On Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, bad turnovers and more: Clippers mailbag


I want to wish all of the readers a Happy Thanksgiving! To tip off the holiday season, here’s a mailbag with the LA Clippers taking an 11-7 record on the road to visit the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Questions have been edited for style, grammar and clarity.

What’s the deal with how the Clippers handle Kawhi (Leonard) vs. (Paul George)? PG on a back-to-back plays 41 minutes, by week’s end he is hurt with a hamstring ligament tear. He is hurt a lot as well, so why do they play things so carefully with Leonard but not George? — Forrest B.

Are the Clippers legit contenders if George and Leonard stay healthy? — Oluwaseun A.

Point taken, though it is important to note Paul George is dealing with a right hamstring tendon strain. It is not a hamstring strain, it is not a hamstring tear. All that to say, the Clippers are not concerned (yet) about George missing multiple weeks.

I was expecting George to run out of gas at some point due to his minutes and workload. It is clear that with Kawhi Leonard’s durability an existential concern, there is an imbalance between what is expected from Leonard at this stage of the season and what is expected from George. Leonard is coming off of a partially torn ACL. That’s really the difference, since both Leonard and George are prone to nagging injuries. George doesn’t have any injuries that are of the chronic variety, and George isn’t recovering from a major reconstructive procedure.

Now, if both Leonard and George can stay on the floor, the ceiling for this Clippers team remains high. We have a depressingly small sample size of Leonard and George on the floor together this season. In 65 minutes, the Clippers have outscored opponents 151-113 when George and Leonard have shared the floor. That’s an offensive efficiency rating of 114.4 points per 100 possessions (which would rank eighth among NBA offenses). The duo has also allowed only 85.6 points per 100 possessions (the Milwaukee Bucks lead the NBA in defensive efficiency with 105.3 points per 100 possessions allowed).

Leonard and George bring out the best in each other on both ends of the floor. The Clippers have won 69.4 percent of the regular and postseason games Leonard and George have appeared together since the start of the 2019-20 season. For 82-game enthusiasts, that’s the pace of a 57-25 season. That record is the quality of a contender. But contenders are built over time. We’re all just sitting here waiting for Leonard and George to be on the court long enough to build that time up. Maybe it happens this season. You’d be pardoned for not wanting to hold your breath.

Law, how do you account for the high amount of turnovers the Clippers make? They are a veteran team and every key player on the team was on the team last year except for John Wall — and Wall has not had any problem blending in. The 3-point shooting is down from last year, but the shots are there. I feel like that will just improve over time as the team has good shooters. But the high amount of turnovers is baffling to me. And they are all kinds of turnovers: offensive fouls, bad passing, bad dribbling, traveling, poor decisions, and moving screens. Just wanted to know if you’ve done any analysis here and can explain the turnovers and how might they Clippers improve in this area. — Paul F.

Turnovers are the worst part of watching LA right now. The Clippers rank 28th in assist-turnover ratio, and 26th in turnover percentage. They don’t pass the ball enough (27th in passes made per game) to turn the ball over the way that they do (24th in turnovers per game). It’s a nightly abomination.

Now, things have been better with Leonard on the floor. He promotes poised basketball in the half court, and the offense has been better as a result. But in a span of seven days, I’ve seen George suffer a career-worst 10 turnovers and John Wall suffer a season-worst eight turnovers in three quarters. Last year, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue described his offense by saying that he has a lot of guys who can eat but can’t cook. This season, Lue has plenty of cooks serving morsels to opponents.

That’s really the simple part. The team’s play starters have to take better care of the basketball. Lue harps on careless turnovers on a regular basis: the ones that lead to steals and put the team in bad situations, the ones where the team isn’t even trying to make the right play or the right decision. Lue is fine with charges or passes where a defense makes a great play. The Clippers haven’t been this bad in Lue’s previous seasons when it comes to assist-turnover ratio or turnover percentage. I do anticipate the Clippers settling down offensively as the season progresses and players becoming more in tune with their appropriate roles. Of course, a lot of that requires George, and especially Leonard, to be on the floor consistently.

Paul George. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today)

Why does the supposed experimenting with rotations mean that Robert Covington can’t get any minutes? I can’t wrap my head around the answer the coaching staff keeps giving us because experimenting with rotations should still give him minutes, right? Is there more to it? — Amir B.

Lue has explained multiple times that Terance Mann’s emergence has come at the expense of Covington, who missed a week due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Often when a player loses their spot in the rotation, the rush is to determine that a player was benched for poor performance or disciplinary reasons. That isn’t the case here. Lue has praised Covington repeatedly for “sacrificing” while Lue tries to establish something resembling a consistent lineup.

Ideally, Lue would start Reggie Jackson, George, Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac. There aren’t many lineups where Lue would want both George and Leonard off the floor, but the second unit of the Clippers with everyone available would have Wall, Luke Kennard, Norman Powell, Mann and Nicolas Batum.

The fact Amir Coffey got minutes in the rotation against the Utah Jazz while Covington got another DNP-CD is another example of Lue looking for a specific skill set to fill an absence, as Coffey fits the Paul George archetype closer than Covington does. We saw this last year when Coffey started 30 games in place of George.

We also saw last year when Lue had Justise Winslow out of the rotation for weeks at a time. Covington’s time will come, just as it did for Winslow in key stretches in December and January. I’m sure the Clippers will want to experiment with their five-wing lineup which will include Covington, Batum, Morris, George and Leonard. But right now, there aren’t any spots open with Mann being a key connector, Batum being a reliable big defender who has played every night, and Powell re-established as a second-unit bucket. Wall is the change-of-pace backup point guard. When Luke Kennard returns, he’s the team’s best shooter, the kind that bends defenses due to his movement and range. It’s a deep team, and Covington being on the outside looking in is one of the consequences.

Hi Law, do you think Moses Brown’s better quality minutes so far will warrant a rotation spot later in the season? Or is a trade for a backup five in order? — Allan L.

I asked Lue directly about what Moses Brown, who occupies the game day two-way contract, would need to do to establish a consistent rotation spot. Lue said Brown needs to stay ready — which is also what he told Covington.

“I think when we’re playing against two conventional bigs, he would get more of an opportunity,” Lue said Thursday after Brown played just over five minutes in a close win against the Detroit Pistons. “Just his energy, the pace he plays with, running the floor, sealing, quick rolls to the rim, so those are some things we need to kind of change the game in certain games.”

Brown is purely a situational player. The Clippers have increased Zubac’s workload as the traditional center, and Lue has adjusted to finding more appropriate lineups when Zubac is on the bench. Occasionally, those lineups have included Brown.

In 47 minutes this season, Brown has scored 34 points on 14-of-17 field goals, has made 6-of-11 free throws, grabbed 17 rebounds (six offensive), and has four blocks. He has no assists, but only one turnover. The only true blemish for Brown is that he has 10 fouls in those minutes; it’s hard to play a rotation player that fouls every five minutes.

Now, as far as the team potentially trading for a backup center? I just don’t see it. If the Clippers are going to add a veteran center for the postseason, which they absolutely will need to, then it will be via the veteran buyout market. If Brown shows that he is better than any of the potential options available in March, then Brown would certainly be a candidate for the final roster spot. But I can’t see the Clippers giving up legitimate options for a player that the team will be hard-pressed to find 10 minutes for in the postseason.

Hi Law, what are you hearing from Ontario about the progress of Jason Preston and Moussa Diabaté? Are either of these guys projected to contribute to the LA Clippers this season? — Robert L.

I got to watch a couple of Ontario Clippers games this month, and both Preston and Diabaté have been impressive, along with Brandon Boston Jr. Preston has averaged 12.8 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field, 1.4 3s on 37.9 percent shooting, 5.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists.

“Every game we see improvement,” Ontario Clippers head coach Paul Hewitt told The Athletic last week on Preston. “I expect him to continue to make incremental progress. I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that it’s going to be a long-term thing as opposed to having it right away. But I think he’s a really good player. A really, really good player. And he shows it.”

Diabaté has really turned heads with his ability to produce in the G League. Over his first seven games (one missed due to a minor knee injury), Diabaté has averaged 18.6 points on 60 percent field goals, 9.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.0 blocks. Diabaté finishes extremely well, has an improving free-throw stroke (71.4 percent after only 61.9 percent at Michigan last year), and competes on the glass and on all levels of the defense. Hewitt praised Shaun Fein and the Clippers’ player development staff for the work Diabaté has put into improving his raw skill set, even at this early stage of Diabaté’s rookie season.

“I think one of the things that I love about this organization is I think we take a full-time approach to get these guys to get better,” Hewitt told The Athletic last week about Diabaté. “He’s a terrific passer. He’s a hell of a rebounder. And if we can even get better with the shooting, which I think he will one day, and getting rebounds and pushing a break and making simple decisions, those are the next two things.”

Preston and Diabaté, in addition to Boston (out since taking a knee to the thigh during a 37-point performance against the South Bay Lakers on Nov. 10), have focused on working in the G League in part due to the logjam in the rotation that we previously discussed. That’s not clearing up any time soon, so expect that trio to focus on their development in the G League. There is no reason to suggest at this time that either will be expected to play significant minutes in the NBA this season.

(Top photo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)


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