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L.A. L.A. Land

Vegas odds have the title favorites as the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. Two teams that were mostly afterthoughts just one season ago are now looked upon as the class of the NBA. It’s rather obvious why — combine the two rosters and you have 4 of the top 10 players in the league. The NBA from 2008-2019 was dominated by “Big 3’s,” and now we’ve come to a new era, one which fellow Sports Business Classroom alum Calida Taylor so eloquently described as “The NBA Jam Era.” The case for the Lakers is simple; most experts agree that with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Purple and Gold have the best duo in the league. I’m here to refute that statement and lay out why the Clippers are in a class of their own. 

LeBron James is one of the two greatest players of all-time, and he’s been the top player in the league for the vast majority of his career. However, after missing the playoffs last season and watching as Kawhi Leonard had a very LeBron-like postseason run leading the Raptors to the title, he isn’t the clear-cut best player anymore. Kawhi accomplished something last year that LeBron never has — winning an NBA Championship without a surefire top-15 player as a running mate. Does this mean Kawhi will definitely be better than LeBron in the 2020 playoffs? No, but I would rather put my money on the 28-year-old reigning Finals MVP than the guy who will be 35 years-old and has played more minutes in his career than the considerably older Vince Carter. While I expect LeBron to be great in the playoffs this year, I think it’s a bit presumptuous to think he’ll be just as good as he was in 2018.

People also seem to be sleeping on the fact that Kawhi is likely to improve this season. He claims he’s healthy now, and perhaps the quad issues that limited him to 60 regular season games and hampered his movement during the playoffs are behind him. Leonard’s development over the course of his career has been phenomenal — from building a picture perfect jump shot with the Spurs to adding an adept handle with the Raptors. His added muscle has made it impossible to push him off his spot or bully him trying to get to the basket. If there is anyone on the planet that can play James to a standstill or perhaps even outplay him in a seven game series, it’s Kawhi Leonard. 

Anthony Davis should benefit greatly from playing with LeBron. James has always been fantastic at hitting the pocket pass in the pick-and-roll. He accomplished one of the greatest feats in the history of the NBA – – making former teammate Anderson Varajeo look like a terrific roll man. The one weakness in Davis’ game is his inability to be a guy you can throw the ball to and bank on a bucket. That’s why this fit with LeBron is perfect; Davis will have open seams that would make most running backs jealous.

Paul George has similar strengths and weaknesses. The problem with Anthony Davis on this particular roster is that during the minutes LeBron is on the bench, he will be asked to become the focal point of the offense — a role that doesn’t necessarily suit him. Since George will almost always be paired with Kawhi Leonard or reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, he won’t be asked to carry as heavy of an offensive workload. The Lakers don’t have a third creator anywhere near the level of Williams. When it comes to who is more adept at making their star teammate better, the answer is George. George provides better spacing than that of Davis, who shot only 33 percent from downtown. Teams like the Clippers may switch the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll. Is Davis good enough to make that an untenable strategy? George is more likely to toast Kyle Kuzma on the perimeter than Davis is to roast JaMychal Green on the block.

Further, the narrative that Paul George struggles in the postseason is overblown – – he was good last year against the Blazers, getting to the line 9.8 times a game and shooting 53.7 percent on two-point shots. He had shoulder issues which impacted his 3-point attempts – – and with it some of his effectiveness. The Thunder lost that series not because of George, but because Russell Westbrook took over 22 shots a game and had a True Shooting percentage of 46.6 percent (that is not a typo). George was an MVP candidate last season until the shoulder issues derailed his play towards the latter end of the campaign. Make no mistake, Paul George is a top 10 player, and with this roster around him, he could approach a top 5 level. Davis has the added defensive value of being a rim protector, and with the boost in his efficiency with LeBron setting him up, this is basically a toss-up. 

Let’s forego the Leonard-George versus James-Davis comparison for a moment and recognize the gap in quality amongst the remaining players on the Lakers and Clippers rosters. The Clippers won 48 games last year, the Lakers just 37. Prior to the notable free agent pickups for both teams, the Clippers were the superior basketball team. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell offer a terrific scoring attack off the bench. In the event their stars are having an off night offensively, the bench can pick up the slack. The Lakers don’t have that luxury. Landry Shamet showed more than just an exceptional catch and shoot game; he has a versatile jump shot as well as ball handling chops – – dating back to his days playing point guard at Wichita State. Danny Green on the other hand had difficulty in last season’s playoffs against locked-in defenses because of his inability to attack off the bounce. The Lakers may have to sacrifice even more ball handling due to the fact that their point guards, Rajon Rondo and Quinn Cook specifically, will hurt their defense – – an issue the Clippers don’t have to worry about with Patrick Beverley being one of the best defenders in the league. The rest of the Lakers roster lacks shooting. Kyle Kuzma, despite reworking his jump shot in the offseason and looking more comfortable in his brief time with Team USA, shot just 30.3 percent last season from three-point range. The Lakers seem committed to the idea of playing heavy minutes with a traditional center, and with Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee on the floor, the spacing is going to be limited. Compare that to the best floor spacing option the Clippers have at center, JaMychal Green, who shot a tidy 41 percent from three. When you factor in that Leonard and George are better three-point shooters than their Lakers counterparts, it’s fairly obvious which team has more shooting.

Let’s compare the best offensive, defensive, and closing lineups for each team. 

Clippers offense:

  1. Williams
  2. Shamet
  3. George
  4. Leonard
  5. Harrell

That is a terrifying lineup. It has plenty of shooting, a devastating roll man/offensive rebounder – – plus three guys that can easily create their own look at the end of the shot clock. They could also go five out with Green as the center and put a five man unit consisting of entirely 40+ percent catch and shoot players. Kawhi is borderline impossible to defend one-on-one, and they have lineups that will eviscerate any team that sends help. 

Lakers offense:

  1. Cook
  2. Green
  3. Kuzma
  4. LeBron
  5. Davis

This would be an immense challenge to defend, especially if Kuzma becomes a league average or above three-point shooter. LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls surrounded by shooters is a recipe for an elite offense, but this lineup doesn’t rank as high as the Clippers in the collective shooting or shot creation departments. 

Clippers defense:

  1. Beverley
  2. George
  3. Harkless
  4. Kawhi
  5. Green

This is just filthy. Beverley is a bulldog that is more than happy guarding bigger players, and the Clippers could easily switch 1-5. They have two of the best wing defenders in the league, and Harkless guarding the weakest player on the opposing team is an incredible luxury to have. LAC may be a bit small and could struggle on the defensive glass, but it’ll be a pain just getting past the initial defender, let alone trying to make passes with some of the best steal/deflection artists in the game.

Lakers defense:

  1. Bradley
  2. Caldwell-Pope
  3. Green
  4. LeBron
  5. Davis

This is another absolutely devastating defensive lineup. The Lakers are better than the Clippers in terms of rim protection and defensive rebounding, while not being quite as good at switching, containing penetration, and creating turnovers. Their starting lineup is going to be really good defensively, even though Howard and McGee have some issues. Just having that kind of size is typically a good starting point to limit shots in the paint, free throw attempts, and offensive rebounds. 

Clippers closing lineup:

  1. Beverley
  2. Shamet
  3. George
  4. Leonard
  5. Green

This has everything you want offensively – – two guys that can create offense with the three other players on the court all being quality shooters that can make the next play. Defensively it’s really sound, with Shamet being the only guy that is possibly exploitable – – but he’s 6-5 and plays hard. Again, it’s vulnerable on the glass and at the rim, but there’s no such thing as a flawless unit. 

Lakers closing lineup:

  1. Bradley
  2. Green
  3. Kuzma
  4. LeBron
  5. Davis

The Lakers are talking up Bradley as if he’s ready for a big season, but they have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the event that doesn’t go according to plan. This backcourt just isn’t as dangerous making plays as their Clipper counterparts. Kuzma needs to hit a higher percentage of his threes this season for him to be a useful piece in the closing lineup. Defensively it’s pretty solid, but Kuzma is exploitable, and Bradley is short and without much strength to deal with bulkier players. If they want to be an elite defense this postseason, LeBron has to play at a higher level than he has the last couple of years. It wouldn’t shock me if Jared Dudley gets some run in crunch time as a small ball center. 

We had the opportunity to see most of this current Clippers roster perform admirably during last year’s playoffs, while most of the Lakers players were drinking Mai Tais. The Lakers have far more questions to answer, and they need far more things to go right for them to hit their ceiling. The Clippers also have a trade they could make to add to their roster. They still have their first round draft pick to offer, and they have a deep enough team to make a deal where they bring in fewer players than they send out. I’ve posited the idea of them trading for Marc Gasol on my podcast, Dunkin Dynasty. They could put together a package of Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, and Jerome Robinson along with their first round pick to make that happen. It certainly would improve their weakest position, center, and their most glaring hole, rim protection. They can make the trade with confidence knowing Gasol is a good fit with Leonard. It also might be a necessity if they eventually face Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. Considering trades are unknowns and we can’t say for certain that a future move will work out, my confidence in the Clippers comes down to three things:

  1.  Kawhi Leonard will be a better basketball player than LeBron James moving forward. 
  2.  Paul George and Anthony Davis are equally terrific second bananas.
  3.  Players 3-10 on the Clippers roster are better than 3-10 on the Lakers.

Wow — did I really just bet against LeBron?

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Garrett Bugay
Twitter - @GarrettBugay / Podcast - Dunkin Dynasty / Email - g-bugay@onu.edu

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