LeBron James and Chris Paul on the same team? As my ESPN colleagues Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne report Wednesday, it's a possibility next season. Since James and Paul have teamed up only to help USA Basketball win gold in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, imagining how the Los Angeles Clippers might play with James in place of Blake Griffin requires some imagination. That's where my SCHOENE projection system comes in.
Using the same methodology that generated this year's preseason NBA projections, I projected a possible 2014-15 Clippers roster based on player stats from the previous three seasons and how similar players developed at the same age. Aside from adding James, I left the rotation otherwise intact, plugging him directly into the 36 minutes per game Griffin has averaged this season.
Based on all that, SCHOENE projects the Clippers winning between 59 and 60 games. And while that might not sound like much, keep in mind that projection systems are conservative by design. Only the San Antonio Spurs were projected to win more than 55 games this season, and just two teams in the past five years have had better projections -- the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers and 2011-12 Miami Heat, both of whom went on to win the championship.
James and Paul are two of the league's top offensive players, so it's no surprise that the Clippers' offense would look outstanding with both of them. SCHOENE projects the team would score 114.5 points per 100 possessions, which would surpass the Heat's league-leading 113.9 offensive rating this season and compare to their 114.9 mark from 2012-13.
Player MPG PPG RPG APG
LeBron James 36 24.5 7.5 6.4
Chris Paul 35 18.0 4.1 9.3
J.J. Redick 28 12.5 2.1 2.6
Jamal Crawford 25 12.4 1.8 2.3
DeAndre Jordan 36 10.4 11.9 .7
Matt Barnes 24 7.8 4.2 1.5
Jared Dudley 20 6.7 2.0 1.3
Darren Collison 15 5.8 1.3 2.2
Byron Mullens 10 3.9 2.3 .4
Reggie Bullock 8 2.5 1.0 .4
Ryan Hollins 10 2.4 1.9 .2
Willie Green 7 2.4 .6 .4
Although SCHOENE can't entirely account for how James' numbers would change spending less time with the ball in his hands because of Paul's presence, pairing two great passers would allow the Clippers to improve on the league's third-best rate of assists per field goal. SCHOENE projects them to combine for 15.7 assists per game (see projected player stats at right) and the team as a whole to assist on nearly 70 percent of its field goals, which would rank just outside the all-time NBA top 10.
All those assists would benefit the Clippers' shooters. With 3-point threats J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley, the team already is set up well to take advantage of the open looks Paul and James would create. So SCHOENE projects the team to make more than 800 3-pointers, a mark that has been surpassed just seven times in NBA history.
As impressive as the Clippers' offense would be with James and Paul together, perhaps the greatest benefit would be an anticipated strength of Miami's James-Dwyane Wade pairing -- having one of the two players on the court at all times. That hasn't been the case this season, with Wade limited by knee injuries. Per NBA.com/Stats, the Heat are scoring 7.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when James is on the bench. (The Clippers, surprisingly, have seen their offensive rating drop by just 0.5 points per 100 possession when Paul is out of the lineup, allowing them to survive his injury.)
SCHOENE sees the Clippers with James as a slightly above-average defense. Their projected 107.1 defensive rating would be similar to Miami's this season (107.0, but rising). In part, that reflects that James' coasting through the regular season has been more evident at the defensive end of the floor. The RAPM adjusted plus-minus calculated by Talking Practice blog actually has James as a slightly negative presence on defense (minus-0.5 points per 100 possessions) and worse than Griffin (plus-0.8).
At the team level, the Clippers would benefit from James' historically low foul rate, but they're likely to see their defensive rating go up in 2014-15 no matter who plays power forward. Thus far this season, the Clippers rate near average or worse in three of the four factors on defense and have been average at defending 2-point shots. Their defensive success (ninth in the league, allowing 1.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than league average) has been built entirely on 3-point defense. Opponents are shooting a league-low 32.7 percent from beyond the arc against the Clippers, a mark that's likely to regress to the mean.
More moves needed
The Clippers surely wouldn't call it quits for the offseason if they could deal for James. SCHOENE's projection assumes a backup frontcourt of Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens, and the Clippers would have the opportunity to upgrade those weak positions in free agency. They'd have the taxpayer midlevel exception of $3.3 million available and might land players looking to team with Paul and James at bargain prices. The Clippers also have their first-round pick, likely to fall near the end of the round.
Clippers management would have to consider dealing one or more of their wings for a frontcourt player so that James doesn't have to play power forward full time (or trade defensive assignments with Barnes, who could fill a role similar to Shane Battier's with the Heat). Crawford could serve as a backup point guard (with James helping run the offense) if Darren Collison exercises his player option and heads elsewhere for more money after a solid season, but the Clippers would remain flush with wings. In fact, ESPN's Marc Stein reported Tuesday night that they're considering trading Dudley before this year's trade deadline.
Still, the Clippers are set up remarkably well to integrate James into the lineup should he find his way to L.A. Their style would be slightly different than the pace-and-space attack Miami has used to win two championships. With DeAndre Jordan in the middle, the Clippers wouldn't stretch the floor in quite the same way. But the Clippers have boasted one of the league's best offenses with two traditional big men in Jordan and Griffin, so Paul would have more space to operate with defenses leery of overhelping against his pick-and-rolls with James on the weak side. That's part of what would make a Paul-James pairing so difficult for opponents to stop.
Already, this season's Clippers are title contenders. Adding James to the mix might just make them future favorites.