Superstar primary initiators are typically the easiest players to build around. Their ability to score from anywhere and make every passing read imaginable allows for maximum lineup flexibility. They are a universal remote that controls your TV, cable, and Roku. Having separate remotes for these can be mildly annoying. Likewise, having multiple cogs that the offense must run through narrows your filter for acquiring talent. LeBron-led teams can plop anyone who can shoot 38% in the corner. A team like the Utah Jazz that crowdsources their creation will require that 38% shooter to also dribble and pass.
The Clippers have more high-end scoring punch than the Jazz. However, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are not the preternatural decision makers that most universal remotes are. Clippers skeptics (hello) have questioned whether those two alone are “enough” to win a championship. This concern grew louder after their disappointing second round exit in the bubble. Those same folks clamored for a universal remote player such as Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry to assuage the Clippers’ playmaking concerns.
Despite a coaching change and a few upgrades, those playoff questions remained to start the season. Did the stars have the passing acumen to keep the offense afloat when their shots were off? Paul George has looked better in pick and roll this year, but how much more to his game does he have to uncover at this point?
Instead of banking on George or Kawhi to become a universal remote, Tyronn Lue has spread creation responsibility throughout the rest of the roster. This is most obvious when one of Kawhi or PG plays alongside the second unit. The Clippers’ bench identity took off when they traded for Rajon Rondo and committed to playing 5-out basketball with multiple high-level decision makers. From there, Rondo and others create advantages through angles, cutting windows, and drives that will naturally arise when the defense has to extend itself to plug leaks.
The best scorer on the team is not always the best passer. In the following play, PG makes a solid baseline pass but it’s his teammates who get the ball to the eventual high percentage look.
This sequence reminds me of one I saw from the Kawhi Raptors against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Notice how Kawhi creates the initial dent through his postup, but Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, and others’ quick decisions are what keeps the play alive. This alleviates the pressure on George and Kawhi to find the perfect pass after they draw help. Instead, they simply have to find a pass.
The Clippers’ second unit offense is emblematic of my good pal Henry Ward’s vision for the ideal NBA scheme. Henry is partial to these motion-heavy 5-out concepts. He outlines them in his spacing manifesto, Exposing the Blueprint Pt. 2.
…it will benefit offense to have five players on the floor who are threats to punish closeouts. Consistent closeout punishment is done through possessing the ability to make open threes when the closeouts are short and and exploit closeouts when they’re aggressive with a combination of physical tools (agility, burns, balance, etc.), playmaking chops and some variety of passable play finishing skills (slashing, in between touch, etc.) Furthermore, guys will need to be able to conceive and execute off the ball to create closeouts for others, which is where feel comes into play as guys make requisite cuts and screens when appropriate.Exposing the Blueprint Pt. 2 by Henry ward
Despite being the floor general of these units, Rondo is the one who ostensibly fits least into Henry’s vision. Yes, Rondo has improved his shot, but he still does not demand hard closeouts. However, he needs much smaller openings than most players to thrive. Henry echoed this when I asked him about Rondo’s fit on the Clippers: “The thing with Rondo is he’s smart and able to play out of those advantages and attack spaces… When the defense is sagging and he’s not being respected it’s easier for him or whoever else in this situation to catch on the move and probe.”
Here Rondo uses the cushion given to him by the Sixers to create an opening elsewhere. He does not stall the action despite not warranting a closeout.
Rondo practices these maneuvers, fiercely committed to nailing the timing and accuracy on every pass. Henry told me an anecdote from working in the bubble in which he saw Rondo practicing passing while his teammates practiced shooting. “Rondo’s there the entire time because he loves being the guy who throws the passes and works on odd deliveries and tries to get balls through certain windows…”
This refined timing and accuracy carries over to Rondo’s pick and roll execution. Although Rondo is not a pull-up threat out of pick and roll, using PG or Kawhi as a screener scrambles the defense enough for Rondo to get downhill. Notice how Dozier is unwilling to do more than hedge and stays with Kawhi. Rondo accelerates with Shaq Harrison on his heels and creates a 2 on 1 situation for the weak side shooters.
Using Kawhi or George as a roll or pop man is also an easy way to get them into empty side isolation sets. Rondo quickly pivots from attacking off the screen to throwing the entry pass in the perfect spot for Kawhi to rise over RJ Barrett.
Lue has also used Rondo as a roll man. He operates in this 4 on 3 after George’s pull-up gravity forces a double.
Simply explaining the various scripted plays he runs does not fully capture Rondo’s effect, though. The magic lies in the improvisational reads that bubble up every game. When the Clippers surround him with this many read-and-react shooters who make smart cuts, Rondo threads needles and adds a few extra points per 100 possessions.
The Clippers success with this look makes me wonder why teams without a LeBron or Luka-level mega creator don’t play this way. One explanation is that the NBA sometimes lags behind lower levels when it comes to out-of-the-box schemes. The bigger reason is that the Clippers are one of the few teams who can play this way and still hold up on defense. Henry elaborates on this in his piece.
In my estimation, players who are most capable of contributing in this way are typically those we think of as wings or guards — guys who are often 6’9″ or shorter are typically the only ones who possess the necessary movement skills to routinely exploit closeouts. There are plenty of notable exceptions, but those are also typically the players we consider to be the best in the world.exposing the blueprint pt. 2 by Henry ward
This quote helps explain the true value of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Wing-sized “3-and-D” guys are highly sought after because they unlock scheme versatility on both ends. Kawhi and George are essentially supercharged “3-and-D” guys who provide a ton of shot making over replacement level. To quote Ben Taylor on his Sense and Scalability appearance, “Instead of asking Kawhi to be LeBron, or Paul George to be LeBron, you’re asking them to do things that they’re going to be significantly better than any average or replacement player at doing, and in that way you’re lifting up their star power.” Nobody on the Clippers is overtaxed and, as a result, they can play to their overwhelming strengths.
Nicolas Batum is another 6’8″ forward whose skill set is optimized. He continues plays with quick passing and closeout attacking. On defense, Batum plugs holes on the perimeter and at the rim with smart rotations. Not every team has one 6’8″ player this skilled, let alone three. The midseason acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins has given the Clippers a center-sized player who can shoot, dribble, and pass. Cousins is not known for his defense, especially at this stage of his career, but he provides the necessary inside presence on that end and fits like a glove into the second unit offense. How many other seven footers can do this?
This is not even to mention Terance Mann and Serge Ibaka, who can also shoot and make quick decisions off the catch. The recently recovered Ibaka might actually be a downgrade on offense from Cousins in the context of this scheme. He can make quick passes and shoot, but Cousins’ closeout attacking ability for his size always has been and has continued to be an outlier.
That being said, I think some offensive sacrifice from playing Ibaka is worth it to bolster the second unit defense. If they need an injection of offense, they can still bring in Boogie as a change-of-pace third center. Ty Lue confirmed that Zubac will continue to start even with Ibaka back. Zubac and Rondo together is certainly more than viable, but having a non-shooting big with the second unit limits some of the passing angles that arise from a five-out offense. The starting unit of Patrick Beverley, George, Kawhi, Marcus Morris, and Zubac plays a traditional NBA pick and roll-heavy offense. Zubac’s skill set works better for that.
It will also make sense for Marcus Morris to play with the second unit as little as possible. Morris works as a floor spacer in a traditional heliocentric offense that limits his creation duties to bailout isolation scorer. He is a flamethrower from the corner, hitting 54% of his looks there this year per Cleaning the Glass, and he provides stout on-ball defense. However, in situations where it would be best for him to foster ball movement with quick decisions, he sometimes stops the ball and isolates. He is certainly capable of some nice “one more” passing reads, but he does not make them as often as Batum or Mann.
Will this stylistic shift matter for their title chances? I do not love that question. Championship or bust is a good internal team goal, but applying that framing as a fan makes analyzing stylistic shifts overly reductive. I do not know if this style will lead them to a championship, but I feel different about this Clippers team. They have provided an answer for their lack of that universal remote player and quieted my skepticism.