When the glorious carnage of free agency and the accompanying trade season concluded this summer, the NBA’s landscape was, in many ways, unrecognizable from its previous iteration.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Nets. The Warriors retooling with D’Angelo Russell. Houston gambling on a James Harden-Russell Westbrook pairing. The Sixers going ultra-big with Al Horford and Josh Richardson.
Still, there seemed to be two franchises that were universally lauded for every move they made, unanimously feted for taking the necessary steps to elevate themselves from first-round cannon fodder to legitimate championship contenders this season.
The Los Angeles Clippers. And the Utah Jazz.
They meet for the first time this season Wednesday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena. And Utah’s players are looking forward to the early test.
“Obviously, they’ve got great players over there,” said reserve guard Emmanuel Mudiay. “… But if we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll see what good things happen.”
Long a laughingstock and still second in the hearts of many Los Angelenos — if their opening night “home game” featuring them being roundly booed by the majority Lakers audience was any indication — the Clippers are nevertheless appraised by many to be the title favorites for this campaign.
Acquiring a two-time Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and a regular season MVP third-place finisher in Paul George will have that effect.
All those elements that made LAC a fun, plucky, and pesky little upstart a year ago remain in place. They return their pair of top-three finishers in the Sixth Man of the Year award balloting, in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. They retained irrationally confident defensive nuisance Patrick Beverley, as well as sweet-shooting big man JaMychal Green. They further bolstered their already considerable depth by adding the likes of Patrick Patterson and Mo Harkless.
L.A.’s 61 points per game from its bench players leads the league, as do the 58 ppg the team generates from its second-round picks.
Still, those are but the pieces that enabled the Clips to give Golden State a hard time in the most recent postseason, but not to ultimately displace them. Those are the moves that have given this team arguably the deepest roster and greatest abundance of lineup options in the league, but which do not move the needle in and of themselves.
No, the earth-shattering moves, announced within a span of minutes this past July, as yet another seemingly standard night at the Las Vegas Summer League was winding down, were the decision of free-agent extraordinaire Leonard to sign with the Clippers, and the out-of-nowhere acquisition of George, who only a year before had pledged his undying love to Oklahoma City.
And while George has yet to appear on the court yet this season as he rehabs from offseason surgeries to both shoulders (coach Doc Rivers has projected the two-way wing to miss approximately the first 10 games), the Clippers have already hit the ground running.
Somewhat surprising, though, has been the way the Clips have been winning. Any team featuring Leonard, George and Beverley will be touted for its defensive bona fides, but after Monday’s slate of games, L.A. ranked first in the NBA in offensive rating (119.1), net rating (9.6), field-goal percentage (52.0), effective field-goal percentage (59.8), and true shooting percentage (63.8). And it is third in points per game (121.5).
Mudiay praised the Clippers for their physicality and versatility.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert, meanwhile, was keen to find out how Utah’s league-best defensive rating (92.0) might hold up against such an efficient attack.
“It’s on us to do what we’ve been doing and execute the game plan, and hopefully we can keep them under 100 points,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Jazz will also be looking to break out on the other end against an L.A. defense that hasn’t rounded into form just yet. While Utah comes into the game ranked 28th in offensive rating (99.5), that is largely owing to its league-worst turnover percentage (19.6).
The Jazz are actually 11th in field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage, and true shooting percentage, and 12th in 3-point percentage — all potentially positive developments against a Clippers team that ranks 19th in opponents’ 3-point percentage, and 26th in overall defensive rating.
JAZZ VS. CLIPPERS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN, ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 3-1; Clippers 3-1
Last meeting • Clippers, 143-137, OT (April 10)
About the Jazz • After holding a fourth straight opponent under the century mark on Monday, Utah is leading the league in points per game allowed and defensive rating. … Donovan Mitchell is averaging a team-best 24.0 ppg, while Bojan Bogdanovic is at 23.7. … After committing 23 more turnovers vs. the Suns, the Jazz rank last in the league in turnover percentage.
About the Clippers • Los Angeles has been arguably the league’s top offensive team thus far, leading the league in offensive rating, field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. … Star forward Kawhi Leonard is averaging 27.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. … Paul George, who finished third in last season’s MVP voting, remains out due to shoulder surgery.