Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
Picture: Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers are a bifurcated roster. Without one or both of their wings, they are in a steep dive. There are three different incarnations of Ty Lue’s rotation. The Kawhi Leonard Clippers are almost mechanical in their execution as the two-time champion plays offense. Paul George’s Clippers are the bittersweet version we’ve grown accustomed to since the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

Leonard and George are the hit co-op considered the Western Conference favorites for the 2023 NBA title. Instead, they virtually split the starting lineup’s guard during the regular season and play as a team split down the middle. For 25 of the Clippers’ 42 games they have played this season, Leonard and George have played without the other, or neither has adapted.

Missing a star for big chunks of the season is one thing, but not having both for intermittent periods is an obvious drag. When the Clippers play together, they are 9-6 and can humiliate opponents with their perimeter defense. A month ago, they seemed to be hitting their stride as they pounced on the Celtics in a 113-93 gutting of the defending champions, but January is when wayward suitors start course-correcting.

The Clippers season so far

So far in 2023, Clipperland’s six-game losing streak has taken them to a .500 record and there’s no end to that slippage in sight. George’s hamstring strain forced him to miss seven games in December, but worsening muscle strain on Jan. 5 will keep him out for several more games. The injury came after the Clippers erased an 18-point deficit to the Heat while George was driving in the lane. With Leonard out, the Clippers lost their fourth in a row.

Luckily for the Clippers, the Western Conference cyclone kept the Clippers 21-21 within striking distance of a top-3 seed in the West.

in games George played without Leonard, his inconsistency was a theme. George has always oscillated between the ideal two-way, three-level wing and an error-prone albatross. He is 60% all-universe and 40% more likely to crash for 35 minutes per night.

George’s polar opposite is Leonard’s robotic genius. However, Leonard has been ramping up for months. In his final months, Leonard has been available for a full slate of games, and with his minutes restriction lifted, he’s firing on all cylinders again.

Two years ago, these Clippers were on the verge of advancing to their franchise’s first NBA Finals. Leonard’s marshmallow ACL put the kibosh on their 2021 playoff run and their entire 21-22 campaign.

Who are the other playmakers?

Favorite status returned in pre-season, but results lagged expectations. Despite signing John Wall in the offseason, the Clippers’ search for a supreme table setter for their offense was unsuccessful. Without explosive speed, Wall’s traffic lanes disappear before he can penetrate or drive and kick. and within minutes, he’s one of the league’s most ineffective dual-threat guards. Reggie Jackson’s masonry overconfidence can also shoot Clipperland in the foot and off the tracks.

Most of the game is done from their wings, which are often vacated by George and Leonard. Adding to their growing list of injuries, there are six more back-to-backs in which George and Leonard are expected to sit on the front or back half.

Team cohesion gave way to a George and Leonard split screen. This team is composed as if it was built to win in 2017. Ivan Zubac is lost in the Amazon rainforest when he gets knocked out of the paint. In today’s switch league, Zubac is overwhelmed. In fits and starts, Marcus Morris has been an effective small ball center, but even that isn’t viable in the playoffs. But above all, the responsibility stops with Leonard and George. As the season begins its controlled descent, the Clips need both wings to slide them to an NBA Finals.

The rest of West

Most of the Clippers’ peers in the West have been building chemistry for years. The Golden State Splash Brothers have started more games together (22) than the superstar Clippers tandem. As Curry recovered, every night was game 6 for Clay Thompson. Desmond Bane and Ja Morant have only played 17 times together, but the Grizzlies are locked in a tussle with New Orleans for first place in the Western Conference standings.

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