With a third of the season left, the Clippers head into the All-Star break in the eighth seed, sitting one game in front of the Sacramento Kings, just as we all predicted heading into the season. Our Chris Murch already discussed the team’s mindset to make the playoffs, and since LA’s roster has been remade a little, it’s a good time to take stock of what the Clippers will look like on the court for the stretch run.
Tobias Harris had been the leading scorer in the first quarter for LA, getting the team’s offense going to the tune of seven points per game in the opening period. With Harris now in Philadelphia, and fellow starters Avery Bradley and Marcin Gortat also no longer on the team, the starters have a different balance. Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have been handling the ball more often and creating more. Gallinari’s usage rate has jumped from 22.5 percent to 24.9 in the past three games, and his assist percentage has also gone up from 12.5 percent to 15.7. Similarly, SGA’s usage has rise from 18 to 22 percent, and his assist percentage has spiked from 17 to 22.5 percent.
When I asked Gallinari if he anticipated having to create more offense in the first unit, he said, “Maybe. That’s something that we talked about, and it’s something that’s going to happen more and more.”
The Clippers now also have a center who enjoys playing pick-and-roll, rather than popping for jumpers, in Ivica Zubac. He and Gallinari have developed a nice two-man chemistry already — Gallinari fed the big man for a couple of easy buckets on the road trip, and Zubac returned the favor with a pretty assist against Phoenix.
Patrick Beverley and whoever starts at small forward (the Clippers have so far used both Garrett Temple and Landry Shamet) mostly function on offense to provide spacing around the action at the basket. So far, the lineup with Shamet has a preposterous plus-59.0 net rating in 17 minutes, while the Temple + starters group is at minus-7.0 in 26 minutes.
Nevertheless, the main reason the Clippers will continue to have success for the remainder of the season is because of their sixth and seventh men, who occupy those roles better than anybody in the NBA. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell running a pick-and-roll is the easiest offense LA has, and the most effective. Williams has become adept at reading any defense: He can hit Harrell with perfectly timed pocket passes as the center rolls to the rim. Lou can split the defense when the screen is set and jet to the basket for an easy floater. He can also reject the screen entirely and score past an unsuspecting defender.
It doesn’t really matter who surrounds Harrell and Williams on the second unit — the pairing alone is enough to generate scoring. The two-man lineup has a net rating of plus-7.6 for the season, and they’re only getting better as the season goes on.
For now, what’s most interesting among the reserves is that the Clippers aren’t going to play their youngsters unless they’ve earned minutes. Temple and JaMychal Green are lineup fixtures as veterans, so the final guard spot has been a battle between Tyrone Wallace and Jerome Robinson. Wallace got the nod against Phoenix, and dazzled in transition against one of the lazier defenses in the league, while Robinson was part of the team’s comeback in Boston. Wallace is a better defender, and Robinson is a better offensive player, so it might be a game-by-game decision for Doc Rivers depending on what LA needs. Sindarius Thornwell has essentially been the 11th man.
At the bigs, it seems like the days of a three-man rotation have passed, since Zubac is capable of playing more minutes than Gortat or Boban. Even though he was starting for the Lakers before the trade, after Wednesday’s win over Phoenix, Zubac said, “They expect more from me here, and I’m ready to deliver.” That means fewer minutes for Johnathan Motley, and even less for Ángel Delgado, both of whom were named to All-G League Midseason Team.
Rivers knows that going forward, he can rely on his four veteran leaders — Gallinari, Beverley, Williams, and Harrell — to keep the Clippers in contention for the postseason. Even though Harris is gone from that group, and the other players around them have changed, there is still enough at the core of the team to prevent the season from ending after game 82.