The Clippers can point to many factors that led to their loss against the Lakers, among them poor shooting from beyond the arc and an otherworldly performance from Avery Bradley, but the one that seems most pertinent going forward is the lack of ball movement.
Against the Lakers, the most startling statistic on the box score was that the Clippers had 12 assists to 15 turnovers. It’s only the third time this season the team has had more turnovers than assists, moving the Clippers to 1-2 in those contests.
On the year, the Clippers aren’t one of the more assist-friendly teams. They rank 23rd in the league in assist percentage (57.2%) and have one of the best isolation scorers in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard. They don’t need to move the ball to get good shots, but it certainly helps, especially against the league’s best defenses; the Lakers, who have the third best defensive rating (according to Cleaning the Glass) certainly qualify.
After the game, Doc Rivers was clear in identifying the culprit for the team’s defeat. “I didn’t think we had a lot of ball movement today offensively,” he said. “I thought our offense let us down more than our defense.”
The Clippers had their lowest assist percentage of the year, assisting on 35.3% of their baskets. That is substantially lower than their season average, which is already below the NBA average. It’s one thing when Leonard is getting to his spots in the midrange, or Paul George is beating his defender en route to the basket, but far too many possessions against the Lakers looked like this:
In the first clip, the Clippers have a mismatch with Rajon Rondo guarding Leonard, but Morris elects to isolate on Avery Bradley, a superior defender. He also doesn’t apply pressure on the defense and settles for a fadeaway jumper.
Later in the game, Lou Williams has the defense collapsed when he drives into the lane, but instead of trying to kick the ball out to the perimeter or dump it to Montrezl Harrell, he attacks LeBron James and is denied at the rim.
Both plays were indicative of the Clippers not trusting their offense and trying to do too much individually.
“I thought we got good shots, we shoulda just did a little bit more player movement, which would’ve gotten the ball moving around,” George said after the game.
Rivers agreed with the sentiment. “I just thought the ball stuck tonight for whatever reason,” he said. “In some ways it is probably good for us to see. You have to keep trusting everything you do offensively and I don’t think we did that well.”
It would be disingenuous to place the blame for the Clippers’ offensive struggles solely on them — the Lakers had a lot to do with it. Their switching defense stifled the Clippers’ actions, and the team didn’t respond well. Instead of moving the ball to try to attack the switches, the Clippers were too often willing to take what the defense was giving.
The Clippers average 271 passes per game, per NBA.com. They only made 229 passes against the Lakers. Even if the team’s assist numbers were deflated by poor shooting, they only created 28 potential assists, 15 fewer than their season average. By every metric used to measure ball movement, the Clippers were worse than usual, and it manifested in a poor offensive performance.
“They did a lot of switching. When teams do a lot of switching, it just makes it difficult for the ball movement, for you to drive and kick, do the things we naturally do that makes us a great basketball team,” Williams said. “And we didn’t adjust to it well. We’ll get ready for the next game.”
The Clippers don’t have to overhaul the way they play offense to beat the Lakers. They can still be an isolation-heavy team and outscore opponents; Leonard and George have the individual talent to create good shots against most defenders. But it’s easier for both of them to attack on the move rather than against a set defense, and off-ball movement creates more space for each of them to work. Leonard’s shot in particular looked smoother off the catch than off the dribble.
“We really didn’t play with too much pace this afternoon. We kind of came in the game on our heels a little bit,” Leonard said. “It really didn’t feel like we had a good rhythm out there.”
Since their lineup returned to full health, the Clippers have been the best team in the NBA. One loss doesn’t change the big picture, but it does reveal certain things the team should be working on. Among them is a commitment to moving the ball and playing with pace to keep the defense on its toes, instead of the Clippers being on their heels.