As the Clippers head into the regular season, one of the most interesting features of their preseason play has been the look of their offense.
The Clippers have long had one of the best offenses in the NBA. Since Lob City began in 2011, LA has been among the top ten teams in offensive efficiency each season, a league-leading streak that now spans seven years.
In 2018-19, the Clippers are poised to repeat that feat, but in a markedly different way than they have in the recent past — by passing, a lot.
When Chris Paul was running the show, he was a master of the pick-and-roll and creating shots for his teammates. He generated a lot of assists, and so did Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, but the rest of the roster mostly finished plays. Beyond Paul and Griffin, there wasn’t a lot of ball movement.
It’s still somewhat miraculous that the Clippers maintained their top-10 ranking last season, and John Schuhmann of NBA.com laid out the reasons why. The finest offensive season of Lou Williams’ career was undeniably a large factor, and his isolation preferences, along with those of Austin Rivers, the Clippers’ other primary ball-handler, meant that the team had another less-than pass-happy offense.
If we can judge anything by the preseason, that style will change this year. Without any bona fide isolation scorer in the starting lineup, the Clippers have adopted a more egalitarian approach to producing points. Every player in the starting five is a capable passer and ball mover, some more than others, and that has resulted in a balanced offensive effort thus far.
The depth of capable ball-handlers and shot creators on the roster makes the offense more difficult to predict, and thus more difficult to defend, at least during the regular season.
“Being in this league for awhile, the more playmakers on a team, the better the team is,” Patrick Beverley said at media day.
The Clippers are littered with playmakers at the point guard position. Beverley may not be a typical lead guard, but he has the vision to attack closeouts and kick out to open teammates, as well as find cutters. Milos Teodosic is one of the best passers in the league, certainly among the most creative, and Tyrone Wallace and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have already shown great vision at a young age.
More importantly, the ball movement extends to the Clippers’ frontcourt. Marcin Gortat is assuredly a downgrade from DeAndre Jordan in terms of rebounding and vertical spacing, but he is a substantially better passer. Tobias Harris had the best assist rate of his career in Los Angeles last year, assisting on 14 percent of his teammates’ made shots. And Danilo Gallinari has historically been a tremendous passer for his size.
(On a side note, one of the joys of preseason has been watching Gallinari and being reminded of why the front office gave him such a large contract. He has such a good understanding of where to position himself, he rarely holds on to the ball, and he doesn’t force the action. The offense hums with him.)
The Clippers ranked 24th in assist percentage last season, assisting on 55.5 percent of made baskets. In the preseason, they are 11th, all the way up to an assist percentage of 64.1. To put that in context, Golden State led the league with a mark of 68.5 percent last season.
An offense like that isn’t just more fun to watch—it’s also more enjoyable to play in.
“It makes the game easier, when [the ball’s] moving around and you’re attacking closeouts,” Jerome Robinson said after the team’s win against Minnesota. “I think that’s great for us and the way we play… it keeps everybody engaged and everybody happy as well.”
Against the Timberwolves, the Clippers recorded 36 assists on 49 field goals, and no player had more than five assists. Minnesota isn’t a good defense, and objectively bad without Jimmy Butler, but the Wolves were perpetually a step behind the Clippers and their quick movement.
The team’s deep rotation also necessitates this kind of offensive style. In order to get everyone involved, no one player can possess the basketball for too long. As long as the ball moves, everyone gets to eat.
“Everyone’s touching the ball, guys are unselfish, for the most part everybody’s making the right play,” Wallace said after the Minnesota game. “When you got the ball moving, and then you’re able to attack and get in the paint and force help, now you’re creating for other guys.... We’re playing the right way, and I think it shows by how many assists we’re getting.”
The Clippers have put a great deal of emphasis on their toughness and defense during the preseason, even coining the nickname “Clamp City” to signal a shift in identity, but the team’s greatest strength still lies on offense. Despite the significant amount of roster turnover LA experienced, the Clippers ended the preseason with a near-identical offensive rating to last year.
It’s easy to overpass during preseason, when no one truly cares about their stats; it will be a much greater ask for the team to have that same commitment during the regular season.
But the Clippers don’t yet have an All-Star; what they do have is a lot of good pieces who can add up to more than the sum of their parts. If they want to extend their top-10 offense streak to eight years, it will have to be through getting everyone involved, and running things a little differently than they have been.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats are courtesy of NBA.com.