Clippers defense, versatility make them instant contenders

There was something almost coordinated about the answers you heard from the Clippers when they discussed their potential for the 2022-23 season during the team’s annual Media Day Monday. 

The title ambitions are real. The depth is real. Kawhi Leonard’s health; John Wall arriving in the best shape of his post-Wizards life; the joyousness of Reggie Jackson, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell dancing to “Avalanche.” All real. 

But everyone wanted to talk about defense. It was one of the first orders of business from most players who spoke publicly during the nearly two-hour event: this defense could be unparalleled. 

“We can switch everything. I think that’s the beauty and the scary part about our team now,” Clippers star Paul George said. “We can switch everything and still not give up a basket. A lot of times when teams are switching there’s still a weak link that teams will try to isolate and go at. You can’t do that with us if we switch.”

The so-called switchability of the 2022-23 rendition of the Clippers might be the difference between title favorites or merely title contenders. 

“If we have personnel on the court that’s all wings, it’s tough for teams to guard that and match up against that,” George added. “It really could transcend the league to where it goes to 5-out wings on the floor. We could be that kind of team that teams try to emulate.”

We can switch everything. I think that’s the beauty and the scary part about our team now.

— Clippers’ guard Paul George

There were glimpses of what George is referring to scattered throughout the Clippers’ injury-plagued 2021-22 season. Most notably, when missing four key wings, including their two superstars, the team flipped a 10-point, third-quarter deficit by holding the New Orleans Pelicans to 27.3 percent shooting over the first 12 minutes of the second half of last April’s play-in elimination game. 

Of course, that lead didn’t hold. 

As it turns out, playing a scrambling, switching defense with six healthy, capable players doesn’t quite work. But what if you add Leonard and George, and an uber-athlete in Wall, plus the newfound health of Powell and Marcus Morris, who were both on the floor against New Orleans but far from their peak selves? 

That’s a fever dream of switchable defenders for opponents.  

“I think the defensive lineups can be really scary when you look at our roster,” Powell said. “From me and [Covington] being added, having John [Wall] out there, you have Nico [Batum], you got Kawhi and PG. With Kawhi back healthy, you can go small ball, you can go big lineups, you can keep opponents really off balance with how the coaches can mix it up out there.” 

Dec 1, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shakes hands with forward Paul George (13) during the fourth quarter against Washington Wizards at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard added: “We’ve got a lot of talented wings on our team that can play both ways: dribble, shoot the ball, be able to guard multiple positions. I think that’s what you need right now in this NBA, guys that can guard and just switch and be able to knock down open shots. We’ll see how it unfolds this year.”

And it’s true. There is a lot to see unfold. 

Leonard’s health is paramount. But while he says he is feeling “great,” 14 months removed from surgery to repair a torn right ACL, there remains a sense that the team, in tandem with Leonard’s input, will remain cautious through the early stages of October. 

That’s where the depth and defensive versatility come into play. The Clippers withstood Leonard’s season-long absence and significant injuries to George (elbow) and Powell (toe) and kept afloat in the West all last season. It took 84 games for them to be eliminated. 

This year, with defense ruling the day, elimination might be something avoidable entirely. 

“You look at our roster, you look at the health of everyone on this team,” George said. “It’s good. It’s good to have that pressure. The fact of the matter is not a lot of teams get that pressure going into the season, so we honor that. We embrace that.

“Both of us (Leonard and George) internally had a promise. I know I did for myself, to bring a championship here.”

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