When Austin Rivers came back from his month-long absence a week ago, Milos Teodosic went out for two games with foot soreness. With both healthy the past couple games, however, the Clippers are the healthiest they have been since the opening weeks of the season. Pat Beverley remains out for the season due to knee surgery, but rookie point guard Jawun Evans should return after the All Star break (he’s been recovering from an abdominal strain). With a full complement of players healthy, the Clippers’ rotation is suddenly full of talent and scoring threats, and their play has improved as a result. They have won five of their last six games, seven of their last nine, and appear to truly be at the level of a Western Conference playoff team. The new guys have seamlessly integrated into the Clippers’ roster, and they are now more balanced on both ends of the court. The team perhaps isn’t as fun to watch as it was a month or two ago, when it had an adorable underdog quality, but winning is more important, and the Clippers are winning games right now. The Clippers have a lot of injury-prone players, so it’s important to enjoy this nearly full-strength squad for as long as they are available.
DeAndre Jordan reinvigorated:
DJ had a few rough games on either side of the trade deadline. With rumors swirling around his potential departure from Los Angeles (as well as failed attempts at an extension with the Clippers), DJ’s energy and impact seemed to be at a season low. Fortunately, DJ, being the professional he is, has put the past behind him, and has looked fantastic the past three games. His numbers in those three games: 10 points and 21 rebounds, 16 and 17, and, finally, a monstrous 30 and 13 against the Celtics (with 30 points being his career high). He has gobbled up rebounds, deterred shots around the rim, and thrown down thunderous slams. Jordan is the last true remnant of the Chris Paul era (apologies to Austin Rivers and Wes Johnson), and he’s not going out quietly. If the Clippers are to make a playoff run, they need this version of DJ, the version that has been an All-NBA player the last three seasons. As DJ is not participating in the All Star weekend, he should emerge from the break refreshed and reenergized, and the Clippers have to hope that his reign of terror is just beginning.
Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari combination:
Neither Tobias Harris nor Danilo Gallinari matches up with the sheer starpower and basketball dominance of Blake Griffin. But the Clippers’ new forward duo may well be an example of the “sum of the parts is greater than the whole”—they have looked very formidable together, albeit in still limited minutes. The two of them alongside Austin Rivers, Avery Bradley, and DeAndre Jordan (the current starting unit) is a +8.7 in over 61 minutes, while that group with Rivers swapped for Milos Teodosic is a +19.4 in 24 minutes. When isolated just down to two-man combinations, Harris and Gallo are a +5.3 in 155 minutes, which is Gallinari’s best rating with any teammate this season. The eye test matches the plus/minus numbers. The two play off each other well, as they can both shoot from deep, attack the basket, and make plays for others. The defensive end is a little shakier, yet both players are solid enough defenders at the forward positions, and their ability to switch multiple positions is highly valuable. Simply put, they are a true modern forward duo in the NBA, and the Clippers look good when they play together.
Young guys losing minutes:
The downside to having all the veteran players healthy is that the youngsters who have gotten significant playing time all year have lost their minutes over the past few weeks. Jawun Evans has been injured, true, but with Austin Rivers healthy and Avery Bradley in the frame, there aren’t many minutes for him. The same difficulty has hit Tyrone Wallace and Sindarius Thornwell. CJ Williams hasn’t even returned from Agua Caliente, though that’s also because his two-way contract is almost up. Similarly, Wallace was transferred to Ontario before the game against the Celtics, and didn’t travel with the team to Boston. Though it’s possible one of those two gets called up again closer to the end of the season, it seems like we have seen the last of Williams and Wallace for a while. Sindarius and Jawun might get scrap minutes if Doc Rivers ever wants some energy and pressure defense, but they are likely not going to be in the rotation either.
The young guys are the players who kept the Clippers afloat for over half the season, and it seems almost cruel to maroon them to the end of the bench. But such is life on a healthy, competing NBA team with strong veteran players. The good news is that even if none of the prospects get many minutes the rest of the season, they have each demonstrated their value in the time they did receive.
Western Conference playoff race:
While the Clippers are playing well of late, so is seemingly every other team at the middle and bottom of the West playoff picture. The Utah Jazz, who looked to be completely out of the playoffs three weeks ago, have won an incredible 11 games in row, putting them just two games behind the Clips. The Pelicans briefly stumbled after losing DeMarcus Cousins for the season, yet quickly recovered by winning their last three games. Denver has also won three in a row, while Portland, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City are winning just enough to keep them above the fray. The only team that’s falling is the San Antonio Spurs, but they are so far ahead of the Clippers that their sudden plight won’t affect them much. Right now there are eight teams within 4.5 games of each other fighting for just six playoffs spots—simple math rules that two of those teams will miss the postseason.
Despite their strong play, the Clippers are in one of the most precarious spots of any of those teams. It’s unlikely that San Antonio and Minnesota lose enough games to push them below the 8th seed, Oklahoma City probably has the most pure talent of any of the competing teams, and Utah is absolutely rolling. Meanwhile, Denver will get Paul Millsap back after the All Star break, which should be a huge boost for them. That leaves the Clips, Blazers, and Pelicans, and the Blazers are steadied by their fantastic backcourt. The Clippers are by no means out, but I’d say they are not one of the favorites to claim a spot in the playoffs at this point.