The Los Angeles Clippers have gotten off to a solid start in their new era of basketball. Kawhi Leonard has already sat out two games, but the team still sits at 7-3, and everything we thought we knew about them is proving to be true; their perimeter defense is elite, the bench unit is as strong as any in the league, and Leonard will be their driving force on both ends of the floor.
He'll now be getting the reinforcements he demanded the Clippers acquire before he signed with them, as Paul George will be making his return to the floor on Thursday after undergoing shoulder surgery over the offseason. George put together an MVP campaign last season, and what he brings to the table is obvious. But we don't quite know how it'll change the makeup of this team, because it's the first time we'll be seeing him in this uniform.
Defensively, as always, is where he'll be a difference-maker. He'll slide in next to Leonard and Patrick Beverly to create the most intimidating set of perimeter defenders in the NBA. This will presumably push Patrick Patterson to the bench and give L.A. a starting five of Beverly, Landry Shamet, Leonard, George, and Ivica Zubac/Montrezl Harrell. One of the Leonard-George combination will likely have to guard a forward rather than a wing most nights to avoid having Shamet defend someone six inches taller than him. They haven't been able to switch all too often with only Leonard and Beverly out there as elite defenders, and George's presence will give them immense flexibility on that end of the court.
Offensively, George's biggest job is taking the load off Leonard (or help manage it, if that suits your fancy). The only other creator on the Clippers resides on the bench in the shape of Lou Williams. Leonard is certainly capable of being an offense unto himself, and Doc Rivers is smart enough to design a system catering to his strengths, but the Clippers are playing the long game with their superstars. Having George to operate as the focal point while Leonard does the easier stuff like spot up on the perimeter and hunt mismatches will both make their offense better and help make sure Leonard doesn't get worn down.
The biggest impact, though, comes in the form of Rivers' lineup choices. Both Leonard and George will be resting regularly throughout the season, so there will be games where they have one and not the other. But when both are active, it gives Rivers two complete lineups to choose from. When he had Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, he rarely rested one without the other; Paul and Griffin played nearly 90 percent of their minutes together, as noted by Kevin O'Conner in this Ringer piece from 2016. It's easy to imagine the case will be the same with his new pair of superstars, especially given the talent on this Clippers bench. Rivers can now trot out two five-man lineups that feature solid to great perimeter defenders and scorers, as well as big men who can hold their own in the paint and can act as lob threats on the pick-and-roll.
Simply put, the Clippers will be a more complete team in their finalized version. This isn't a shocking revelation, but it will be fascinating to watch how the pair of five-man units will gel when they finally get serious minutes together. We've been waiting since July, but it's finally time to see what kind of championship contender the Clippers have built.