Against the Nuggets last Sunday, the Clippers had one of their worst three-point shooting outings of the season, connecting on 3-of-21 shots from beyond the arc. It wasn’t just the percentage (14.3%) that was alarming, but also the low number of attempts the team put up.
One night later, LA played Dallas and rebounded not only with a win, but also with substantially better shooting, particularly from distance. The Clippers attempted 45 threes — their highest output of the season, per Basketball Reference — and made 17 of them for a 37.8 percent clip.
It’s disingenuous to compare a game on the road against Denver to one at home against the Mavericks (even if the two teams only differ in defensive rating by about a point), but it was clear that the offense looked smoother for LA when the three-pointer was a more significant weapon.
For most of the season, threes haven’t been a large part of the Clipper offense. That might be changing, as LA has been posting some of its highest three-point rates since the trade deadline, so it’s worth considering: should the Clippers be taking more threes?
As a team, three-pointers make up 28.9 percent of the LA’s field-goal attempts, which is second-to-last in the league. Even though the Clippers shoot 37.7 percent from three, tied for third in the NBA (for context, the league average is 35.4 percent), they only generate 25.2 percent of their offense from threes. That is the lowest mark in the league.
Much like his former coach Gregg Popovich, whose San Antonio Spurs also rank near the bottom of those aforementioned categories, Doc Rivers doesn’t emphasize shooting threes to the same degree as many other teams in the league. Take them if you’re open, but not if you can get an easier shot.
“We want to shoot threes, but we try to believe in shooting open threes, not forced threes,” Rivers said after the Dallas game. “I think our guys do a pretty good job. That’s why we’re a high-percentage team, because they take the right threes for the most part.”
The numbers bear out that the team is shooting well by being discerning. Danilo Gallinari is shooting the best percentage since his rookie year partly because 91.4 percent of his threes are classified as open or wide-open, per NBA.com, JaMychal Green has mentioned that he enjoys the ‘wide-open’ looks he gets playing next to Lou Williams, and he’s absolutely right — 96 percent of his threes as a Clipper are open, including 55 percent wide-open, meaning the closest defender is more than six feet away. In these situations, the Clippers are clearly taking the shots they’re supposed to be taking, and cashing in at a high rate.
It’s interesting that LA’s pet play in the second unit, a pick-and-roll between Williams and Montrezl Harrell, doesn’t lead to more three-pointers. Both Williams and Harrell are very tough to guard one-on-one, and yet the bench units don’t let fly any more often than the starters. Dallas trapped the ball-handler against the Clippers, which is what led to so many open shots, but that hasn’t been a common occurrence.
Williams is one of the only players who regularly shoots threes off the dribble for LA, and he could probably stand to do that more frequently, particularly if that replaces the mid-rangers in his shot profile. Williams takes 25 percent of his shots in the long midrange (more than 14 feet away) and 23 percent from three, but he actually shoots better from distance (36 to 35 percent).
Generally speaking, LA seems content to take what the defense gives, rather than making the three-pointer a more concerted part of the offensive repertoire, and the Clippers have good reason: There is no real indication that taking more threes results in more team success. In the ten games that the Clippers have posted their highest three-point rates, they are 4-6. In the bottom ten, they are 5-4.
The real bellwether for LA’s success is how well they shoot from three. When the Clippers shoot 50 percent or above from distance, they are 9-4. On the flip side, if they shoot below 30 percent, they are 4-11. The volume of threes varies wildly in both instances.
LA ranks 11th in offensive rating, at 110.5 points per 100 possessions. Even with a low three-point rate, the Clippers are still 7th in true shooting percentage because of how well they score close to the basket. The team is performing perfectly fine on the offensive end. Perhaps that improves with a little more emphasis on the long ball, but maybe the Clippers are just doing what suits them best.