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Clippers’ Offense Rudderless Without Lou Williams

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like only yesterday that the Clippers were riding high with the best record in the Western Conference. Now, it feels like it’s all crashing down. Thursday’s 125-87 thumping in San Antonio at the hands of the Spurs was the Clippers’ fourth loss in their last 5 games. All 4 losses have come by double-digits, and the lone win was an overtime effort against the worst team in the NBA.

Exactly a week ago, the Clippers had the No. 5-ranked offense in the league, averaging 110 points per 100 possessions. Just a week later, they’ve dropped 5 spots (108.5 points per 100 possessions). LAC has failed to crack 100 points in each of the aforementioned 4 recent losses. It’s a bit shocking considering the Clips had scored at least 100 points in 22 consecutive games heading into their eventual 96-86 loss in Memphis back on December 5.

What gives? To be fair, two of the losses (Toronto, Memphis) came against teams that rank in the top-5 in defensive rating. Another came against Miami, who ranks 11th. Last night’s effort was pretty discouraging considering San Antonio is tied with New Orleans for the sixth-worst D-Rating in the league this year. The Spurs might be a better team than they’ve shown this year, but I’m not a believer. It was a bad loss for the Clippers.

That said, the loss to the Heat has to be considered the worst of the 4. Miami was without Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson (and Hassan Whiteside, though I’m not sure being without Whiteside is a bad thing for the Heat) and they were playing the second night of a back-to-back. Regardless, the Clippers let the Heat come into their barn and blow them out by 23.

The loss in Memphis wasn’t a fun one, but losing on the road against the Grizzlies this season isn’t shameful. The Heat result remains inexplicable, but the team’s offense has been particularly brutal for the last 2-plus games. Lou Williams exited the OT win over Phoenix after just 12 minutes with a hamstring issue, and the back-to-back blowout losses have come with Lou sidelined.

Williams isn’t in the midst of his best season, but his absence over the next several games looms large. Tobias Harris is great, but without Williams the Clippers don’t have a go-to secondary source of buckets. Montrezl Harrell, who averaged nearly 18 points per game in November, hasn’t even cracked 10 points in 4 of his last 5 outings. Now, his minutes are trending in the wrong direction. Danilo Gallinari is efficient, but I don’t think the Clippers can trust his creaky legs to go out there and take the reins offensively every single night.

Avery Bradley ain’t it, neither is Patrick Beverley. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shot it pretty efficiently, but he’s not the type of player - not yet, at least - that you want to be leaning on when you need a basket. Without Williams, the only Clipper guard really capable of creating offense for himself is Ty Wallace. Wallace was impressive as a two-way player last year, but Doc Rivers is still pretty hesitant to give him a solidified role. The vast majority of his minutes in the two games since Williams went out have come in garbage time.

The fact that the Clippers don’t have much by way of shot-creating guards is a problem. The one guard who does shoot, Williams, is connecting on a bricky 39.8% of his attempts so far this season. Still, the Clippers are clearly missing his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll. His absence over the last couple of games has played a role in Harrell’s continuing struggles, too. The Clippers are averaging 0.92 points per possession with Williams serving as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. Only Shai (1.06) has been better among Clippers. Not having other players consistently able to produce in PnR situations makes Lou’s absence even more glaring.

Williams was the unquestioned heart of the team last season, especially after Blake Griffin got traded. Despite the fact that he hasn’t been quite as efficient this year, he is still largely responsible for helping guide the offense. He’s known as a scorer, but his playmaking is an unheralded part of his game. The Clips have had a hard time replacing his 4-5 assists when he’s out of the lineup.

Were the Clippers just playing over their heads for the first month of the season? Possibly. Are they as bad as they’ve looked for the last week? Of course not. The reality is that this team is somewhere in between. They were never going to finish atop the Western Conference, but I still don’t think they’re going to slide all the way to the bottom, either.

There are personnel problems, to be sure. Getting nothing offensively out of the majority of your guard rotation is suboptimal. The center situation is kind of a mess, as well. Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic are too slow to guard stretchy centers, while Harrell isn’t quite big enough to deal with offensive-minded post types. LAC is allowing 51.6 points per game in the paint on the year, which is 27th in the league. Having no rim protection is obviously a humongous flaw. I think they may as well give Johnathan Motley some minutes at this point, but keep in mind he’s 6’9” and not the most explosive athlete. Motley may be able to give them something offensively, but an undersized center without much verticality isn’t solving their defensive woes.

This is where not having a true star hurts the Clippers. Rolling with the offense-by-committee kind of approach was always going to result in some dry spells, and it’s safe to say the Clips are in the midst of one of those at the moment. Not being able to protect the paint on the other end of the floor just makes it all the more difficult for the Clippers to stay afloat when the offense goes dark.

Things might not be getting much easier, either. Of the team’s next 9 games, 8 will come against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The only non-playoff team? The Spurs, who, uh, just whipped the Clippers. Williams’ return at some point will help bolster the offense, but being without him for the upcoming tough stretch may lead to some more long nights ahead.