It’s been a weird week in the Clippersphere.
Last Monday night, a week before tonight’s game, the shocking news broke: the Clippers had traded Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons.
Last Tuesday, an emotionally shell-shocked team and home crowd, playing extremely shorthanded as the new players were in transit, dropped a game to the Portland Trail Blazers—a game that could prove to be very important in the Western Conference playoff race, but felt like an afterthought as it was being played.
Then, three off days—the first such extended break for LAC since mid-November. Three days to try to navigate the emotions of Blake’s departure and familiarize ourselves with the new reality that the Clippers inhabit.
On Saturday, the team was back in action. Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris slid into the starting lineup in their first game as Clippers. Bradley was solid, if unspectacular, and Harris showed his offensive chops with a 24-point debut. Still, it was a low-energy affair, a weekend matinee against the lowly Chicago Bulls where the result was never really in doubt, but the Clippers failed to blow the game open.
The soft landing for the new Clippers continues tonight, as the Dallas Mavericks come to STAPLES Center. Dallas is 17-36 on the year, around the same as the Bulls. It’s a relatively easy match-up for L.A., but the team is still integrating the new faces and trying to establish a post-Blake identity. A win tonight is almost meaningless—it’s a game that you both should and have to win. A loss tonight would be a fairly large setback, both emotionally and in the standings.
On top of it all, the ground beneath the players’ feet is shifting as they play. The NBA’s trade deadline is this Thursday, and if Blake Griffin isn’t safe, then nobody is. DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams have been featured heavily in trade talks for weeks, while newcomer Avery Bradley’s status would be in flux. Bradley was surrounded by rumors before his salary became a necessary inclusion in the Blake Griffin package, and his expiring contract, when combined with the Clippers’ existing guard depth, means that those rumors will only continue. There’s a nonzero chance that all three are moved in the next 84 hours. There’s also a nonzero chance that the Clippers are done and make no more moves at this deadline. To call it a distraction for the players is probably an understatement.
While Dallas is far from a good team, they’re certainly one that’s capable of pulling off an upset. Their -2.1 point differential is significantly better than that of the teams around them in the standings, and basketball-reference calculates their expected win-loss at 23-30—still bad, but a good deal better than 17-36.
The Mavericks still feature timeless legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is averaging 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 43% from deep in his age 39 season. Notably, the Mavericks are on the second day of a back-to-back, and Dirk’s numbers, while still good, dip without rest. Their leading scorer, Harrison Barnes, is bringing 18.4 points and 6.6 rebounds on reasonably efficient 45% FG and 35% 3PT clips. Barnes, however, is dealing with a minor ankle issue that could cause him to be held out of this game, which would be a huge break for the Clippers.
The true star of Dallas’ show, however, is neither the franchise’s star or the squad’s leading scorer: it’s rookie Dennis Smith, Jr., who has had an exciting rookie season after being drafted 9th overall. Smith is averaging 14.7 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds, but his sub-par efficiency lowers the concern for the defense as he’s shooting under 40% from the field this season. That mark will improve in the years to come for the 20-year-old, and the Mavericks are hopeful that he can be a building block for their next generation.
Tonight, the Clippers can let Dallas have the long-term perspective as they worry about developing Smith. L.A. will need to do the opposite: forget about the events of last week and the potentialities of this week, and focus on winning this game. Regardless of who is on the team come Thursday afternoon (and Friday’s marquee match-up with Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons), the Clippers are tied in the loss column with 8th-place Denver and have just one more loss than Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Portland. They can’t afford to let one slip against the Mavericks if they want to realize the front office’s goal of competing for a playoff spot short-term despite management’s decisions to get younger and maximize flexibility long-term.