After days of absurd rumors, borderline stalking and reddit-born conspiracies, the Clippers emerged as the winner for Kawhi Leonard’s services. And joining Kawhi—the reigning Finals MVP, and current No. 1 player in the NBA—will be Paul George, himself a 2019 MVP finalist and perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. In the span of a few moments in the wee hours of July 6, with two monumental moves, the Clippers—in the same summer the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis! To be LeBron’s teammate!—became the best team in Los Angeles.
What an unbelievable coup for the Clippers. Not only did they land Leonard, they pulled off an insanely stealthy trade for George, forming what’s easily the best perimeter defensive duo in the NBA. The obvious question to ask now is where the Clips land in the larger league hierarchy. For my money, not only are they the clear-cut No. 1 team in L.A., they have an argument to be the best team in the league.
Kawhi and PG are going to be an outstanding duo. George just spent two years learning to play off the ball with Russell Westbrook. It is going to be incredibly difficult for any team to have the perimeter wherewithal to slow down Kawhi and PG. And on the other end of the floor, it may even be worse. The combination of Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley is going to be devastating defensively. And even after trading for Geroge, the Clippers still have retained so much of the core of their roster, including Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Landry Shamet.
What separates the Clippers and Lakers right now is depth. The top two can be argued to death, but there’s no doubting as presently constructed the Clips have an actual NBA rotation. The Lakers have Kyle Kuzma and now Danny Green outside of LeBron and AD, and things get pretty dicey from there. The Clippers have several pieces from a team that made the playoffs last season, and they are adding to that a two-time Finals MVP and a first-team All-NBA forward.
The question from here becomes who is the Clippers’ biggest competition around the league. The Nets are still over a year away with Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury. The Warriors will have to wait for Klay Thompson to return from his torn ACL. The Lakers are going to be in a tricky spot as they try to fill out the roster with most starting-level free agents off the board. And teams like the Rockets and Nuggets have mostly stood still this summer.
Will the Sixers and their ultra-big starting five provide a counterbalance to the Clips? Will Giannis and the Bucks prove that last season’s ascent will have staying power? The Clippers are almost certainly going to be the league’s new measuring stick, and right now it’s difficult to think of a team that’s equal to them in star power, the fit of those stars, depth and coaching.
The fallout of the Clippers’ moves will be massive. Toronto will almost assuredly take a step back. A team like the Bucks is going to face a lot more pressure after spending immensely to keep together a less sexy core. The Lakers are going to have to figure out again how to take advantage of the waning years of LeBron’s prime. And we haven’t even hit on the Thunder, who traded away George and are now facing their second rebuild in the three years since they lost Kevin Durant.
These two things are for certain, though: First, we are heading toward one of the most entertaining NBA seasons in years. Even if the Clips emerge as favorites, the gap between them and the field will be much closer than it was during the era of the Durant-Curry Warriors. The West is going to be a bloodbath next season, and there are an incredible number of competent teams around the league right now.
Secondly, the Clippers’ coup is ultimately a win for smart management. The Nets, Clippers, Lakers and Knicks all entered this summer with cap space and big dreams. While the Lakers certainly deserve credit for landing Davis, it’s the Nets and Clippers who both landed two stars this summer, with both pulling off some fairly big surprises. The best players may still want to play in big markets, but this summer proved that the marquee franchises still need smart planning to back up their historic reputations.
While the Nets had their big moment at the start of free agency, the Clippers put a chill on the rest of the league six days in. The Clips are going to be a force to be reckoned with, from this moment on for years to come. The days of the Clippers being the little brother in Los Angeles came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Leonard and George. The Clips did more than find equal footing with the Lakers with this summer’s haul—they surpassed them. And in the process, they probably just moved ahead of the rest of the league as well.