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Clippers might be better at sharing the ball than you think

The off-ball nuance of the Clippers stars told through an unconventional stat: touches per game.

Utah Jazz v LA Clippers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

In each of their last 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 last duo to include Anthony Davis and that number comes out to 235.1 touches soaked up by the Los Angeles Lakers stars.

The amount of touches that the LA Clippers’ two superstars, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, registered in their last season together? 128.4. That’s almost 25% lower than Jokic and Murray, more than 18% lower than Irving and Durant, and almost 45% lower than the Lakers’ trio.

For the uninitiated, touches per game is a pretty intuitive stat. In essence, it tracks the amount of times a player has possession of the basketball on offense. On one end of the spectrum, you have the heliocentric stars — the Jokics and Doncics of the world — and on the other you have the catch-and-shoot/3&D role players — the Carmelo Anthonys and Matisse Thybulles.

Touches per game by itself isn’t a super meaningful stat, or at least, it tells an incomplete story. For one, a free-flowing offense would generate more touches to go around than a stagnant one. It takes a deeper dive to prove that there is something to be excited about here.

Taking that deeper dive into these numbers, however, shows that this stat captures a slightly wider picture than that. Counting only players who played more than 40 games and averaged more than 20 minutes per game, George and Leonard ranked at just 38th and 59th, respectively, in terms of touches per game in the 2020-21 season, and ranked 52nd and 45th, respectively, in terms of average seconds per touch. They also found themselves coming in at the the 55th and 56th marks in terms of average dribbles per touch.

And while George ranked within the 50s, in terms of average points per touch, Leonard found himself within the top 12 throughout the league in that category. That is to say, this more intimate understanding shows definitively that Leonard and George have the ball in their hands less, which implies the ball is shared with and entrusted to their teammates more.

For a team loaded with NBA quality role players like the Clippers, this, to say the least, is great news. To say the most? The ability of Leonard and George to be effective even without touching the ball can be the difference between championship and bust.

This season, there are going to be plays where the offense stagnates and Leonard or George will be relied on to generate their shot. But, importantly, those shots should be in the minority. Instead, Leonard and George should be existing within the flow of the offense, sharing touches with their teammates and keeping their average handle time per touch low.

Or, even better, there may yet be plays where Leonard and George don’t even need to have the ball to be impactful, distorting opposing defenses using nothing more than their scoring gravities and the mere threat of their presence. At times, they’ll initiate and create for others. But at others, they’ll also be recipients of the offense around them.

For example, consider the Golden State Warriors. They’re deadly when Stephen Curry has the ball in his hands, yes. But they’re perhaps even deadlier when Draymond Green sets up the offense and frees Curry and Klay Thompson to carve defenses up with their off-ball movement. That, to me, is the mark of a true off-ball star.

Now, it’s not denying that for a Clippers season to be successful they will need their two stars to be suited up, on the floor, and playing with the ball in their hands at times. I’m by no means advocating for either of the stars to be relegated to a simple catch-and-shoot role (note: even in the reel of Paul George’s catch-and-shoot 3s, he’s very rarely disengaged from the offense).

When they do get the ball, this Clippers duo has shown an ability to be extremely effective with it, and that’s absolutely necessary. Their career stats, accolades, and playoff records speak to that. But, this season more than any other, they’ll be flanked by Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Nicolas Batum, and many more veterans who know how to move the basketball, as well as Ty Lue, a coach who knows how to run an offense and a team.

Maximizing the ball-handling, playmaking, and shot-making 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 so than individual play.

In this play, notice the ball movement from the Clippers role players. Also notice the effect of Paul George’s gravity, opening up the floor for Terance Mann to cut.

There are a couple other interesting things I discovered, some that excite me and others that make me apprehensive. For one, Marcus Morris Sr. ranked within the top 30 in terms of average points per touch in 2020-21, his last season playing off of the gravities of Leonard and George.

In that same season, however, Reggie Jackson ranked higher than both George and Leonard in terms of both average seconds per touch and average dribbles 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 averaged in 2021-22).

Furthermore, in John Wall’s last NBA season, he averaged 79.9 touches per game and ranked within the top 20 in the league. Since being acquired by the Clippers, Wall has been vocal about his willingness to take a reduced role and play off-ball. But still, it’s worth being wary of.

Other high-usage tandems to watch include the Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden and Joel Embiid, and De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis of the Sacramento Kings — the four of whom averaged 91.3, 76.1, 82.8, and 78.6 touches per game, respectively — albeit doing so while playing on separate teams for portions of the season. Whether these stars are able to coexist is sure to also impact the landscape of the NBA.

A landscape that Leonard, George, and the Clippers will hope to traverse en route to their ultimate goal, with or without the basketball in their hands.