Nikola Jokic comes into Staples Center tonight, and few individual opponents have given the Clippers more difficulty recently.
Jokic is the exact archetype of a player that disrupts the Clippers’ preferred style of play. Big, bruising centers like Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Jonas Valanciunas, among others, generally do very well against the Clippers. LA chooses to play 6-foot-7 Montrezl Harrell for the majority of the team’s center minutes (28.2 per game), and that puts the Clippers at an inherent size disadvantage against players of Jokic’s ilk.
LA and Denver have only met once this season, a 114-104 Nuggets win that wasn’t as close as the final score would suggest, but the way the game transpired is instructive for how the Clippers handle their center rotation.
The Nuggets went up by double digits in the second quarter and held that advantage for most of the game. They built that lead by outscoring LA by 14 points in the first half when Harrell was on the court. As a point of reference, the Clippers and the Nuggets were even when Ivica Zubac was in the game.
When Zubac was on the floor, Jokic didn’t make any twos in the paint. The Denver center did pop out for three jumpers, two from beyond the arc, but LA was successful in minimizing the damage at the basket. That should come as no surprise, given that Zubac ranks as the third best rim protector among centers, per NBA.com. Zubac holds opponents to 44.9% shooting on shots inside 6 feet, trailing only Brook and Robin Lopez. When the Clippers need a defensive center, they have one.
Despite Zubac’s sterling defensive metrics (which may be a bit inflated given that he plays most of his minutes with the best defenders on the team’s roster, including Kawhi Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley), Zubac’s overall minute mark at 17.9 minutes per game is dwarfed by that of Harrell. That difference becomes even more pronounced at the end of games. Harrell has appeared in every fourth quarter and leads the team in that period with 9.2 minutes per game. Zubac, meanwhile, has only played in 18 fourth quarters for an average of 3.2 minutes per appearance. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out, Zubac holds the ignominious distinction of playing the fewest percentage of his total minutes in the fourth quarter, just 5.5% of them.
To take that one step further, Zubac has only even appeared in three clutch situations all season for the Clippers, which are defined as games that are within five points in the last five minutes. Harrell has played in 26.
When the topic of Harrell and Zubac’s minutes comes up, this is the real problem. There are good reasons for Harrell to outpace Zubac in minutes — he is more offensively skilled, allows the team to switch more on defense, and does a better job of sustaining his energy level. But the disparity in their fourth-quarter and crunch-time minutes is the more pertinent issue. Even if Harrell deserves playing time, the volume of minutes he is carrying down the stretch is doing him a disservice.
Against the Nuggets in January, Harrell played the last 18:17 consecutively. In a loss to the Celtics before the All-Star break, Harrell played the last 21 minutes of regulation and then all of the two overtimes except for the last 12 seconds. In a loss to the Kings last Saturday, Harrell played the last 17 minutes.
Those minutes totals are untenable. Harrell can’t be expected to box out adequately, rotate, or have the energy to power through defenders on the offensive end if he is playing 30 straight minutes. That’s absurd, especially against bigger bodies.
Against the Suns Wednesday, Zubac played about four minutes in the fourth quarter to help spell Harrell against Deandre Ayton, another big, physical center. Harrell still got to close the game and finished with five more minutes than Zubac. It’s the type of balance the Clippers should look to strike moving forward.
If LA is unwilling to play Zubac down the stretch of close games, they could go small. However, because of the presence of two centers on the roster, the Clippers haven’t experimented much with small ball this season. There was a theory that JaMychal Green would be the team’s small-ball five after adopting that role during the playoffs last year, but he has played 96% of his minutes at power forward this season, per Cleaning the Glass. The bulk of his center minutes likely came in the one game Harrell was forced to miss with the flu in December.
Now, the Clippers have another player who can moonlight as small-ball center: Marcus Morris Sr. Even if the Morris isn’t the five, he has enough at size at the four that Doc Rivers is comfortable using Green alongside him. The Clippers spent about two and a half minutes in the first half against Phoenix with those two as the bigs, providing the Clippers their first real opportunity to go five out.
If the Clippers are concerned with Zubac's offense as a reason to not use him down the stretch of close games, which is a reason Rivers has alluded to on a number of occasions, going small is definitely an offensive option to get Harrell some rest.
Against most teams, the Clippers can probably continue their normal substitution patterns with Zubac and Harrell. However, Jokic is an oddity, an All-Star who demands that defenses adjust to him. In the first matchup, the Clippers were unwilling to do so, but they have since updated their personnel. Whether they utilize their newfound flexibility or revert to their old habits could determine how well they match up with the Nuggets now, and in a potential postseason series.