Yep, it’s time people. After five long months without regular season or playoff NBA basketball, the NBA is back Tuesday night. While the offseason has been an eventful hodgepodge of trade demands (awkward laughs and front-office badmouthing included), big name free-agent signings, and coaching changes, nothing beats opening day. For the Los Angeles Clippers, this takes place Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center.
After an undefeated preseason (First time in franchise history by the way. Clipper fans have to celebrate the little things), the Clips head into the regular season with momentum and a budding chemistry. Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari are shooting the ball at a high clip and don’t get in each other’s way on the court despite them basically playing the same position. Patrick Beverley took the preseason seriously and harassed other teams guards the full 94-feet. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked composed in both on-ball and off-ball positions, and has the makings of stardom. Other players such as Marcin Gortat and Ty Wallace had strong preseasons as well, showing the Clippers’ depth.
No one seems to really understand what to make of the Clippers this season. Some (me) are higher on them than others, but pundits point to a lack of a true star (pshh, how is Boban not a star), player health and a brutal Western Conference as reasons why they might not succeed this season.
While we should take the successful preseason with a grain of salt, it’s important that the Clippers were able to perform at a high level and win games. However, questions remain. Let’s take a look at four questions the Clippers should look to answer for game one.
1. Will the defense stay strong?
In their five preseason games, the Clippers absolutely showed out on defense. They held opponents to only an average of 91.6 points a game and gathered more steals, blocks and rebounds by a wide margin. “Clamp City” is a trend that Patrick Beverley is trying to start in L.A. as the ulterior to the former “Lob City” mantra that propelled the Clippers to the most success they’ve ever seen as a franchise. It’s a 180 turn, focusing on defense instead of showtime offense, but it could be this team’s identity this season.
Last year, this team was not great on defense. They finished 19th in defensive rating, 14th in steals, 20th in blocks, 24th in opponent points per game and 13th in opponent field goal percentage. Several negative health factors contributed to this lack of defense as well as all the different lineups and inexperienced players they had to use due to injuries. With everyone back healthy this year, the narrative should be different.
It must excite fans when starting two-guard Avery Bradley says that him and Bev will be the best defensive backcourt in the league next season — and I don’t think he’s wrong. Along with the much-improved Harris and the solid Marcin Gortat, this starting five could be very strong defensively. When you add SGA, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace to the perimeter mix along with Montrezl Harrell underneath, this is an intimidating team defensively. The preseason was the first test, the Clips passed with flying colors. Now with the regular season staring them in the face, let’s see if the stellar defense can stay strong.
2. How about the offensive distribution?
The newfound egalitarian approach that Clips Nation’s Sabreena Merchant touched on this week, is exactly what the Clippers need this season to be successful. With the lack of a true star, (although I think Tobias will make the next step this season) spreading the ball out among the many guards the Clips have is a smart move.
Almost everyone on this roster can shoot from outside of ten feet (yes, even Boban). Almost everyone on this roster can pass the ball well (yes, even Gallo). This combination could make for deadly ball movement this season. Movements that team’s defenses won’t be able to grasp, just like they haven’t all preseason.
Borrowing from Sabreena’s piece, this interesting tidbit jumped out at me:
“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.”
Also, the Clippers were fourth in assists this preseason with an average of 27.8 a night. With Beverley and SGA in control of the offense and the distribution moving at a rapid pace, this offense could be dangerous and innovative.
3. How many minutes will Gilgeous-Alexander get?
Shai looked confident in a few different roles this preseason. He started a game at the one without Pat Bev, he started a game at the two with Bev, he came off the bench with the second unit, he played with some third unit guys and in every different role that Doc threw at him, Shai succeeded. This shows a certain comfort, from an institutional standpoint, in the 20-year-old, which is unusual.
For the preseason, Shai averaged 9.2 points, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals in 21.2 minutes. Despite worries about his shot coming into the draft, SGA went 3-for-4 from three in five preseason games and shot 47.4% from the field. He looked for his mid-range shot and was effective in knocking it down. He used his 6’6” frame and length to finish in the lane well (including this absolute banger of a dunk) and looked very comfortable with the ball in his hands no matter the situation.
However, this is just five preseason games we are talking about here. Two games against non-NBA teams as well. It’s wrong to expect a rookie to play big minutes and be an impact player day one, right? Especially on a Doc Rivers led team…. well hold on a second.
Doc Rivers said the six separators on the roster thus far: Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Avery Bradley, Pat Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lou Williams. He said all six are guaranteed rotation minutes heading into regular season.— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) October 10, 2018
However, the question remains, how many minutes will SGA actually get early on? Pat Beverley has the starting job locked up, for now, due to his shooting, defense, and place as the leader and soul of this team. SGA will more than likely be the sixth or seventh man, and eventually replace Bradley if all goes well. I would love to see Bev and SGA play together with SGA staying on the court with the second unit, but this might be a pipe dream early on.
Playing Shai 25+ minutes a game might not be a reality early this season. 20-23 minutes seems to be more realistic, but with consistent development and impressive play, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Shai’s minutes increase.
4. Can hot shooting continue?
Over five preseason games, the Clippers shot 47.3% from the field. They also made 42 threes. Tobias, Trez, Marcin Gortat, Boban and Gallo were particularly impressive, shooting above 50% in the games they played. This number is perhaps influenced by Boban’s extremely efficient performances. However, if the Clips can keep up the high shooting clip, this team will be hard to beat.
While the Clippers aren’t the Warriors, the shooting balance on this roster is strong. Harris and Gallo could make for the best shooting frontcourt in the league, Gortat is efficient in the paint, Avery Bradley is a prototypical 3-and-D guy, Beverley has shot above 38% from three over the last three seasons and bench guys like Jerome Robinson, Mike Scott and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were all brought onto the roster this offseason for additional shooting.
The Clippers can really help themselves with a hot shooting start, especially considering that 12 of their first 15 games are against playoff teams from last season. Last season, the Clippers finished ninth in field goal percentage averaging 47.1 percent per game. Their three-point averages fell off a cliff however, finishing 23rd in the NBA with 35.4% average. While this is most likely due to Gallo, Bev and others being injured throughout the year and Blake Griffin’s inconsistent deep-ball early in the season, it’s still alarming to see this disparity.
I expect the Clippers to be a much better three-point shooting team this season if healthy. Bradley is no longer dealing with a nagging Sports Hernia injury, Jerome is a sniper, as are Scott and Mbah a Moute, and Sweet Lou will always be a deadly deep threat.
The Clips will need to shoot the ball better from deep this season and keep up the high percentages from the paint to have success early. This teams calling card will more than likely be perimeter defense and depth, however the impact of both can be lessened if shooting woes start and continue.