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Clippers’ Defensive Versatility Key to Early Success

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that the NBA is a star-driven league. LeBron James having appeared in 8 consecutive NBA Finals (and counting) drives home that point better than anything else. At some point this season, the Golden State Warriors are going to have 5 former All-Stars in the starting lineup together, and a third straight title for that team feels like fait accompli at this point. It is what it is.

Having stars is important, which is why teams that don’t have them are typically hell-bent on trying to get them. For the better part of the last decade the Clippers have had as many as 3 All-NBA players on the roster at the same time. While it didn’t result in a title, the Lob City era was unquestionably the finest in the franchise’s otherwise forgettable history.

The 2018-19 Clippers don’t have anyone most people would consider to be a superstar. Before the season began, most prognosticators had the Clippers on the outside looking in on the Western Conference playoff picture. They may ultimately wind up missing out on the playoffs this season, and that’s fine. The Lob City era was mostly successful, but by the end of its run things just felt sour. By the end of it, watching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin work hard but ultimately come up short almost felt like work.

Last year’s team was a breath of fresh air despite the fact that they finished 10th in the conference. Even Doc Rivers seemed rejuvenated after the team changed course by dealing Paul and then Griffin a few months later. The current Clippers may be lacking a traditional star, but one thing they seem to be doing successfully is making things incredibly difficult for their opponents. It’s only been 3 games as of this writing, but the Clips currently have the fourth-best defense in basketball. L.A. has allowed an average of 101.2 points per 100 possessions. Only the Nuggets, Celtics and Pacers have been stingier so far. Offense has been thriving around the league early on this season, but the Clips look like they’re willing to be different.

The Warriors have been using the motto “Strength In Numbers” over the last couple of years. That’s fine and all, but it seems like a misnomer. Golden State is in the midst of a dynasty because they have 4 (maybe 5) future Hall of Famers. “Strength In Numbers” looks like a phrase that more aptly describes the current iteration of the Clippers. So far, they have been coming at teams in waves, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

Rivers is able to play matchups with this team. Switching everything defensively is becoming increasingly necessary in the NBA, and the Clips are built to do just that. Most teams have a set rotation that they’ll roll with over the course of a 48-minute game. So far this season, Doc hasn’t been afraid to tinker with some things and try a variety of lineup combinations.

In the win over Oklahoma City, Danilo Gallinari didn’t play a second of the fourth quarter despite a dominant offensive showing over the course of the first 3 quarters. Rivers liked what he saw from the 5 he had out there, so he went the final 12 minutes without making a change at all. Tobias Harris, Luc Mbah a Moute, Lou Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished the game alongside the Boban. That’s a lineup consisting of one starter, a rookie, 2 seasoned veterans and a Boban. Over the course of those 12 minutes, the Clippers had an insane net rating of 91.7. Those are still the only 12 minutes we’ve seen that 5-man lineup to this point in the season.

Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley are the starting guards in name, but Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams have been closing games. Beverley and Bradley bring a certain defensive moxie to the game, but SGA and Williams is the more high-upside tandem. Gilgeous-Alexander is rangy, capable of guarding both guard spots and makes smart decisions with the basketball despite a lack of experience. We know what Williams does while he’s out there. He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well so far, but Rivers trusts Lou in late-game situations, for better or worse. The presence of Gilgeous-Alexander, Beverley or Bradley should help to offset Lou’s defensive deficiencies.

It won’t always be this way. You can bet we’ll see Gilgeous-Alexander close a game with Bev at some point. Maybe the starting backcourt will get the nod. Maybe Bradley and Lou will do it. I’m not at all convinced that Bradley deserves big minutes on this team right now, but his history suggests there’s a useful player in there somewhere. If he continues to struggle, though, at least Doc doesn’t have to play him. He has no shortage of alternatives.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been particularly impressive defensively, and the rook’s lack of fear is evident. He visibly frustrated James Harden in the waning moments of the win on Sunday night over the Rockets. Being annoying is going to be a huge part of the Clippers’ potential success this season. It will be good for SGA to be able to learn the ropes from the NBA’s preeminent agitator in Patrick Beverley. Old friend Justin Russo noted that SGA held the reigning league MVP to 7 points on 2-for-6 shooting on Sunday over the course of 18 possessions. Not too shabby for a rookie defending someone as slithery and offensively savvy as Harden.

Montrezl Harrell is capable of moonlighting as a 5, as we saw in the fourth quarter of the win over Houston. Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic weren’t particularly effective or useful in the matchup, but Harrell’s quickness is better suited to keep up with a springy big like Clint Capela. Against teams with more ground-based bigs, like Denver with Nikola Jokic and OKC with Steven Adams, Boban fared pretty well. Like Bradley, I’m not sure how Gortat fits into the team’s long-term plans this season at this point, but it’s nice to have options.

On the wing, Tobias Harris feels like a guy that needs to be logging as many minutes as possible. At the other spot Doc can essentially choose to play matchups with either Gallinari or Mbah a Moute. Need offense? There’s Gallo. Need stops? There’s Luc. Mike Scott, AKA the Threegional Manager, may fight his way into more minutes at some point.

Whether the Clippers can keep up offensively with teams like the Pelicans and Warriors remains to be seen. The Spurs have played at the league’s slowest pace so far this season with an average of 100.7 possessions per game. Last season, just 7 teams averaged at least 100.7 possessions per game for the full year. The Clips currently rank 26th at 102.3 possessions per game, which is actually a faster pace than they played last season when they ranked sixth (101.1).

I don’t know if the Clippers will make the playoffs, nor do I know whether they’re actually going to be a top-5 defensive team all season. What I do know is that this team is deep and that they’re capable of giving teams tons of different looks and versatile lineups. Rather than overwhelming opponents with big names, the Clippers are going to try to pester teams to death. So far, it looks like a workable strategy.