This year has been a double-edged sword so far for the Clippers and their fans. On one hand, L.A. is in the playoff hunt — a standing not many in NBA media circles believed would be the case beyond the first 20 games of the season. On the other, since the Clippers started the season strong - at one point having a first place standing in the Western Conference - many are now frustrated with the lack of consistency and their current eighth place standing.
As someone who believed that the Clips could notch 45 wins this season (I didn’t see how the Clips could be worse than the injury-riddled, 42-win season they had last year), but was also realistic about the lack of star power and tough schedule, this season has been a rollercoaster. Part of me is proud about what the Clips have done so far and hopeful for what can follow these next few months. Most of me, however, is reminding myself that these are the Clippers after all, and they still don’t have the horses to contend right now. The Clippers have fully regressed to the mean at this point in the season, and stand at 28-24 after a bad home loss to the Atlanta Hawks and heart breaker to the Lakers. Let’s break down a few reasons why L.A. hasn’t been able to maintain a top three Western Conference playoff standing.
The Clippers leave me scratching my head constantly. They will pick up a cohesive, dominating win against the above .500 Kings, then the next night put up a complete dud against the lowly Hawks. Or how about winning five straight against teams like the Bucks, Warriors, Spurs and Nets, then blow a 24-point lead against the Wizards. L.A. has also had multiple losing streaks of more than four games barely over the halfway mark of the season. Yet, here they are in probably the toughest playoff race in sports. When your team doesn’t have a true go-to star, it’s hard to get consistent buckets. When your team doesn’t have any interior defensive presence, it’s easy to give up consistent buckets. The Clips rank 19th in defensive rating, 13th in offensive rating, and 14th in net rating. Just middle of the pack blandness right now.
How can this be corrected?: Staying healthy will help. The bsences of Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams have hurt this team for stretches and contributed to some bad losses. Beyond what’s not controllable — switching the lineups up could help. As Jovan Buha of the Athletic pointed out in a January 21 piece, the Clippers starting lineup of SGA, AB, Tobias, Gallo and Gortat has been the worst starting lineup in the league of any five who have played 215+ minutes this season. The recent shakeup, due to Gallo’s injury, of inserting former starter Patrick Beverley alongside AB and SGA has helped a little - the Clips are 15-8 when Pat starts - however, when Gallo comes back what is going to happen? The logical choice in the eyes of fans is to move Bradley to the bench, but we all know that won’t happen. The next logical choice is to, sadly, move SGA to the second unit. Beverley has brought a defensive edge to the starting lineup that they desperately need. SGA is a better fit alongside Lou and Harrell with the 2nd unit, as he can guard the opposing teams best guard with his 6’6” frame - thus hiding Lou a bit more on that end.
Doc’s inability to change for the better
Doc’s stubbornness has been a thorn in the side of Clipper fans throughout his tenure as head coach. The perfect case-in-point of his inability to adapt is occurring this season, as he continues to start and play Avery Bradley big minutes despite every advanced analytic saying he should be in a more limited role. Doc was even quoted as saying that AB is “unstatable”, which makes no sense considering there are relatively accurate metrics for performance widely available. He is having a career worst year both offensively and defensively, and while he has picked up his play lately, the Clips should try to trade him ASAP. Outside of Bradley, Doc has actually bucked his normal criticism of not playing rookies - as SGA has been a starter the majority of the season. However, we have seen rotation mistakes all over the floor
How can this be corrected?: At this point, there might need to be front office intervention or a trade to correct some of Doc’s bad decisions. I am 50/50 on whether the Clippers will actually trade anyone before Feb. 7th but some player movement — especially for our many expiring deals could help.
True lack of a number one option
A lot has been made as to whether Tobias Harris is a true #1 option for a team. While he is averaging career highs across the board, has improved in every facet of the game, and is a true All-Star snub, this question is still complicated. Is he the guy whose hands you want the ball in for the last shot? Time and time again this has been Lou Williams…mostly to positive results. So, not really. Is he capable of taking over? As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Tobias tends to shy away from shooting or playmaking in the fourth. He seems to relish the first and third quarters while wilting in the fourth. It’s an interesting development that could affect his money moving forward. The fact remains that Lou is the number one scoring option in crunch time, while Gallo and Tobi are those guys in the first half and usually in the third is when Trez wakes up. This lack of a “star” means that when the Clips need go-to buckets, sometimes they don’t get them. This allows for some absolute duds of games, like when L.A. scored 86 against the Grizzlies or 87 against the Spurs.
How can this be corrected?: This is tricky, but most likely wont be addressed until after the season. Unless the Clips pull off a blockbuster trade around the deadline, they will more than likely ride this season out and focus on the 2019 offseason. The whole mantra of the Clips season this year has been “win now, but if we don’t then it’s probably ok,” given that if they are in the lottery they still have their first-round pick (gone to the Celtics if they make the playoffs) and they have been eyeing Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard all along with a fat free agency class ahead.
Outside of moving pieces…this is on Tobias to start showing up when it comes time. I’m fine with Lou having the ball in his hands in the fourth, but Harris needs to start asserting himself more late in games. He can take big men off the dribble and can shoot over smaller defenders. If he really wants a max deal this summer, becoming “the guy” will be imperative. As someone who turned down $80 million this past summer, he bet on himself. So far the numbers are backing up his max-deal quality— but if you take a deeper look, it’s not as pretty.
Where has the defense gone?
Early this season, the Clippers were as balanced as they had been in a long time. Led by Beverley, Gallo, sometimes AB, and the improved Harris, the defense was sturdy, and ranked top 10 defensively. However, defensive consistency has gone by the wayside as rotations have changed and fatigue set in. “Clamp City” looked real for about 15 days of the season…now the Clippers are allowing 113.4 points per game, good for 24th in the league. How did we come to this? They rank 10th in opponent field goal percentage (45.5 percent), which is surprising given the amount of points given up on a nightly basis. Well for one, the Clippers are second to last in the NBA in allowing offensive rebounds, and giving up second chances that easily is costly. Another key stat to focus on is L.A. ranking 28th in free throw attempts allowed per game to their opponents. The Clips are currently allowing teams to shoot 26.1 free throws a game, of which 20.2 are converted, also good for 28th in the league. With the lack of size inside and ball-hawking perimeter defenders, rebounds and fouls are going to happen. The Clippers’ struggles are a side effect of not going after a better center this offseason and the new rules regarding hand-checking both on and off-ball.
How can this be corrected?: There are three lineups for the Clips that have played at least 70 minutes together and have a sub-100 defensive rating:
Lou, Pat, AB, Tobi, Trez - 70 mins, 91.6 def rating
SGA, AB, Tobi, Gallo, Boban - 80 mins, 94.6 def rating
Pat, Lou, Tobi, Gallo, Trez - 80 mins, 98.4 def rating
These lineups tell us something about the style in which the Clips play and where their success lies. When they go with a smaller lineup (Boban exception — mostly garbage time) they have success on both sides of the ball. Not only is their defensive rating better, their offensive rating with Trez in these two lineups are above 117. A name I don’t see on here is Gortat, who fouls because he can’t move his feet. The irony of these lineups is that these are totally manageable and playable squads. When the Clips have gone small with Gallo on the block, they score better and defend better. Is it sustainable for entire games? Maybe not…however these lineups need to be looked at for more minutes.
Lack of interior play
I have touched on the Clips lack of solid interior play (minus Trez) before, and talked about it above. It’s simple really: the Clips decided to skimp on a stopgap center this summer when trading Austin Rivers, and decided that keeping a disgruntled DJ wasn’t smart. Now, the Clippers are stuck with a stiff Gortat, undersized Trez, inexperienced Johnathan Motley, and the mostly unplayable Boban. We all love Boban and Trez, but they are not number one options as 5’s. It’s funny because in the modern NBA, the Clippers should be fine without a man in the middle right? Well, when you don’t have the offensive horses or a true star to go to for a bucket, defense (especially inside) becomes imperative. Right now, L.A. does not have this.
How can this be corrected?: Similar to our star treatment above…either ride this season out and try to get a bigger guy this offseason, or try to pull off some Jerry West magic in the next six days. With DJ seemingly back on the market pending a Knicks buyout after the Kristaps trade (that still might not happen), his return could be an option. Another could a trade with a lottery team for a more solid center. If the Clips are really intent on staying in the Western Conference playoff race (which is really in danger after the loss to the Lakers Thursday night), then picking up a piece at the deadline is pretty much a necessity. Going after a big should be priority number one.
All stats courtesy of stats.nba.com