The Los Angeles Clippers are 37-17 as we approach the All-Star break. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are still learning to play together after the former missed the first month of the season following offseason shoulder surgery and the latter continues to load-manage his knee. There will be bumps in the road, as seen on Tuesday night, when they lost to the Sixers by the score of 110-103 and were dominated in the paint by the size of Philadelphia.
Nick Wright believes this loss exposes the Clippers' biggest weakness -- a lack of interior protection. He explained why this will be a big problem in the playoffs on First Things First today:
"The Clippers have essentially punted on the one-seed, and I think it's going to be a mistake, and I think what happened to them last night is indicative of a bigger problem," said Wright.
"You look at points in the paint, I think it was 58-38. I had Clippers fans tweeting me all week, 'Oh, you're underrating Zubac as a rim protector.' Okay, show me that ... To win a championship, they're going to have to beat the Lakers, and they're going to have to beat the Bucks, two teams that are dominant on the inside. Even more dominant than Philly. I don't think they have the personnel for it."
Everyone knew heading into the year that the Clippers would be using the regular season as an extended warm-up for the playoffs. That's what happens when you have Kawhi Leonard on your team. Losing home-court advantage as a consequence hurts, but it didn't matter too much when Leonard and the Toronto Raptors beat the top-seeded Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals and won an NBA championship on the Warriors' home floor. Wright isn't necessarily wrong that a lower seed will not help the Clippers' championship hopes, but it's not a mistake if the alternative is gaining the top seed at the expense of wear-and-tear on their two superstars.
Wright's argument about the Clippers lacking personnel is an interesting one to make in the year 2020. Ivan Zubac is certainly not the rim protector that fans allegedly tweeting at him claim, and he won't see a lot of floor time in the playoffs. But the last time an NBA champion featured an elite rim protector was ... the Spurs in 2014 with an aging Tim Duncan, I guess? Andrew Bogut was still an elite defender when the Warriors won their first championship in 2015, but not because he was an impenetrable wall at the rim.
Golden State then won two of the last three championships starting JaVale McGee at center. The preceding dynasty in Miami featured a very good defender in Chris Bosh, but he left protecting the rim to guys like Chris Anderson. Recent history suggests that an interior presence, as Wright dubs it, is not a necessity to winning a championship if you have superstars on the wing, and the Clippers, at the very least, have that.
The NBA is long past the point where championship teams need an elite inside presence to win games. Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo will certainly be big matchup problems if that's who the Clippers go up against. But Leonard already showed he could handle Giannis without a Rudy Gobert-type behind him. Davis is a different monster, but very recent history suggests elite perimeter players is the path to a ring.
Los Angeles did get dominated by the Sixers inside last night, and they still only lost by seven. The lack of size is an issue, but significantly less of one when your team features two of the 10 best players in the NBA when they're fully healthy.