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In the Midst of a Great Season, Can the Clippers Overcome Inconsistency Woes to Reach Finals?

The Clippers have the outline of a true championship contender, but we haven't seen the full team in motion.

Have we learned much of anything about the Clippers since opening night in late October? Of all the Western Conference contenders, Los Angeles may be the toughest to assess, in large part due to its lack of continuity throughout 2019-20. Kawhi Leonard has missed 13 games this season. Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet have each sat out 15-plus contests. The roster constructed over the last eight months has the outline of a true championship contender, but we’ve rarely seen the full team in motion.

It hasn’t been just the injury bug that has hampered the Clippers this season. Their energy and effort has fluctuated along with the injury report. Los Angeles sported the No. 16 defensive rating in January, and miscommunication issues lingered through the start of 2020. Without ample chance to form a sense of cohesion, the Clippers have at times looked more vulnerable than originally assumed.

But concerns over consistency should only go so far. Los Angeles is now healthy entering the final six weeks of the regular season, and head coach Doc Rivers should be able to get into a rhythm with his rotation sooner than later. So what do the Clippers look like when they’re at full strength? That’s the question worth further examination.

A trio of Western Conference teams formed All-NBA duos this summer, and the Clippers have a legitimate argument as the best of the three. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are unique among dynamic duos, with both bringing a full complement of weapons to the Clippers. The Rockets have to work around Russell Westbrook’s shaky three-point shooting. The Lakers struggle to generate quality possessions when Anthony Davis is the lone All-Star on the floor. No team in the league has a dynamic pair of wings quite like the Clippers.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles hasn’t received a massive sample size with Leonard and George this season, though there is enough data to see just how dominant the pair has been. The Clippers are 21–7 when their two All-Stars both play this season. They sport a plus-10.2 net rating when Leonard and George share the floor. Both players are effective pick-and-roll ball handlers, and Leonard more than proved his isolation chops in the 2019 postseason. When the shot clock dwindles late in playoff games, the Clippers have a pair of true stars to bail them out.

Leonard and George may be All-NBA talents, yet they aren’t the only effective partner-in-crime on the Clippers’ roster. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have combined to create the league’s most delightful duo in recent seasons, and they’ve remained effective in 2019-20. Williams is averaging over 19 points per game for the third straight season. He leads the Clippers in crunch-time field goals. Williams and Harrell have logged the most minutes together of any Clippers duo by a significant margin this season, and the familiarity has continued to pay dividends.

Harrell deserves significant praise for his development over the last two seasons. 2018-19 marked a major leap for the Louisville product, who saw a major jump in his minutes, points and rebounds. This season has led to further progression. Harrell is now far more than just a quality rim runner. Los Angeles has leaned on Harrell in the post–to the tune of a solid 1.01 points per possession–and Harrell is emerging as a solid interior passer. Harrell is far more skilled than the Clippers originally envisioned. His emergence has paid major dividends.

"In the first couple years, you needed Lou to have Montrezl,” Rivers told the media at the Toyota Center in Houston on Thursday. “That's not true anymore. We feature Montrezl in the post. He's one of the best post players in the league by the numbers. He continues to get better and better.”

Los Angeles’ collection of quality players runs far deeper than the aforementioned quartet. Marcus Morris has fit in largely seamlessly with the Clippers, adding another interior body who can stretch the floor. Beverley is an absolute defensive menace, one who could prove to be a key against James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Rivers’ rotation could credibly roll 10 deep in the postseason with the additions of Morris and Reggie Jackson. The other slate of Western Conference contenders (especially the Lakers) can’t say the same.

Perhaps the Clippers aren’t the clear-cut favorite in the Western Conference as we roll toward the postseason. The Lakers are all-but-assured to snag the No. 1 seed. Houston remains formidable with a pair of MVPs, and perhaps the Nuggets or Jazz can find a winning blueprint with their respective centers. But don’t mistake vulnerability for an obvious shortcoming. The Clippers sport the West’s deepest rotation. They’re led by the reigning Finals MVP. Whatever discontent existed early in the season has dissipated, and the Clippers still have the Larry O’Brien trophy firmly in their sights. Bet against Leonard and Co. at your peril in the postseason.