The Clippers are 5-8 through the first 13 games of the season. That’s not the start fans anticipated, especially after their exciting preseason. Expectations were raised even further by the Clippers’ 4-0 start, but have since been sunken lower than the Titanic. The Western Conference is tough, no doubt, and falling under .500 is never a great place to be if you have playoff aspirations, but it’s so, so early in the season.
Last year, around this time, the Clippers were 14-2 to begin the season, and looked like the second-best team in the NBA behind the Golden State Warriors. More importantly, their success didn’t seem like a fluke. Sure, the bench might have been playing above expectations, but the whole team was defending at an extremely high level, and the execution seemed like it could last. Meanwhile, on the other end, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul finally appeared to have developed symbiosis, something they hadn’t achieved in previous years. Everything looked great… until it came crashing down. The team got injured, the defense fell to pieces, and the latter half of the season saw a much choppier team than the relentless machine which had started the year. The Clippers ended up falling in the first round of the playoffs yet again, doomed by injuries and poor performances at inopportune moments. A season that had commenced with such promise ended in ignominious failure, with the breakup of the Lob City era imminent.
The Clippers of yesteryear had a start that didn’t correlate to the rest of their season, so why can’t this year’s iteration of the Clippers, this time in the reverse direction? The 2017-2018 Clippers have been down their starting point guard and best passer since midway through the 2nd game of the season. Even though the rest of their guards have stepped up, nobody on the team is close to Milos’ level of passing and playmaking. He simply stirs the drink on offense better than anyone else can. Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers’ biggest signing in free agency since the start of the Chris Paul era, has been horrid to start the season. That could be because of the nagging injury that has kept him out the past week and a half, or it could have just been getting adjusted to a new system. Either way, once he returns, it’s highly unlikely that he shoots 36% from the field and 26% from three the rest of the season. Those numbers are going to revert towards their averages eventually. Finally, Pat Beverley, the heart and soul of this Clippers’ team, has missed recent games as well. He gets the crowd going, he gets everyone else on the team fired up, and he’s one of the best defensive players in the league. None of those three guys can be replaced. Not on this Clippers’ team, anyway.
There have been many positive signs for the Clippers so far. Their rookies already look like NBA players. That’s huge, especially for a team with a lot of older players and an extensive injury history. Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans might still be limited on offense, but they bring defense and energy in spades, and judging by their college stats, the offense will come with time. Lou Williams has been a revelation off the bench, and is the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year. Blake Griffin has finally made the jump to solid three-point shooter, and that development has opened up the rest of his offensive game by a substantial amount. He might not be a clear top 10 (much less top 5) player anymore, but he’s still a worthy All Star and All NBA candidate. Willie Reed and Montrezl Harrell both appear to be competent backup centers, and having two of those is a luxury the Clippers have never had in recent years. That will be huge if any injuries pop up at the center position. Really, the only Clippers who have played below expectations this season have been Danilo Gallinari and DeAndre Jordan.
That’s not to write off DJ and Gallo’s struggles. While Gallo’s shooting should improve, he looks mighty slow out there at small forward, and the days of him drawing seven or more free throws a game on a regular basis are probably over. And DJ is in a funk the likes of which we haven’t seen in several years. He looks lethargic and uninterested on the court, and that’s not what we have come to expect from him. Hopefully it’s just a phase, and he moves out of it shortly. Even if it is “sulking” because of lack of involvement on the offensive end, the return of Milos should help end that misuse. Once DJ returns to the level of play we have become accustomed to, the Clippers’ defense should start to look a whole lot better.
Look, the injury concerns for this team are real. We all knew going into the season that many of the key players on this roster have significant injury concerns. Milos, Beverley, and Gallinari getting injured wasn’t exactly a huge surprise. But them all getting injured at the same time, and so quickly into the season, was a harsh blow, and one the Clippers could not have prepared for. Not many teams could thrive in the situation the Clippers are in right now, and those that could are on a completely different level from them talent-wise. Other injuries will occur throughout the season— the Clippers just have to hope that they don’t all strike in such rapid succession to such crucial pieces.
Despite being 5-8, the Clippers boast a 1.2 Net Rating, 12th best in the league, an indicator that they are better than their record shows. While fans continue to complain about the Clippers’ offense, they have the 6th best offense in the NBA, and are trailing only legitimate powerhouses and playoff contenders. It’s absolutely pointless to care about standings this early in the season, but if you do care, they sit a mere 1.5 games back of the 8th seed (only one loss), and several of the teams ahead of them haven’t exactly lit the world on fire thus far either. A four or five game winning streak could have them sitting pretty back in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, and such a streak is quite possible given their upcoming schedule.
Things got real gloomy, real fast for Clippers’ fans this season. The hype of preseason fun and novelty faded away with Milos’ injury, and their struggles defensively have capsized their win-loss record. But it is far too early to panic about this team’s outlook, and there are many factors that promise their return to relevance this season. If they are 12-18 after 30 games, well, things will be different, and the desire to start moving towards a tank would be more justified. At 5-8? They have time to figure things out. All they need is health.