In each of their final seasons playing together, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray combined for 170.8 touches per game; Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant combined for 153.2 touches per game; and LeBron James and Russell Westbrook combined for 166.3 touches per game. Expand that latter duo to include Anthony Davis and that number rises to 235.1 touches absorbed by the Los Angeles Lakers stars.
How many touches did the two LA Clippers superstars, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, register during their last season together? 128.4. That’s almost 25% less than Jokic and Murray, more than 18% less than Irving and Durant, and nearly 45% less than the Lakers trio.
For the uninitiated, hits per game is a pretty intuitive stat. Essentially, it tracks the number of times a player has possession of the basketball on offense. At one end of the spectrum you have the heliocentric stars – the Jokics and Doncics of the world – and at the other you have the catch-and-shoot/3&D actors – the Carmelo Anthonys and Matisse Thybulles.
Hits per game by themselves aren’t a very meaningful statistic, or at least they tell an incomplete story. On the one hand, a fluid offense would generate more contacts than a stagnant offense. It takes a deeper dive to prove there’s much to be excited about here.
Taking this deeper dive into these numbers, however, shows that this stat captures a slightly broader picture than that. Counting only players who played more than 40 games and averaged more than 20 minutes per game, George and Leonard only ranked 38th and 59th, respectively, in touches per game during the season. 2020-21, and placed 52nd and 45th respectively. , in terms of average seconds per contact. They also found themselves at the 55th and 56th marks in terms of average dribbling per touch.
And while George was in the 50s, in terms of average points per touch, Leonard found himself in the top 12 in the league in this category. That is to say, this more intimate understanding definitely shows that Leonard and George have less of the ball in their hands, which implies that the ball is more shared and entrusted to their teammates.
For a team loaded with NBA-quality players like the Clippers, that’s great news, to say the least. To say the most? Leonard and George’s ability to be effective even without touching the ball can be the difference between the championship and the bust.
This season there will be games where the offense stagnates and Leonard or George are relied on to generate their shot. But, above all, these shots should be in the minority. Instead, Leonard and George should exist in the flow of the attack, share touches with their teammates and keep their average handling time per touch low.
Or, better yet, there may still be plays where Leonard and George don’t even need to have the ball to make an impact, warping opposing defenses using nothing more than their scoring gravity and mere threat. of their presence. Sometimes they will initiate and create for others. But to others, they will also be the recipients of offense around them.
For example, consider the Golden State Warriors. They are deadly when Stephen Curry has the ball in his hands, yes. But they are perhaps even deadlier when Draymond Green sets up the offense and frees up Curry and Klay Thompson to slice through defenses with their off-ball movement. That, to me, is the mark of a true off-ball star.
Now, there’s no denying that for a Clippers season to be successful, they’ll need their two stars to be dressed, on the floor, and occasionally playing with the ball in their hands. I’m in no way advocating that either star be relegated to a mere catch-and-shoot role (note: even in Paul George’s catch-and-shoot 3 reel, he’s very rarely disengaged from the attack).
When they get the ball back, this Clippers duo have shown an ability to be extremely effective with it, and it’s absolutely necessary. Their career stats, accolades and playoff records speak for themselves. But, this season more than any other, they will be flanked by Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Nicolas Batum and many other veterans who know how to move the ball, as well as Ty Lue, a coach who knows how to direct an offense and a team.
Maximizing the ball-handling, play-making and shooting abilities of Jackson, Wall and the rest of the roster that Lawrence Frank and the Clippers front office have surrounded Leonard and George with will be key to a successful season. , even more than the individual game.
In this game, notice the ball movement of the Clippers roleplayers. Also notice the gravity effect of Paul George, opening the ground for Terance Mann to cut.
There are a few other interesting things I discovered, some that excite me and some that make me dread. For one, Marcus Morris Sr. ranked in the top 30 in average points per touch in 2020-21, his final season playing against the gravities of Leonard and George.
During that same season, however, Reggie Jackson ranked higher than George and Leonard in average seconds per touch and average dribbling per touch. And last season, without Leonard, Jackson averaged 67.7 touches per game (which, for context, is more touches per game than Leonard averaged in 2020-21 and more than Demar Derozan, Zach Lavine and Anthony Edwards on average in 2021-22).
Additionally, in John Wall’s final NBA season, he averaged 79.9 touches per game and ranked in the top 20 in the league. Since being acquired by the Clippers, Wall has expressed a willingness to play a reduced role and play off the ball. But still it is necessary to be wary of it.
Other heavily used tandems to watch include James Harden and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, and De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis of the Sacramento Kings – all four of whom have averaged 91.3, 76.1, 82.8 and 78.6 touches per game, respectively – while playing on separate teams for part of the season. The coexistence of these stars will certainly have an impact on the NBA landscape.
A landscape that Leonard, George and the Clippers hope to cross on their way to their ultimate goal, with or without the basketball in their hands.