The Clippers are emerging as NBA title favorites

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With a versatile perimeter defense, lethal 3-point shooting, and two stars at their peaks, the L.A. Clippers have become the team to beat in the West.

Due to both the emergence of new faces in the West and the weight of their own postseason failures last summer, the L.A. Clippers seem to be flying under the radar this season. Frankly, that’s not a bad place for a team coming off a catastrophic playoff collapse, public inner turmoil and ensuing personnel changes to find itself. But that recession from the spotlight, combined with a potential power vacuum at the top of the Western Conference, has created a circumstance in which the Clippers — less than two years removed from one of the most consequential offseasons in recent NBA history — have emerged as NBA title favorites with as little fanfare as possible.

Like every other championship contender this season, the Clippers are flawed. They run thin on secondary playmaking, struggle to protect the paint, and don’t apply much pressure on the rim at the other end of the floor. But with a versatile perimeter defense, lethal 3-point shooting, and two elite offensive creators, they check nearly every essential box of playoff readiness, and their regular-season body of work grows stronger by the week.

The Clippers currently trail only Utah in point differential, with the most efficient offense in NBA history to boot. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are playing arguably the best basketball of their careers, while role players like Nic Batum, Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley (who will hopefully be healthy again by the playoffs), have given L.A. one of the deepest rotations in basketball. They’ve held teams to just 110 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star Break — the seventh-best mark in the league over that time — and outscore opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions with Leonard and George on the court.

But more than their statistical résumé, it’s the Clippers’ stylistic adaptability that makes them such an intriguing playoff team. They’re the rare team that can both exploit mismatches on offense and nullify them on defense, and their two-way versatility provides a certain degree of immunity to matchup problems. They can capably pivot from a drop pick-and-roll coverage to a switch-everything scheme to something in-between, depending on which of Ivica Zubać, Marcus Morris, or Serge Ibaka plays center, and have multiple options to throw at LeBron James, Luka Dončić, and Devin Booker over the course of a playoff series.

What could hold the Los Angeles Clippers back in the playoffs?

The only real blight on LA’s statistical ledger has been a subpar defense around the rim. Though they abound with rangy, versatile defenders on the perimeter, that kind of personnel isn’t well suited to turn opponents away at the basket, and the Clippers allow a lofty 65 percent shooting within four feet of the rim. That will be cause for real concern in a potential series against the Lakers, who attempt nearly 40 percent of their shots at the rim and feature two of the most devastating downhill finishers in the NBA. But six of the top seven teams in the West (including the Clippers) rank in the bottom third of the league in shot attempts at the rim, which could alleviate the severity of LA’s most glaring defensive flaw.

Pressuring the rim has been an issue on the other end of the floor as well, though the Clippers have overcome that with the second-highest team 3-point percentage in league history. Only the Magic and Suns take a lower share of their shot attempts at the rim, and scoring shouldn’t be as arduous as the  Clippers often makes it look. But that proclivity for grinding out buckets and hitting difficult shots is what makes this such a compelling — and potentially devastating — playoff offense.

The goal of any defense in the postseason is to take away opponents’ low-hanging fruit, push them into less comfortable situations, and live with the results. But the Clippers thrive in that uncomfortable space. George has been one of the NBA’s best pull-up shooters this year, and there’s really nothing a defense can do with Leonard’s methodical mid-range game. Even as offensive systems grow increasingly sophisticated, there’s still nothing quite like having an indomitable one-on-one scorer in the playoffs. Employing two of them can be enough to break even the most carefully designed defensive schemes.

That dynamic could make the Clippers an especially problematic matchup for the Utah Jazz, whose second-ranked defense prioritizes shielding the paint, running shooters off the 3-point line, and directing everything into the midrange. L.A. willingly accepts that invitation, and can even pull Rudy Gobert away from the paint with stretchy big men. A potential matchup with the Lakers (assuming full health) would press a 36-year-old James into heavy on-ball defensive duty, and partially mitigate Anthony Davis’ impact at the rim. The Denver Nuggets wisely invested in wing defense at the trade deadline, but still have enough weak links for the Clippers to go matchup hunting or exploit Nikola Jokić in space. No matter the opponent, LA will figure out where it has an advantage and how to put it to optimal use.

That arduous of an offensive approach does place a lot on Leonard and George’s shoulders, which, as last year’s playoffs demonstrated, can take a long-term toll on ball-dominant stars. This team still lacks a reliable third creator or high-level connector to smooth edges or reduce strain on others, and one ill-timed injury or off night could result in another disastrous playoff outing — and whatever ripple effects it may induce. Yet in a race of imperfect contenders, those flaws may be the least damaging of any team’s, and thus give the Clippers the best means of playoff survival.

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