There is good news and bad news to where the Clippers stand right now in the Western Conference. It’s mostly good, but let’s still be cautious here. The good is that the Clips are 37 games into their season, and reside squarely within the historically close Western Conference playoff race with a 21-16 record. This is miles ahead of where most thought they would be at this juncture (Early Vegas odds had the Clips winning 35.5 games this season). Additionally, they are proving to be a problem for top Western Conference teams, as they have picked up wins against the Rockets (twice), Thunder, Warriors, Nuggets, Trail Blazers and Lakers.
The Clippers’ schedule thus far has been one of the hardest in the league (third according to ESPN’s metrics), yet they are still alive. However, the bad news to all of this positivity was the month of December and what we saw from this team.
In the 12th month of the year, the Clippers went 6-9. For the first time this season, the problems that plagued them early on (interior play, rotations, Avery Bradley’s minutes, Tobias Harris’ inability to score late) were magnified and resulted in a 38-point blowout at the hands of a fringe playoff team (Spurs) and bad losses to current lottery teams like the Mavericks and Grizzlies. It also didn’t help that Lou Williams missed four games (all losses) due to a strained hamstring.
December brought about a defense that couldn’t seem to hold teams under 120 points (8 of 15 teams in December scored over that mark), interior play that bordered on horrendous, and some questionable rotation moves from head coach Doc Rivers. This was the first stretch of games where the Clippers looked vulnerable on multiple fronts throughout games, and where a lack of go-to scoring or multiple stars hurt them. It was also the most inconsistent the Clippers have looked all season. A month that saw L.A. lose seven out of nine to start also saw the Clippers win four out of five by the end of it.
We saw the best and worst of this team. We saw games where opposing offensive boards were handed out like free samples, heavy lapses in scoring, and Avery Bradley almost posting a 30 Billion stat line (30 minutes, everything else zero). December also saw the best shooting game in Clippers history in a losing effort, comfortable wins over L.A.’s other team and the team with the best record in the West in the Nuggets, and hard fought dubs over the Pelicans and Mavericks, two teams who caused problems for the Clips earlier in the year.
The Clips can’t seem to put together a formidable win streak to separate themselves from the eighth seed. However, the Clips are exceeding expectations, and with some tweaks (lineup changes and maybe some trades), the Clips will continue to see success. January could prove to be the ultimate separator.
The Clippers are finally getting a little breathing room schedule-wise in the first month of 2019. They will face ten teams that are currently (as of Jan. 2) at or below .500. Six of these games are at home. Games against the Suns, Bulls, Hawks, Magic, Hornets, and Heat would be let-downs if they ended up in the loss column. The Clips also play against the Pistons in L.A., which will be Blake Griffin’s first game back on the Staples Center floor against the Clippers since they shipped him to the Midwest nearly a year ago. The Clips also have home games against the Kings, who they are 2-0 against this season, a game in Staples against the inconsistent, and hobbled, Lakers, a game in Denver against the Nuggets who the Clips match up well with, and an away matchup against the 17-19 Mavericks. On paper, the Clips will more than likely be favored in about 10-11 of the 15 games they have this month. If the Clippers can stay healthy and capitalize on an easier slate of games in January, we could be seeing a return to a top three standing.
This month is important for the team as a whole, but Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams can do themselves huge favors this month by balling out and trying to secure a spot among the Western Conference All-Star reserves. After winning Western Conference Player of the Month for October and November, Harris struggled in December. He shot 40.8 percent from three, down from 47.8 percent in November, and only 46.9 percent total after going on a tear in November (54.4 percent). He also had three games in which he scored 10 or less points, and saw his rebounding stats go down from 8.6 to 7.5 rebounds a game. With a high-usage player like Harris, lulls will come. He is still averaging 21 points a game and 8.1 rebounds for a playoff team, but in the ultra-competitive West, these numbers aren’t good enough for All-Star recognition (Just look at Lou’s snub from last year).
If Harris is a Clipper for the foreseeable future, his being a part of the 12 best players in the conference would go a long way, not only for his confidence, but for recruiting purposes come free agency. It’s known that guys want to be in the City of Angels, but playing alongside another All-Star will definitely be more enticing still.
The Clippers have a tendency to play down to their competition and scramble to win late. They also have shown to be one of the harder teams in the West to win against when playing elite teams. Which Clipper team will show up this month? If it’s a team without a chip on their shoulder, they could slide down the standings even more. If they perk up and take care of business, we could be seeing a top three Western Conference team a little more than midway through the season.