Last night during and after the TNT broadcast that saw the Los Angeles Clippers whip the Boston Celtics by 29 points, which only got to under 30 points because of a late Courtney Lee jumper, the TNT Overtime crew -- Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley -- talked about whether or not the Clippers were an "elite" team and a contender for the Western Conference crown this season. Needless to say, only Shaquille O'Neal thought they had a chance to win the West. No one else on the panel thought they were "elite" or had a chance to win the Western Conference. The arguments and points made by Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley as to why they didn't think the Clippers were worthy seemed to be of the "well, we just don't know if they can do it in the playoffs" variety. Then they brought up the Memphis Grizzlies. More on them later. I want to get into the meat and potatoes of their argument first and foremost.
There's this common misconception about the Los Angeles Clippers that if they're not running out and getting fastbreak buckets then they struggle in the half-court setting. This is the delusion that Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith had last night. Barkley even went as so far as to say that the Clippers will struggle to score in the playoffs because the game slows down and a team like the San Antonio Spurs, who play the third fastest pace in the NBA, would slow the game down and make it tougher for the Clippers to execute in the half-court. This is hogwash. And here's why.
The Los Angeles Clippers have scored 2950 points this season. That's in 29 games. It comes out to 101.7 points per game. That's the eighth best mark in the NBA this season. The Clippers, however, do rank fourth in Offensive Efficiency this season with a 107.7 rating. Offensive Efficiency is the number of points that team would score in 100 possessions. The Clippers, in the fastbreak this season, have scored 514 points. This comes out to 17.7 fastbreak points per game. It's the third highest total in the league behind the Denver Nuggets (18.2) and Houston Rockets (18.1). This means that the Los Angeles Clippers average 84.0 points per game out of the half-court setting. It doesn't sound like much but it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who people think have a great half-court offense because of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, only average about 88.6 points per game out of the half-court setting. Would you say that they can't get offense out of the half-court? I'd think not.
The Clippers have taken 280 fastbreak shot attempts this season. They've made 200 of them. They're converting at a 71.4% rate. They've taken 2348 total shot attempts this season and made 1126 of them. Comes out to a 47.9% conversion rate. That puts them third in the NBA behind the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. So, what does this tell us? Well, if you subtract 200 (fastbreak FGM) from 1126 (total FGM) you get 926. That's how many half-court baskets the Los Angeles Clippers have made this season. If you subtract 280 (fastbreak FGA) from 2348 (total FGA) you get 2068. That's how many half-court field goal attempts the Los Angeles Clippers have taken this season. When you divide 926 by 2068, you end up getting 44.8%. That's the Clippers half-court field goal percentage. Interestingly enough, that mark alone would rank them right there with the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns. It'd put them in a tie for 13th in the NBA in field goal percentage. The Clippers half-court offense is a middle-of-the-pack offense in the NBA when compared to total offenses and their field goal percentage. Astounding.
You will note that I did mention the Oklahoma City Thunder a couple paragraphs up from here. There was a reason for that. (And, don't worry, my Memphis Grizzlies tirade is coming soon. I know you're all eagerly awaiting that.) The Oklahoma City Thunder, right now, are the closest competition in the Western Conference for the Los Angeles Clippers. Of the top four teams in the West right now, the Thunder are the only team that has actually beaten the Clippers this season. It occurred in Oklahoma City. It was a game that the Clippers lost in overtime despite playing poorly for the vast majority of the game and even had a shot to win it at the end of regulation. Speaks volumes about this team in reality. I mentioned that the Thunder average about 4.5 more points per game out of the half-court than the Clippers do. So, how good is their half-court offense? Well I'm glad you asked. I actually delved into their numbers as well. And it took some time. But, here it is.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have taken 249 fastbreak shots this season in 28 games. They've made 160 of them. They're converting on 64.3% of their fastbreak opportunities. They've taken 2177 total shots this season and made 1038 of them. That's a 47.7% conversion rate. That's good for fourth in the NBA. If you do the same thing that I did with the Clippers in order to get their half-court field goal percentage, what'd you get for the Oklahoma City Thunder is 878 (total FGM - fastbreak FGM) divided by 1928 (total FGA - fastbreak FGA). It comes out to 45.5%. Or, basically, 0.7% better than the Los Angeles Clippers this season in half-court offense. That field goal percentage by Oklahoma City would rank them tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for seventh overall. The Thunder average 88.6 points per game out of half-court sets, which is the same amount of points the Washington Wizards average per game on the whole this season. On average, the Thunder take 68.9 half-court field goal attempts per game. The Clippers take 71.3 half-court field goal attempts per game. The Thunder make 31.4 per game and the Clippers make 31.9 per game. The difference in points per game out of half-court sets, shockingly enough, comes from free throws. Oklahoma City averages 27.8 free throw attempts per game and the Clippers average 23.7 free throw attempts per game. That's not to say the 4.5 point advantage the Thunder hold in half-court points per game is made up at the free throw line so easily. The Thunder have the best free throw shooting team in the league. And it is by a seriously wide margin.
The reason I picked the Thunder out as the team to use in comparison with the Clippers is because of many reasons. First off, they're the team who we're directly competing with for the Western Conference right now. Secondly, as mentioned a little bit ago, they're the only team in the top four of the West that's actually beaten us. Thirdly, we're pretty similar with them in terms of pace. They're at 94.7 and we're at 94.2 when it comes to pace. We're also right there with them when it comes to Effective Field Goal Percentage. They're at 52.5% this season and we're at 52.3%. These two teams are pretty similar in all honesty when you look at the stats. The differences come in the playing style. The Thunder run a very different half-court set than the Clippers do. Anyone with a pair of eyes and a brain can understand that. The Thunder run a heavy isolation based half-court offense. Sometimes it comes back to haunt them. Most of the time it doesn't.
But, let me get back to my main point here. If the Oklahoma City Thunder are the lead dog in this Western Conference pack then where are the Los Angeles Clippers? Well, last night Charles Barkley put them fourth. Yes, fourth. The team currently leading the Western Conference 29 games into the NBA season, which is just beyond the one-third mark, isn't even in his top two, let alone his top three. Oh no. He had the Oklahoma City Thunder number one. I have no problem with that. No one should. It's a pick 'em at that point. He had the San Antonio Spurs number two. Okay. I can kinda see that because of the success the Spurs have had in the playoffs in the Duncan-Popovich era. However, the Clippers have already beaten them twice this season. So that one perplexed me a little bit. The team that Charles Barkley put third, however, was completely perplexing. The Memphis Grizzlies. The team that the Clippers beat in seven games last season when they were "the most feared team in the Western Conference" at the time. The Memphis Grizzlies. The team that sits closer to sixth place in the Western Conference than they do to first place. The Memphis Grizzlies. The team that the Los Angeles Clippers beat on opening night. I could go on and on and on about this. If there's any team that befuddles the masses more than the Memphis Grizzles, I haven't seen them.
I think I can pinpoint where this love of the Memphis Grizzlies has come from, by the way. It's their style. They're perceived, however wrong or right it is, as a throwback to the old school days. The whole "grit-and-grind" mentality, if you will. It's a bunch of just hardworkers and tough guys who throw their bodies around for the sake of the team and the city that supports them. They play in the "Grindhouse" and teams tremble at the sound of their fans when they roar. They take guys like Charles Barkley back to the old times when the Bad Boys were still running around and laying people out cold on layups. He has a love affair with them because they remind him of his old playing days. That's where this comes from. They're led by a thug, Zach Randolph, who tries to pick a fight with everyone who crosses his path. I mean, who doesn't like a leader that's a thug? It makes you feared. It makes teams quake in their high tops. But no one is afraid of the Memphis Grizzlies. Not anymore. The Los Angeles Clippers took care of that last year. Sure, they're still a tough team. I'm not saying they're not. But their aura has disappeared. They're just another one of the group chasing Oklahoma City for the top spot in the West. That's all they are. And they're certainly not closer to the Thunder than the Clippers are.
When I hear "elite" get thrown to a team like Memphis, I wonder if anyone even watches them play. They muck the game up and try to wear you out. That's all well and good. But they're riding their three-headed-monster of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol into the ground. They did this last year. Except substitute Mike Conley in for Zach Randolph. The aforementioned four each are averaging over 34 minutes this season. You know how many players on the San Antonio Spurs are averaging over 34 minutes this season? Zero. Zip. Nada. You know how many players on the Oklahoma City Thunder are averaging over 34 minutes this season? Two. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That's it. You know how many players on the Los Angeles Clippers are averaging over 34 minutes this season? Zero. Zip. Nada. This just tells me, and I think you all know where I'm going with this, that the Memphis Grizzlies are gonna wear out by the time the playoffs begin. Too many guys playing too many minutes because their bench just isn't that good. This is where losing OJ Mayo killed them. "Grit and grind" is eventually going to turn into "down and out" at this pace.
To get back to what actually brought me here, this whole notion that the Los Angeles Clippers don't have a "playoff caliber half-court offense" is just a myth. They're right there with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the most part when it comes to half-court offense. The Thunder are definitely better there but it's not by some astronomical margin. Do the Clippers get points from their fastbreak? Yes. But there's a reason for it. Their defense just wreaks havoc and creates turnovers that lead into easy buckets at the other end. This isn't like the Phoenix Suns of a few years ago where they didn't care about defense and just tried to outscore teams. Oh no. This is different. This is a team that prides itself on the defensive end of the floor and gets easy baskets at the other end because of it. The defense fuels the fastbreak. It's a quicksand effect. Sooner or later, eventually you'll be unable to fight your way out of it. It becomes hell for teams. But don't confuse that with being unable to score when the game slows down and defenses try to take things away from you. Ask Memphis what happened on opening night. The Clippers shot 45.8% in the half-court setting. Taking things away didn't exactly work out for them, now did it?
I look at the Los Angeles Clippers offense almost like they're the Oregon Ducks in college football. They can run-and-gun to death with this uptempo style but don't get confused and think they can't play smashmouth when they need to. They can make substitutions that you can't counter because you don't have the athletes that they do. They can hit you over the top with lobs or find their way inside. They can drive-and-kick with the best of them. But they can slow it down. They can play a very deliberate pace if they need to. It's one of those things where the offense is just so good and so flashy and so dynamic that the other side doesn't get the credit they deserve. It happens. That's the nature of the beast. Everyone is trying to find any little nick in the armor of the Clippers. This is what happens when you're on a 15-game winning streak. It goes from "oh wow look at this streak" to "maybe they're just winning too easily and it's not a good thing." That's what has started to happen. And I get it. I really do. It's the Clippers. Everyone is skeptical because of the past. But don't let the past muddy the waters of the present or distort the view of the future. This team is for real. They are elite. And they can play half-court basketball with the best of them. Just watch.