Last summer, it was expected that talk linking Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers would dominate discussions a year later.
Leonard, a product of Southern California long before he became an NBA star, had just been traded from San Antonio to a cold-weather outpost in Toronto. His contract allowed him to decline a player option worth $21.3 million for the 2019-20 season and become a free agent, and the possibility of becoming a one-year Raptors rental loomed. The Clippers had the pull of home and plenty of projected cap space.
While it was always assumed that the Clippers would have eyes for Leonard as a potential franchise cornerstone, few could have predicted that the team would enter this summer already boasting several young building blocks.
The NBA’s All-Rookie team, announced last week, only reinforced what the Clippers have felt since February. The second-team All-Rookie combination of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet could remain the Clippers’ starting backcourt for the considerable future.
It marked only the second time a pair of Clippers earned All-Rookie honors in the same season, joining Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe in 2010-11. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds and carried a heavy load as a starter within weeks of his NBA debut. Shamet joined in February after a trade from Philadelphia and quickly developed a rapport playing off of Gilgeous-Alexander.
Three-pointers by Shamet helped deliver memorable road victories against Boston on Feb. 9, in which the Clippers rallied from 28 points down, and Golden State on April 15 in a playoff game, in which they trailed by as many as 31. His three against the Warriors came with 16 seconds remaining off a kick-out pass from the free-throw line by Gilgeous-Alexander.
Shamet made 50% of his shots that resulted from passes by Gilgeous-Alexander in the playoffs, according to NBA.com data.
“I love playing with Shai,” Shamet said in April during the team’s exit interviews. “I’d be interested to know how many games I played here with him. Thirty-something? That’s not even half an NBA season and I feel like we have a great relationship and a lot of room to grow.”
During the 487 minutes Shamet and Gilgeous-Alexander played together during the regular season, the Clippers posted a higher offensive rating and better defensive rating than the team’s overall averages. Defensively, the margin was significant, allowing three fewer points per 100 possessions.
During their 113 postseason minutes together their net rating — the difference between points generated and allowed per 100 possessions — was fifth best among Clippers combinations that played at least 50 minutes together.
They make up half of the Clippers’ young core, and the team is bullish on it. Though 22-year-old center Ivica Zubac struggled to stay on the floor in the playoff series against the Warriors because of matchup problems, his mobility made him an immediate upgrade at both ends of the court shortly after being traded from the Lakers. The Clippers can make him a qualifying offer to become a restricted free agent in June.
Jerome Robinson, a guard selected 13th overall, two picks behind Gilgeous-Alexander, in the first round of last year’s draft, had limited opportunities because of a foot injury until a positive playoff cameo.
Robinson “did a lot of good things and he’s really developed,” coach Doc Rivers said in April. “But he’s got some work to do and we’re going to make sure he does it.”
In the last 30 seasons, only four Clippers rookies played more minutes than Gilgeous-Alexander, whose 2,174 minutes rank behind only Griffin, Lamar Odom, Eric Gordon and Lamond Murray. Shamet played 1,802 minutes.
“They all have to get better,” Rivers said. “Shai played a lot of minutes, Sham played a lot of minutes. They both need to improve. Jerome needs to improve so he can play a lot of minutes and [Zubac] too.”
Both Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet would benefit from more consistency in their second season. Veteran guard Patrick Beverley advised the wiry Gilgeous-Alexander to “crush the weights, but other than that, just continue to fine tune his game. Don’t relax, because that rookie-sophomore year, you see a lot of people slip off.”
While the young Clippers continue their offseason training, Leonard, the most valuable player of the 2014 NBA Finals, is returning to the championship series this week after leading Toronto on its deepest playoff run. He has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in these playoffs, and his defense on Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo helped Toronto dig out of a 2-0 deficit to win the Eastern Conference finals and set up the matchup with Golden State.
BetOnline has given the Clippers the second-best odds to sign Leonard behind only Toronto, but Leonard’s remarkable playoff run has left any team with cap space dreaming about the possibility of luring him.
The Clippers, meanwhile, already have evidence of what their young backcourt can do, and they like what they’ve seen.