22 campaign.

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Who are the other playmakers?

The frontrunner status returned in the preseason, but the results have lagged behind expectations. Despite signing John Wall in the offseason, the Clippers’ search for a supreme table setter for their offense has been fruitless. Without the explosive quickness, Wall’s driving lanes vanish before he can penetrate or drive and kick. and in limited minutes, he’s one of the most inefficient dual-threat guards in the league. Reggie Jackson’s bricklaying overconfidence can also shoot Clipperland in the foot and out of leads.

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The bulk of the playmaking is being made from their wings, which is often vacated by George and Leonard. In addition to their mounting list of injuries, there are six more back-to-backs remaining in which George and Leonard are expected to sit on the front or back half.

Team cohesiveness has given way to a George and Leonard split screen. This team is composed like it was built to win in 2017. Ivan Zubac is lost in the Amazon forest when he gets dragged out of the paint. In today’s switch-heavy league, Zubac is out of his depth. In spurts, Marcus Morris has been an effective small-ball center, but even that is unsustainable in the postseason. But most importantly, the buck stops at Leonard and George. As the season begins its controlled descent, the Clips need both wings to keep them gliding towards an NBA Finals.

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The rest of the West

Most of the Clippers’ peers in the West have been building chemistry for years. Golden State’s Splash Brothers have started more games together (22) than the Clippers’ superstar tandem. While Curry has recuperated, every night has been Game 6 for Klay Thompson. Desmond Bane and Ja Morant have only played in 17 together, but the Grizzlies are engaged in a tug-of-war with New Orleans for the top spot in the Western Conference standings.