Answering the LA Clippers’ biggest questions with The Athletic’s Jovan Buha

LA Clippers Kawhi Leonard #2, Patrick Beverley #21, Paul George #13, Lou Williams #23 and Montrezl Harrell #5 (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)
LA Clippers Kawhi Leonard #2, Patrick Beverley #21, Paul George #13, Lou Williams #23 and Montrezl Harrell #5 (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Athletic’s Jovan Buha joins us to answer some of the most pressing questions regarding the LA Clippers’ upcoming season.

It’s been a long time coming, but the start of the LA Clippers’ 2019-2020 season is finally upon us.

A lot has happened since we last saw each other in April when the Clippers were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Since then, Golden State has been dethroned, new powerhouses formed all over the league, and LA got ahold of two new superstars in the form of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

The power of those two stars alone is impressive enough, but when they’re paired with a gritty squad that managed 48 wins in the Western Conference last season, it’s not hard to see why the Clippers are favored by many to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2020.

One of LA’s main obstacles will be the Los Angeles Lakers, who they’re set to face off against tonight to begin the NBA season. The pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is enough to give any team trouble, and the Clippers won’t be an exception to that.

But before we get into all that, we wanted to get an expert’s opinion on some of the biggest questions surrounding LA’s “other” team as they prepare to begin what is arguably their most important season to date.

I talked to The Athletic’s Jovan Buha to get some answers.

Buha is one of the most well-connected people covering the Clippers, and although his content at The Athletic requires a subscription, it’s my opinion that it is unquestionably worth the cost. Also worth mentioning: He has fantastic hair.

Here’s what he had to say:

Whose role from last season changes the most this year?

BuhaLou Williams. There’s just no way he maintains the same points, field-goal attempts, usage and minutes this season. I don’t know if the decrease will be drastic — he’ll probably bump up his averages while George is out and when Leonard rests — but I could see scenarios in which he doesn’t close games. Doc Rivers has already rested him, at times, when they need defense. Now, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on board, the Clippers will need to prioritize spacing, movement and defense around those two. I think Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet are cleaner fits on both ends, and will get the closing nod more than people expect.

Where will the LA Clippers finish among the league in offensive and defensive efficiency?

Buha: 5th in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency. If Leonard and George were playing 75+ games I think both figures would be 2-3 spots higher. But factoring in the two-way slippage when either miss time — the Clippers just won’t be the same on either end when one or both are out — I think that knocks them down a peg or two in both categories.

How many games will Paul George and Kawhi Leonard play?

Buha: 72 games for Leonard; 63 for George.

Which teams will the LA Clippers have the most difficulty with during the regular season and postseason?

Buha: In the regular season: the Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, 76ers, Bucks.

In the postseason: the Lakers and 76ers.

I think the obvious correlation with these teams is size. Each have elite big men or imposing front courts. As a smaller team on the interior, the Clippers will struggle to keep these types of teams off of the glass and out of the paint.

Which of the league’s “best” teams will struggle against the LA Clippers?

Buha: The rest — particularly the Warriors, Trail Blazers and Rockets. I think teams that are the same size or smaller than the Clippers are going to be enveloped by their perimeter size and defense. A crop of Leonard, George, Patrick Beverley, Moe Harkless, Rodney McGruder and Terance Mann can contain just about any group of guards and wings.

How will the LA Clippers match up against the Lakers?

Buha: I think the Clippers test both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green on [Anthony Davis]. Both have played him reasonably well in previous stops. Zubac’s length has the possibility of deterring Davis around the rim and keeping him from getting to his spots. Green’s strength and base can keep Davis from getting ideal positioning. But ultimately, as I lay out below, they’ll have to double and rely on the back line defense of Leonard and/or George to help contain LeBron and others.

As for LeBron — It’s crazy I’m just mentioning him — the Clippers are suited to defend him as best as any team can with Leonard, George and Harkless. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop him. But if you were picking defenders to face LeBron in a playoff series, how many names would you say before Leonard or George? The list is short, if it even exists.

How will the LA Clippers defend the league’s best bigs?

Buha: We’ll know more after this Lakers’ game. I suspect the Clippers will try to single cover teams’ best bigs as best they can. If the defender — usually Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green or Montrezl Harrell — gets into foul trouble, the Clippers will adjust and start to double team, zoning up on the backside.

The challenge will be both protecting the paint (not giving up offensive rebounds or wide-open cuts for dunks/layups) and getting out to open shooters. I think there will also be zones on the floor where they double. The closer to the block a player is, the more likely a double is coming. The further out or up they are, the more likely the Clippers single cover.

What qualifies as a successful season? Is it ring or bust?

Buha: I think a Finals trip would qualify as a successful season. Obviously a championship. I’m not quite sure about a Conference Finals appearance. I think it would mean something to Pat Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, among others, but I don’t think it moves the needle for Rivers, Leonard or George. The former two have won championships and made multiple Finals trips; the latter has been to the conference finals a couple of times. I think it’s Finals or bust.

What do you make of Montrezl Harrell’s free agency situation next summer? Do you think he signs elsewhere for bigger money?

Buha: Harrell will enter the summer as a top-10 free agent, which means he’ll likely see $15-20 million annually on his next deal (think a three-year deal in the $45-$60 million range). That’s a lot. And if the Clippers decide to match or offer him something along those lines, they’re basically saying they’re content with Trezz being their third-highest paid guy moving forward (it’s unlikely they add another player in that price range). Is he worth that? I’m not sure. I would guess not — at least not in the context of this team. I think that’s a hefty sum for a backup center (even if he plays 28-32 minutes a night).

Remember: This team already has Ivica Zubac and Mfiondu Kabengele locked up for multiple years. JaMychal Green and Moe Harkless are free agents, and there’s a chance their combined price would be similar to Harrell’s individually. Therefore, I could see the team prioritizing keeping those two and/or replacing Trezz with a cheaper option in free agency. I could also see the team moving him by the deadline for that very reason (though it might make sense to hold onto him given his cheaper $6 million contract that’s unlikely to net a similar player back).

If I had to guess, Harrell is on a different team next season unless he’s willing to accept a deal in the $13-15 million range annually.

If I had to guess, Harrell is on a different team next season unless he’s willing to accept a deal in the $13-15 million range annually.

Who are the most underrated players on the roster?

Buha: You could make the case most of the non-stars on this roster are underrated. I would say the newcomers from last season: JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet. All three brought real skills to table: Green’s rebounding and toughness; Zubac’s size and rim protection; and Shamet’s shooting and floor-spacing. But all also have underrated skills that don’t always get appreciated: Green’s scorching 3-point shooting; Zubac’s passing and screening; and Shamet’s play-making and defense. I think all three are better than most acknowledge.

Is this the year the LA Clippers finally win a title?

Buha: Yes. Clippers over Sixers in 5.

Next. Four important numbers for the LA Clippers this year. dark

To keep up with Buha’s latest, be sure to follow him on Twitter @jovanbuha. And as for us, don’t forget to follow along @ClipperholicsFS for live updates, analysis and statistics during tonight’s matchup between the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.