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Clippers Are All Heart, But Lack of an Inside Presence is Killing Them

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Paint play and rebounding have been constant issues for the Clippers this season and have led to some embarrassing, frustrating losses.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers have, on a small scale, become America’s sweetheart team of the still young 2018-19 season. They have bucked the new-normal of stacking stars and jacking threes, instead focusing on building team chemistry and winning with energy, heart, and grit. This team holds no All-Star’s — current or former (Only the Bulls, Nets, Magic, and Suns can say the same) and is rallying around the fact that they are cast-offs from other NBA teams. These are players that have chips on their shoulders to be great, whether individually or together, and it’s working. The Clippers are 17-10 and a top-five team in a crowded Western Conference that continues to show no mercy to anyone (just ask the Rockets and the Jazz).

Although the season started stronger than pretty much everyone thought (Anyone else getting a little greedy?), the Clips have some glaring issues that have caused them to lose games that should have been winnable. None is more glaring than the Clippers’ interior play. They continue to get dominated on the offensive and defensive glass, and with the lack of a true go-to center, this team will continue to struggle on many nights. A problem the Clippers haven’t really had since the early Chris Kaman years is starting to rear its ugly head, and if they can’t nip it in the bud quickly, it could become a bigger issue.

A perfect case-in-point was Tuesday night’s game against the Raptors. The Clippers were repeatedly beat up inside by a multitude of Raptors forwards and bigs, who had their way on both ends of the floor. Serge Ibaka had one of the best games of his season, scoring 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting, grabbing nine boards and swatting the ball away three times. He took advantage of his agility, ability to shoot the mid-range jumper, and his length to absolutely bully Marcin Gortat. He got wide open shots due to Gortat’s inability to move quickly, and was rebounding over and around him for easy putbacks. It wasn’t bully ball in the sense that he was backing him down in the post, it was finesse bully ball because Ibaka was picking his spots and playing smart. Gortat could not keep up.

If we are talking about bully ball, then another perfect example was Jonas Valanciunas’ play against Montrezl Harrell Tuesday. Valanciunas had 16 points in 18 minutes on 7-of-12 shooting. He was doing whatever he wanted in the paint against the undersized, 6’8” Harrell, scoring at will at the rim, hitting 10-footers and turnarounds and skying over him for boards. Harrell did his best, but Valanciunas was just too big for Trez, and the result was one of Trez’s worst games of the season.

Boban had a good game last night, putting up 18 points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting, but we can’t take much stock in this due to the Clippers being out of the game already, and the Raps going with their third unit for the majority of the fourth quarter.

Tuesday’s game was a microcosm of the biggest issue the Clippers have faced this season: the true lack of any consistent interior presence on either side of the floor. Teams have figured this out, and recently have been exploiting it. Whether it is by completely out-rebounding L.A. or by pushing the ball inside and taking advantage of size or length, it’s becoming evident that the Clips are losing this battle quite frequently. When a 6’9” small forward — Tobias Harris — is your team’s leading rebounder, you have a problem on your hands.

The Clippers rebounding stats read like a Greek tragedy. Once a top-10 rebounding team in the league (Seriously like a week and a half ago), the mighty have fallen. The Clippers rank 17th in total rebound rate, 15th in rebounds per game, 21st in offensive rebounding percentage, and 25th in defensive rebounding percentage. The Clippers don’t come close to passing the eye test for this as well, as they are consistently pulverized on the offensive glass and fail to box out with any sort of consistency. According to nba.com, the Clippers are 18th in offensive box-outs and 13th in defensive box-outs. It’s simple: the Clippers will continue to lose out on possessions and give up easy buckets if they can’t consistently rebound against teams.

Doc’s center rotations seem to be a little lost, especially as of late. Gortat either plays 20 minutes or he doesn’t play at all. Boban either gets 15 or none. Harrell is a beast and workhorse but can’t guard true centers and thus, is a liability defensively even with his blocking aptitude, strength, and speed. Doc has recently gone to a small-ball lineup with the 6’10” Danilo Gallinari at the five that works in spurts because of Gallo’s ability to shoot over fours and fives and blow by bigger guys, but on defense can fall victim to stronger centers who play bully-ball. When Gallo is the tallest guy on the floor, the Clippers have a defensive rating of 110.4. While this is fairly on par with the 110.0 they average normally, teams can take advantage of the lack of size inside and adjust. It worked against the Phoenix Suns late on Monday, but will this work against better teams?

The irony of all of this right now is the fact that the Clippers currently have 2 two-way players on the G-League Agua Caliente Clippers who are both top five in rebounds per game for the entire league. Angel Delgado is averaging 14 rebounds a game, and Johnathan Motley is grabbing 11.7 per game. In thirteen games, Motley is averaging 25.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and nearly a block a game. He recently took home G-League player of the month for October and November. He is not a G-League caliber player, Motley is a pro. Delgado will probably take more time to refine his offensive game, but it is time for Motley to get some burn as the Clips back-up five.

The Clips have nothing to lose as Motley can only spend 45 days with the team under the two-way contract. He could provide some high energy play against 2nd and third units to try to prove his worth. He is one inch shorter than Gortat, but provides better all-around offense and will more than likely rebound better. Take a look below at film from last season and this year with AC Clippers.

It’s time to experiment a bit. Though I appreciate the small-ball lineups Doc tries to implement, they aren’t working. If the Clippers want to maintain their standing as a playoff team in the West, getting better inside is imperative. Maybe Motley isn’t the answer, but he needs the chance. We know damn well that Gortat is a liability for this team on many nights and that Boban can’t play against everyone. Motley might not be the answer, but he’s at least a potential answer, which we know Gortat and Boban are not.