We’re only three nights into the slog of the NBA regular season, and the “wide-open league” narrative from the summer already feels more than a little quaint. Sure, a couple supposed bottom feeders have looked shockingly competent (Phoenix, Charlotte), along with two Eastern contenders who are who we thought they were (Philly, Milwaukee). But with all due respect to the other story lines emerging from this fledgling season, nothing has been as glaring as the rapid dominance of the black sheep L.A. team. The Clippers are fucking scary.
The fast start shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Clips were considered by most (including me) to be in the very top tier of contenders heading into the season. What is jarring is how complete and cohesive they have looked in dismantling another supposed contender (the Lakers) and what had been the dominant team of the last half-decade (the Warriors). Besides a slow start on opening night, they have been in total control of both games, and in the third quarter last night, they did to Golden State what the Warriors had spent the last five years doing to everyone else, walloping the Dubs 46-33 on their way to a 141-122 win which wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated.
The really scary part? They haven’t even needed Paul George to be head-and-shoulders better than their opponents, who again, are both quality teams. After watching those two games, it feels borderline hack-y to wax poetic about a symbolic passing of the torch — both from LeBron to Kawhi as the best player and from the Warriors to the Clippers as the best team — but sometimes the obvious takes are that way for a reason. Kawhi and the Clips are our new basketball overlords now, and I, for one, welcome them.
There are a lot of unknowns going into any season in any sport, but as fans, we tend to construct a Platonic ideal in our minds of what any given team can look like if things break right for them. Despite having our hearts broken time and time again, we remain sports optimists, and it’s frankly kind of adorable. Then the season begins, and in most cases we’re reminded why hope is a four-letter word. So it’s strange to watch a team — especially one with a brand new alpha dog — waltz out onto the floor and almost instantly be the ideal version of itself.
It starts with Kawhi, of course. He has picked up right where he left off in the Finals, using his strength and Terminator-like precision to get to any spot on the floor he wants. Not to read too much into a two-game sample, but there are a couple things I’m seeing which suggest he is actually going to be even better than he was in last year’s playoffs. First, he looks healthy, which was not the case over the last two rounds of the postseason. [Kawhi has said he does not expect to be load managed this season, at least not to the same degree as in Toronto, and if the Clips are going to play this well and carry 20+ point leads into the fourth quarters of games, he won’t need to be. His game and minutes load could end up looking eerily similar to last year’s first-time MVP winner, and if that’s the case, I immediately regret ranking Kawhi so low in Tuesday’s column. The moral of the story, as always: I’m a dumbass.]
Second, we know what Kawhi is as a scorer, but he appears to have made massive strides as a playmaker. Again, small sample size theater, but he’s averaging seven assists per game thus far, which would exactly double his career-high for a season. The numbers bear out what the eye test is showing. Doc Rivers is empowering him to be more of a pick-and-roll ball handler than he has been in previous stops, and the results are encouraging. Kawhi is firing cross-court lasers to open shooters, pocket passes to the screener on the short roll, and hesitation dump-offs to cutters and divers, all things that either weren’t in his repertoire before or weren’t allowed to be uncorked:
[That play where he comes off the consecutive screens with a head of steam is particularly sinister. I get a sense we’ll be seeing that one a lot this year, and when they combine it with a pin-down screen for PG on the weak side, it’s going to be utterly unstoppable.]
Kawhi is so inscrutable as a person, and his career has progressed along such a strange trajectory, we tend to overlook how historically great he is. Well, that greatness is now in full bloom. His game is wildly impressive without ever being flashy. He can’t be sped up or slowed down, and he seemingly can’t be deterred from getting where he wants to go. His length, strength, and gigantic hands give him this enormous base of physical skill from which his technical brilliance is able to flow. It often appears as if his defender is less of an active participant in the play and more of a prop to be maneuvered into the right spot for Kawhi’s purposes. It’s blasphemy to compare anyone to Michael Jordan — like a Reverse Godwin’s Law — but MJ is the only other player I’ve ever seen who just seemed immune to whatever the defense was doing to him. Even apex LeBron always felt like more of a schoolyard bully giving the entire defense a giant noogie, whereas Kawhi is more like Neo from The Matrix, bending reality to his will as if by some unseen force.
Kawhi has been a Klaw-in-glove fit with all of the other elite role players the Clippers can trot out. Lou Williams is a magician. He’s all herky-jerky sleight of hand, but even after 14+ seasons, no one can figure out how the tricks work. His pick-and-roll partner-in-crime, Montrezl Harrell, has assumed an even more central role this year (17.5/ 6.5/ 3.5 in 31.5 MPG so far) and unlocks all the different lineup variations at Rivers’ disposal. Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, and Mo Harkless allow them to toggle the front court matchups as needed, and all three have been up to the task on defense. The Clips are sniping from deep, hitting 46% of their threes, with Landry Shamet, Green, and even the exhumed corpse of Patrick Patterson lighting it up from the perimeter. Throw in Pat Beverley acting as the ultimate spark plug and irritant, and they simply have the personnel to play any style the opponent wants, and do it better. And oh yeah, at some point they’re going to add a 6-time All-Star who finished third in MVP voting last year to all of this. That crazy haunted house in Tennessee run by the unhinged lunatic isn’t as frightening as this team.
There will be role and rotation questions to answer once PG returns to the lineup, but that’s about as first-world of a problem as an NBA team can get. And if they for some reason decide they need further reinforcements (hint: they don’t), they have young assets and Harkless’s expiring contract as appealing trade chits. We all thought this team could be great at some point this season, but as I mentioned in the MVP column, the questions were how soon and how often they would get there. Well, guess what? They’re there, and they’re spectacular. Kawhi, the final word is yours:
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images