A defining theme of the past decade of NBA basketball has been the formation of super teams, with three and sometimes even four elite players joining forces to make a run at a title. Star free agents bucked that trend this summer, bringing back a familiar NBA Jam-esque feel of duos pairing up across the league.
Offensive juggernauts were formed in Houston, Brooklyn and even in the purple and gold half of Staples Center, but across the hall, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard rattled the cages of more than a few presumed title contenders for a different reason.
George finished second in the league in scoring last season. Leonard nearly averaged 30 points on 50-40-90 shooting during a historic postseason run. But while both are incredibly potent offensive players, it's the other end of the floor that separates the Clippers' new duo from every other pairing across the NBA landscape.
Simply put, they have the potential to put themselves in the conversation for the greatest perimeter defensive combination we've ever seen.
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Throughout their careers, both have grown accustomed to defending the best wing on the other team. Sometimes it was an imperfect matchup, but both are so immensely gifted that they usually found success regardless. Now that they're together, Leonard and George have the luxury of deciding which elite defender is better equipped to draw which assignment.
Need a defender to snake around screens and contain a knockdown shooter? George is the perfect answer. Need to slow down a more powerful, contact-seeking forward? Leonard has neutralized the best of them. Playing a team with only one great perimeter scorer? Throw an occasional double-team his way and have him checking over his shoulder for the rest of the game. They are a nearly perfect fit.
George may be the best on-ball defender of shooting guards in the league and, given his success against some of the league's best, it's a compelling argument.
|Def Possessions||Points Allowed||Points/Poss||Points Diff.|
Points difference is a measure of the points allowed on the possessions George was defending subtracted from the points that player scored on average over that number of possessions over the whole season. In other words, George held Harden to 12.4 fewer points over 148 possessions than Harden would have scored on average over 148 possessions over the course of the season.
That trend held true for nearly every star shooting guard George defended last season. Harden, DeRozan and Booker were the players he had 50+ possessions against, but he also held Donovan Mitchell, Bradley Beal and CJ McCollum well below their average points per possession. When he's matched up with a player who fits his defensive skill set, George is utterly devastating and the ultimate disruptor.
Leonard, on the other hand, wasn't quite as defensively dominant as we've become accustomed to seeing from him. That wasn't to say he had a poor defensive season, far from it. Only that a second-team All-Defense spot constitutes a down year for his ridiculously high standards. Even so, Leonard re-established himself as one of the most reliable defenders in NBA history.
For his career, Leonard still has more steals than he does fouls. With 106 steals and just 87 personal fouls last season, he's actually still improving on that incredible stat. Of the 103 players who logged 2000 minutes last season, Leonard was the only one with fewer than 111 personal fouls.
Maybe even more remarkable is the fact that he hasn't fouled out of a game in five years. In fact, he's only ever fouled out twice, both within seven days of each other and during the 2014 NBA Finals en route to his first Finals MVP.
Together, Leonard and George constitute a level of perimeter defensive talent usually only found in a video game or during All-Star Weekend, but the Clippers get to unleash it every night. If it works in practice as well as it does on paper, it will be devastating. If they reach their true potential, they have a shot to be the best perimeter defensive duo since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
To be clear, this is on defensive potential alone. George and Leonard are great talents but there's no logical offensive resemblance between them and Jordan in his prime. Even so, a defensive comparison is an incredibly high bar to clear; but George and Leonard have the individual skillsets and complementary strengths to put themselves in the conversation with the legendary Bulls tandem.
In fairness, they do have a lot of defensive similarities. George has similar length and defensive anticipation to Jordan, both seemingly built to dismantle opposing shooters. Pippen's physicality and aggressiveness was a precursor of sorts to Leonard's defensive style. Much like Pippen, Leonard makes a living tormenting opposing threes but has the strength to hold up against fours who mistakenly think they've found a mismatch.
There's a case to be made that Leonard's strength sets him apart from both Jordan and Pippen. Would either of them have been able to stmy the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo over the course of a playoff series?
For all of their deserved offensive accolades, the Bulls were a top-seven defense in all six of their championship seasons. They knew they could win an offensive shootout but seemingly took even more pride in demoralizing opponents by smothering them on defense. Leonard and George have all the potential in the world and a shot to be the closest thing we've seen since. Add in defensive pit bull Patrick Beverley at the point guard spot and the Clippers certainly have the individual talent to be special on that end.
Time will tell if they are able to reach those incredible heights.
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Other duos across the league will command more media attention this season. Others may put up more points and be more the more popular choice in video games of any era, but Leonard and George have the defensive talent to separate from the pack. If all goes right in LA this season, we might have a new standard for perimeter defensive excellence.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.