June 14, 2021

Are the Clippers 2021 NBA Title Favorites Now?

It might sound a little crazy that a team that just survived a seven-game slugfest should be viewed as the title favorites, but that's exactly where things stand with the Los Angeles Clippers.  

Despite falling behind 2-0, then 3-2 against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, the Clippers summoned some serious intestinal fortitude to grind out two wins in a row to eliminate Dallas. 

They'll need it as the road to the NBA Finals won't get any easier for the Clips. But thanks to the defending champion Lakers already being eliminated and L.A.'s two superstars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — playing at a high level, the Clippers are built to compete with anybody. 

Here's why the Clippers have a legitimate chance to win their first NBA championship. 

The Clippers Have Batman

Everyone suffers from recency bias. We get it. But it feels like people forgot just how good Kawhi Leonard is. 

After a disappointing postseason a year ago, Leonard has transformed back into the Raptors version of Killer Kawhi. 

Leonard converted a whopping 61% of field goals against the Mavericks and upped that number to 66% in clutch situations, which is simply bonkers. Down the stretch of Game 6, with the game on the line, the Clippers turned to Leonard, and he delivered every single time.

Leonard is so strong, long and fundamentally sound that he can get any type of shot he wants. The Mavs (and most teams) had no answer for him. When the movement stops and offenses aren't flowing, Leonard's one of the few players comfortable with getting buckets in isolation.

He's guarded LeBron James in the NBA Finals, and hit a series-ending buzzer-beater to exterminate the Sixers. Leonard is built for this and he's the biggest reason why the Clippers should be viewed as favorites. 

But Batman needs a sidekick, and that's exactly what he has in Paul George. 

...And Robin

While Playoff P won't ever be mistaken as the best player on his team, he's the ideal No. 2 on a championship contender. 

It's pivotal for playoff teams to have multiple defenders who can apply pressure, which makes George such an important part of the Clippers' success. 

The artist formerly known as Pandemic P pushed past his persistent playoff problems and put together a strong series against the Mavericks. While he struggled from the field, he still averaged 23.6 points, nine rebounds and 5.7 assists in 41 minutes per game.

But his role is to do so much more than fill up the stat sheet. 

When the Clippers downsized later in the series, George was in the trenches getting key rebounds over Dallas' towering trees. He'll have to keep doing the little things, while coming up clutch on offense, if the Clippers are going to make a title run. 

But if Batman doesn't have his Robin performing at a high level, then the Clippers can kiss their championship chances goodbye. 

Oh, and a Fearless Coach

Having a dynamic duo is great, but squads also need a good coach to push the right buttons and manage egos.

Tyronne Lue has proven to be adept at both. 

Look no further than how he handled the playing time of center Ivica Zubac and guard Patrick Beverley, both of whom were benched. Zubac was getting brutalized by Luka Doncic on switches, as the Mavericks consistently targeted him in open space. The Clippers were outscored by 19 points per 100 possessions when Zubac was on the floor. 

It was an untenable situation, so in the final two games of the series, Zubac saw the floor for a total of eight minutes. Lue made a similarly shrewd move with Beverley, who played double-digit minutes in the first two games. But Beverley, who is known as a three-and-D guy, was providing neither skill, as LA was getting beat by 17 points per 100 possessions when he was in.

After benching Zubac and Beverley, Lue pivoted to small-ball by empowering younger players such as Terance Mann and Luke Kennard which helped propel the Clippers to winning the series. 

Credit Lue for abandoning so many of his initial strategies and adapting to what was happening in front of him. There’s a reason he is 4-0 all-time in Game 7s as a head coach. He’s not stubborn about sticking to his initial strategy. In essence, he's the anti-Mike Budenholzer. 

Elite Three-Point Shooting

The Clippers quickly dropped the first two games in the series thanks to shoddy shooting, but when the Mavericks eventually had to move to a zone, the Clippers sliced them up through pinball perimeter passing that produced wide-open threes that LA finally converted at a high rate.

The Clippers were the best jump-shooting team in the league this season, and one of the best in NBA history. While the playoffs are a different animal, players don’t just forget how to shoot (unless you’re Kristaps Porzingis).

The Clippers roasted the Mavs by shooting 46% from deep in Game 7. Marcus Morris Sr. converted seven of his nine attempts, while Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann and Luke Kennard all converted their triples at high rates.

The NBA has transformed into a make-or-miss league. The three teams with the best three-point percentages this season — Jazz, Nets and Clippers — are three of the top teams in the league. That’s not a coincidence. When they face the Jazz on Tuesday, the Clippers should be prepared for an offensive war.

If the Clippers continue to shoot lights out, then they should be able to keep up offensively with Utah and Brooklyn. 

A (Relatively) Open Path

Every championship contender will need a bit of injury luck if they want to win the Larry O'Brien Trophy. And so far, the Clippers have escaped nearly unscathed compared to their competitors. 

Mike Conley is out of Game 1 due to injury. Chris Paul has been dealing with a pesky shoulder injury for the Suns. The Nuggets are without star guard Jamal Murray, while the Nets just lost James Harden again after he aggravated his hamstring in the opening minute of Game 1 against the Bucks.

The Jazz will still be a very tough test. One thing the Clippers have in their favor is they just survived an aerial assault from downtown courtesy of the Mavericks, who shot a blistering 47%, 53% and 51% from deep in the first three games. Utah is a very good jump-shooting team, sure but those historic numbers will be hard to reach even for them.

After taking down Doncic and the hot-shooting Mavs, the Clippers should be looking ahead at the playoff field and with newfound confidence. There's a long way to go on the road to the franchise’s first ring, but with Leonard, George and Lue leading the way, watch out for the Clippers.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration