The Clippers are off to a 4-2 start against an extremely difficult schedule, and have mostly looked pretty good in the process. Here are some takeaways from their first handful of games covering both the encouraging and discouraging realms of their play.
Kawhi Leonard is the reigning Finals MVP, and was widely acknowledged as a top five player in the NBA coming into this season. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he’s been fantastic and the Clippers best player by a vast margin. What has been surprising is how Kawhi has done his damage. Previously viewed as an average (at best) passer and playmaker, Kawhi has dazzled in that realm thus far this year. He’s dropped no-look passes, beautiful pocket dishes to rolling big men, and cross-court feeds to three-point shooters. Most importantly, he’s excelled in the pick and roll, developing chemistry with both Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac as a playmaker and scorer. He’s leveraged his ball-handling to snake his way into the lane and either rise up for midrange jumpers or find his big men under the basket, and opposing teams have really not found a way to consistently stop him. Kawhi looks every bit like one of the best basketball players in the world, which is extremely heartening.
While it hasn’t always been pretty at times, the Clippers offense has been highly effective through six games, ranking at 3rd in NBA.com’s offense rating metric. The Clippers have moved the ball well, utilizing the defensive attention drawn by Kawhi Leonard (and Lou Williams) to attack mismatches and get to the rim. The Clippers have also received big offensive games from nearly everyone in the rotation, from JaMychal Green to Ivica Zubac to Patrick Patterson, and they truly do appear to have a significant amount of shooting all up and down their roster. Their offensive prowess does not seem like an outlier, and will only improve when Paul George and his shooting, foul-drawing, and shot-creation enters the fray. The Clippers seemed like a potential defensive juggernaut coming into the season, but thus far, offense has been the name of the game.
The End of Terance Mann’s Hype
In the preseason, the NBA was Terance Mann’s oyster. The second-round rookie was receiving praise from Clippers players, coaches, and fans, and was truly impressive with his poise playing a new position. His size and length stood out defensively, he displayed a preternatural ability to pass the basketball, and he generally looked like he belonged. Six games into the 2020 regular season, Mann has played 16 minutes across four games, all in garbage time. This isn’t necessarily surprising – the Clippers are good and have many players who need minutes – but it has to be at least slightly disappointing considering all the hype. Fans always love watching young player excel on veteran-laden teams (look no further than SGA last year), and Mann promised to be a lesser version of that this season. He could still get his chance, but with Paul George’s impending return and minutes therefore shrinking for wings across the roster, it might not be any time soon.
Surprisingly, while the offense has soared, the defense has struggled. True, the Clippers are without Paul George, one of the best defensive players in the NBA, and lacked Rodney McGruder, another plus perimeter presence, for the first four games. Still, their issues defensively have been at least somewhat concerning, with teams consistently getting open looks from three and moving the ball around at will. The Clippers have plenty of capable defenders on their roster, and effort has not really been an issue (outside of the Suns game), so what’s the deal? Well, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have been bad on that end, Trez in particular, and when a defensively-troubled center gets big minutes its difficult to have a strong defense, even with excellent perimeter defense. Trez has played at least competent defense before, so his issues this year (being out of place, rotating slow or incorrectly) can be worked out. If he’s able to improve, the Clippers should tick upwards, even discounting the return of George.
Pat Beverley’s Shooting
It’s been tough to watch Pat shoot this season. While the Clippers point guard and emotional leader has been effective as ever as a rebounder, defender, and overall player, he’s been ice cold as a scorer, making just 33.3% of his field goals and 15.4% of his threes. Not only has that taken points off the board for the Clippers, but its also allowed opposing teams to freely double and trap Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams, thinking that Pat won’t be able to punish them from deep. Worse, Pat has hesitated a handful of times on shooting, which just can’t happen. Fortunately, Beverley started last year in a slump as well and worked his way out of it by December – the Clippers could use his shooting now, but he will come around.