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Good, Bad, and Ugly: Clippers’ Transitionary Season Largely a Success

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The Clippers missed the playoffs this season, and were beset by a wide array of injuries, yet can still count their season as a success due to the seasons they had from players up and down the roster, and from the new culture that was installed by all the fresh faces in the locker room.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Good:

Doc Rivers/New Culture:

All the way back in October, I wrote that this season would be Doc Rivers’ greatest challenge as a head coach. In many ways, it has been—Doc has never before dealt with such a heavy spate of injuries as he did this season. Those injuries, in turn, led to Doc playing young, inexperienced players for extended periods in pivotal roles, something he has been loath to do over the past decade. Doc kept spirits on the team high, getting his team to compete almost every night of the season. Key players being absent did not get the team down, and a lot of the credit for that must go to Doc, who was clearly having a blast coaching a group that was so gritty and competitive. The Clippers boasted a completely different roster this season from the last couple years of the Chris Paul era, and with the new guys came a new attitude. The team fought, and scrapped, and never doubted themselves in any game or situation. This confidence was a key factor in the team’s many comebacks and upset wins-- a welcome sight for Clippers’ fans used to epic collapses and mental breakdowns. This team was a breath of fresh air, and much of that is due to their fortitude, spurred on and inspired by Doc.

Tobias Harris Revealing New Depths:

I’m going to be writing a lot more on Tobias Harris shortly, so I won’t say too much more here. But Tobias Harris was the key return for the Blake Griffin trade, and he has surpassed all the expectations that fans (and the Clippers themselves) set upon his arrival. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game as a Clipper, and revealed surprising strengths as a passer and help defender. Tobias might never be an All-NBA player. But he was good enough in February and March that All-Star appearances are not out of the question in his prime, and that level of player is a phenomenal return for Blake, especially considering their respective contracts.

Lou Williams, Should Have Been All-Star:

There aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe Lou Williams’ play this season. He kept this team alive when everyone was injured, when the bulk of his teammates were second-round rookies and two-way players. As the team finally got some of their pieces back, he morphed into a deadly closer and crunch-time scorer, capable of pouring on 15 points in the 4th quarter even during a down shooting night. Lou was more than just a streaky gunner, an offensive tool primarily used for drawing fouls and scoring buckets against opposing teams’ benches. He was the Clippers’ lead offensive option and playmaker, and the engine behind an offense that somehow, miraculously, finished as a top 8 group despite all the injuries. While everyone on the team deserves credit for that success (with Tobias’ shooting and DJ’s rim-rolling being particularly notable components), the Clippers probably would have been a bottom 10 offense without the contributions of Sweet Lou. Lou demonstrated an incredible connection with the Clippers’ big men, especially Montrezl Harrell, and stunned with his ability to rack up assists as a passer out of the pick and roll. Even as his shooting fell off down the stretch, Lou was the player most responsible for the Clippers’ offense being as potent as it was. Very few players meant more to their teams this season than Lou Williams, and all of them will finish in the MVP and All-NBA discussions. Lou not being an All-Star is one of the biggest disappointments of the season: he was worthy of that honor, and more.

Montrezl Harrell is a Beast:

While Lou was probably the best overall player on the Clippers this season (considering games played), nobody blew past expectations more than Montrezl Harrell. At the start of the season, most people didn’t even expect him to be in the rotation, instead favoring the more traditional center, Willie Reed. By January, Harrell was firmly ensconced as the Clips’ backup center. By February, he was a key piece to their attack. The last couple months of the year, Harrell was an unstoppable force of nature, a player who only seemed to get stronger as everyone else on the team started to sag with fatigue and injuries. The Clippers thought Montrezl would be an energy guy, a player to be unleashed when the team needed a boost of adrenaline. Instead, he transformed himself into a dominant post player, with a running hook shot that seemingly never missed. And if Trez got the ball around the basket? Defenders had no chance: Trez was dunking it around or over them. Simply, Trez was one of the best bench players in the entire NBA down the stretch of the season, and quite possibly the best big man to come off the pine period. He’s a bit undersized. His incredible energy means he tired quickly, and couldn’t be in the game for lengthy stretches. Those limitations hopefully keep his price tag at a reasonable level, as he is a terrific player, and a fan favorite in the city of angels.

Bad:

Missing the Playoffs:

In the big picture, missing the playoffs might be a good thing. The Clippers will get a higher draft pick, and at least have a chance (a 2.3% chance, to be specific) to leap into the top three of the draft, with the possibility of a franchise player on the way. They were completely gassed by the end of the season, and would have had no chance against the Rockets or even the beaten up Warriors in the playoffs. However, it’s a bummer that this team, and these players, did not make the postseason. The Clippers sneaking into the playoffs would have been such a great reward for the team, and a fitting conclusion to the fight and heart that they showed this season. The injuries and fatigue were just too much, however, and the Clippers fell short.

Sam Dekker’s Disappointing Year:

Sam Dekker was viewed as a key piece to the Chris Paul deal when he came to the Clippers last July. A large, athletic wing, Dekker had been a rotation piece for a very good Houston team the previous season, and going into just his third season in the NBA, there was every hope that he might be an improved player for the Clips. That did not happen. Sam started off the season looking lost in the Clippers’ schemes on both ends, especially on offense, and just didn’t appear to know where to be on the court. This led to quick pulls from Doc Rivers, who was frustrated by his lack of knowledge. As the season went along, Sam grew more comfortable, but his confidence, particularly in his outside shot, appeared to have taken a permanent hit. Outside of a six week stretch or so in the months of December and January, he was not a positive rotation player. Sam’s unwillingness to take three-point shots severely hurt the team’s spacing, exacerbated by his pairing with other non-shooters such as Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans. With Wes Johnson struggling for most of the season, there was every opportunity for Sam to take his minutes. Sadly, this just wasn’t Sam’s season. Hopefully he comes back next year with an improved jump shot and renewed confidence.

Ugly:

Danilo Gallinari’s Injury-Ridden Season:

Danilo Gallinari was the Clippers’ big addition last summer, a coveted free agent who signed a 3 year, $60 million deal to play alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. That lineup played in just a handful of games together at the start of the season due to Blake and Gallo’s injuries, and was then permanently dissolved when Blake was sent to Detroit. Danilo finished the season playing just 671 minutes over 21 games—13 players played more minutes for the Clippers this season than Gallo. When he did play, he never seemed to find a rhythm. The Clippers only saw glimpses of the near All-Star who was so effective for the Nuggets over the past half-decade. Rather, they got an effective yet limited player who clearly wanted to do things on the court that his body wouldn’t let him do. Gallo’s legs were never under him on his jump shot, and any swiftness he had on the defensive end deserted him. A summer of recovery and rehab is clearly much needed. There is a strong possibility that Gallo is never the same player that he was a few seasons ago, but he should be significantly better next season if he’s mostly healthy.

Injuries in General:

This Clippers’ team never had a chance at showing what it could do this season. Starting point guard, best defensive player, and emotional leader Patrick Beverley appeared in only 11 games, his season prematurely cut short due to knee surgery. Avery Bradley, a key component to the Blake Griffin trade, played only six games before he too was sidelined for the rest of the season. Gallinari, as mentioned, was in and out of the lineup (mostly out), and never appeared fully healthy. Milos Teodosic, who dazzled to start the season as a passer and playmaker, missed nearly half the season with a troublesome plantar fascia injury. Right when he was getting going again he was forced out, and his injury was probably the final death-knell to the Clippers’ season. Austin Rivers missed a long stretch of games. Jawun Evans was out for most of the latter half of the season with a sports hernia, the same injury that Bradley was suffering from. There were only a few games all season where the Clippers were even close to full strength, and they looked really, really good in those games. Their defense would have been much improved with Beverley on the court, hounding opposing ball-handlers and getting under players’ skins. The Clippers’ offense, already robust, would have been even better with Bradley and Beverley’s outside shooting, much less Gallinari’s overall offensive game. If the Clippers had even regular injury troubles they would have been a playoff team. If they’d been as fortunate with their injury situations as the Thunder or Blazers, who knows how strong a team they might have been. Alas, it was not to be.