There’s a natural bias against teams like the Clips, who have won only four playoff series since moving from San Diego in 1984. But that doesn’t mean it’s logical, or fair, especially given that the team’s roster has turned over since the end of the 2016-17 season. As much as it might feel that way, franchises don’t actually have ghosts, and you don’t need to look any further than the World Series champions this decade (Cubs, Giants, Red Sox, Royals) to prove that a team can defy its disappointing past.
Like those teams, the Clippers are supremely talented. Their current crunch-time lineup of Leonard-George-Beverley-Williams-Harrell features three award-winning defenders and two unstoppable bench scorers. The Clippers are flexible, too. One reason they are such a threat to the Lakers is that in George and Leonard, they have players who have the length and the strength to switch on the nearly unguardable AD-Bron pick-and-roll. Kawhi has stonewalled LeBron in the playoffs before, after all, and last season he slowed MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, despite giving up a few inches in height. Ivica Zubac, stolen from the Lakers last year, may not be a match for Davis, but very few players are. His defensive numbers are solid, and he has the best rebound rate on the team.
With Davis and James on the court together, it’s almost a certainty that one of the other three players will be open –- you almost always have to help off one of those guys. And the Lakers’ big men get a ton of dunks and layups, but they’re not hitting outside shots at the rate you might expect. Only Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are really overachieving from distance, defying their recent history with the team. Danny Green is the only truly elite three-point shooter in their regular rotation, and it’s the reason this Lakers offense has been good but not great. Imagine how much more dominant the Lakers front court could be with more spacing!
You could argue that despite the 150-point games, this Clippers offense is actually underachieving, since Beverley (29.1% from three-point range) and Leonard (31.3 %) are well under their usual shooting numbers. What the Lakers lack in outside shooting, the Clippers have in spades, with Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green both shooting over 37% from three-point range. The Clippers can always have four shooters on the floor if they choose to, even dipping deep into their bench. Harkless defends multiple positions well enough to justify his average three-point shooting, plus he no longer has a contract bonus incentivizing him not to shoot from deep. Patrick Patterson can nail an outside shot, and Rodney McGruder won’t embarrass himself.
The Clippers are also uniquely suited to attack the Lakers’ biggest defensive weakness, namely transition defense. When they can set up in the half court, they’re rock-solid, but they don’t always get back on defense well. The Clippers have a clear path to fast breaks thanks to their elite steals guys Leonard, Beverley and George, and Harrell is a devastating finisher. After all, the best way to get through Dwight Howard is to throw the ball over him and beat him to the rim. Or distract him with a candy bar.
Do they have worries? Of course. Kawhi seems like he may always be a little banged up, and there’s a limit to how much load management you can do in the playoffs. George is 0-for-5 against LeBron in the playoffs. Doc Rivers hasn’t been a reliable coach after the first round of the playoffs, and you never know if his lingering resentment toward PG-13 might emerge. The Clippers have played a tougher schedule than the Lakers, but 14 of those 21 games were at home. Oh, and the Clips are 3-5 on the road.
But if the playoffs started now, the only teams who could realistically beat the Clippers are the Bucks and Lakers, and the Clips would be favored against both. They may be the No. 2 team in the hearts of Los Angeles fans, but the Clippers are the No. 1 team in the NBA.