The LA Clippers are arguably the deepest team in basketball.
Kawhi Leonard signed with them in July mostly because of his Southern California roots. But the notion that LA’s supporting cast would be the league’s best no doubt factored into his decision, too. When Leonard pulled the strings that got Paul George to the Clippers, their status as prohibitive title favorites was cemented.
But two months into the regular season, a problematic trend has emerged. For all of its top-tier star power and enviable depth, LA has consistently struggled without Leonard on the floor.
Is that development a death-knell for the Clippers’ title hopes? Hardly. But considering recent precedent and the juggernaut competition for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this season, it’s certainly a dynamic worth monitoring.
Leonard has already missed nine games, seven of which were the result of planned load management. The left knee pain that first surfaced during last year’s playoffs persists and could be a factor as 2019-20 continues.
LA has made abundantly clear that it will prioritize Leonard’s long-term health first and foremost. It’s fair to expect him to miss at least nine additional games, and likely more.
The Clippers are 4-5 without him this season. Their point differential in those games is +36, an encouraging number that’s artificially inflated by a 49-point romp over the listless Atlanta Hawks in November.
More telling of LA’s performance sans Leonard is its sub-.500 record and barely break-even net rating when he’s off the floor. The Clippers have a +0.5 net rating with him out of the game, over six points lower than any other player on the roster.
Obviously, teams are expected to fare worse without a player of Leonard’s all-time caliber on the court. But the Toronto Raptors famously went 16-4 last season when he was unavailable. Their net rating during the playoffs with Leonard on the bench was no different than when Kyle Lowry sat, too.
Just as damning as the Clippers’ performance without Leonard and its comparison to the Raptors a year ago? How they’ve fared with their other superstar playing solo alpha dog.
Leonard, remember, was prepared to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers unless the Clippers added a second superstar. Their acquisition of George sealed the deal for Leonard. But six weeks since George debuted with LA, there’s no indication he can prop up his new team by himself.
Lineups featuring both players have been dominant, with a +15.6 net rating . LA has been just as good with Leonard on the court and George resting, too. But with that situation reversed, the Clippers’ net rating dips all the way down to +0.3 by virtue of league-average play on both sides of the ball.
There’s ample time for LA to get more comfortable playing without Leonard. The numbers with George on the court and him on the bench, for instance, are bound to improve as Doc Rivers hones his playing rotation.
But the Milwaukee Bucks seem primed to approach 70 wins, and the Los Angeles Lakers are clearly keeping their foot on the gas during the regular season. Hopes of the Clippers, now fourth in the West at 22-10, getting home-court advantage throughout the playoffs or even just against Western Conference foes are dwindling by the day.
LA might be good enough that it doesn’t matter in the end. This team, with multiple high-level stoppers and shot-makers, is built for the playoffs in a way Milwaukee and Los Angeles aren’t.
The margins always matter in a championship race, though. And each time Leonard sits, evidence mounts that the Clippers might belong in a class below their chief competition for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.