Let’s start with some housekeeping matters. At our first check-in this season, the Clippers were 6-4; not great, but certainly not the worst either. From that point on to our second check-in, they went 5-5, good for an 11-9 overall record; middling, yet again. Now, here we sit, with the team sitting at 16-15, insecurely sixth in the Western Conference’s crowded middle tier.
They’ve gone 5-6 since the last time we unpacked 10 things from their previous 10 games. Even though it has been 11 games since then, let’s do it again, shall we? Here are the 10 things — Zach Lowe-style — I’ve noticed over the course of the Clippers' most recent stretch.
1. The defense has regressed a bit
During their first 20 games of the season, the Clippers only gave up 110-plus points to an opponent six times. During their last 11? Another six. They still rank fourth overall in defensive rating. Their 105.7 rating has stacked up against some of the league’s elite, with formidable opposition like Golden State (101.2) and Phoenix (102.9) ranking first and second in the league, well within striking distance. But over their last 11, Los Angeles has fallen off; they’re 17th in the league during that stretch, with a defensive rating of 112.1 and a net rating of -3.7.
Some of the opponents pulling off these big nights are among the usual suspects — think the Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, and Los Angeles Lakers. But then come the New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs, all of whom didn’t just score more than 110: they scored more than 116, with both the Pelicans and Kings going for 123 and 124, respectively, in the span of three days. So, it’s not as if the Clippers are merely allowing their most intimidating opponents to score in bunches. They just seem to have some nights when they’re on — like when they held the Suns to 95 points in a 16-point thrashing, without Paul George, no less — and other nights when they’re off. To contend for a championship as the Clips’ defense has portended they can throughout this season, those slip-ups can’t happen.
2. Paul George is the problem
I’m kidding. But this is something I’d keep an eye on.
Before Paul George returned for their loss to the Spurs on Monday after missing six games with an injury in his shooting elbow, the Clippers had been better offensively than they had been with him all season. In those six games, they scored 110.9 points per 100 possessions; that’s compared to 105.2 per 100 with him in the lineup. Perhaps that’s a product of the ball moving around a bit more than it does with him on the floor, understandably touching it more than any other Clipper; nevertheless, it’s just something to watch. I wouldn’t place too much stock in a theory that this team is better off with both of its All-Stars sidelined, but it’s quirky stretches like these that make you go “hmmmmm...”
3. Something is happening with Eric Bledsoe
And surprise! It’s something good! Well, sort of. It’s a positive development for the Clippers, at least. Though he’s played in each of the team’s last 11 games, Bledsoe has only started in two, something I called for in a piece I wrote earlier this season. So far, decreased minutes for Bledsoe have worked — by giving him fewer opportunities, he’s playing with a sense of cognizance, like a player who knows of the opportunities he has and how best to maximize them.
In roughly 22 minutes per game over the last 11, Bledsoe is averaging a mere 8.7 points, but he’s been doing so efficiently. His 44-39 shooting splits (overall and three-point) are up from his season averages of 41 and 30, respectively. I’m especially intrigued by his improving 3-point numbers; when I called for him to lose a starting spot in November, I highlighted that Bledsoe often seemed a mite disinterested, playing a very pedestrian brand of off-ball basketball. Lately, he’s seemed more determined, more focused when his number is called. That’s proven to be true both statistically and observationally.
Maybe he’s trying to get that starting job back, or maybe he’s just accepting a role that is different from any he’s ever held in his career to this point and running with it. Either way, he’s shown signs of being a serviceable player. No, he hasn’t been perfect. But he’s been better.
4. Luke Kennard would like for you to pay attention to his evolving game, please
Sure, Kennard’s a three-point marksman. We knew this already. His 51 percent shooting from deep over his last 11 is phenomenal, but it’s hardly surprising. Telling someone that Kennard is a great shooter isn’t providing them new information — you may as well whisper in their ear, “hey, snow falls when it’s cold,” or “cereal should go in the bowl before the milk.”
But if you were to tell them that Kennard is becoming a triple-threat offensive player, they might roll their eyes, perhaps even chuckle. That’s the tell of someone who hasn’t been paying attention, and Kennard would certainly prefer that they did. He’s been driving 3.1 times per game since Nov. 29, and scoring on 73.5 percent of those drives. Both averages are up from 2.3 and 56.3 percent over the course of the entire regular season.
The same goes for Kennard on pull-ups. This season, he’s attempted 2.8 pull-up jumpers per game, shot 37.2 percent on such attempts, and scored 2.5 points per game on pull-ups. Since Nov. 29, those per-game averages have jumped up to 3.5 pull-ups, 41.2 percent shooting, and 3.4 points. He’s diversifying his attempts, ensuring that his opportunities aren’t solely limited to those he finds regularly from beyond the arc. That’s still his game’s most dominant trait, but it’s no longer the sole thing he can lean on. As a starter, he’s forcing defenders to pay attention; perhaps you should, too.
5. Brandon Boston Jr. has arrived
Boston Jr., the final of the Clippers’ three selections in this past year’s NBA Draft, took some time to get going, that’s for sure. He logged inactive and DNPs aplenty throughout the season’s first 10 games. He wasn’t perceived as incapable, but he also wasn’t perceived as ready nor necessary to be plugged into reserve lineups just yet.
But of late, he’s become more of a fixture in Tyronn Lue’s rotation; of the team’s last 11 games, Boston has played in every one. He’s averaging just 7.3 points in them, but he’s getting up shots — 6.5 per game, to be exact, more than the combined handful he would receive over the course of a week or so earlier on this season.
He’s scored in double-figures thrice over the course of the last 11, too. He scored 13 twice, once against the Kings, and five days later against the Trail Blazers. He then scored a career-high 27 in a win over Boston just two days after that. These aren’t performances that serve as perfect predictors for his ceiling as a player, particularly due to the fact that they’ve been so spread out and inconsistent. But they, at the very least, do show what Boston is capable of in the long run.
6. Something else to keep an eye on, re: late-season durability
Reggie Jackson was perhaps the most integral piece of the Clippers deep playoff run last season, and while Kennard was hardly the same postseason stud that his teammate was, should the Clippers make the playoffs again this season, they’re both bound to be major cogs in this team’s championship-contending machine. And that Jackson (1,012) and Kennard (898) rank atop the Clippers in total minutes this season, as well as over the course of the last 11 games (Kennard has played 341, while Jackson has played 340), is worth monitoring. This three-season slog has taken its toll on many an otherwise immortal player, from LeBron James to Jaylen Brown to Zion Williamson; the Clippers can only hope that two of their more prolific contributors stay healthy, especially given the prolonged absences of Kawhi Leonard and the recently-injured George.
7. Terance Mann is really, really figuring it out
I’ve written thousands of words on Mann to this point, so I don’t necessarily feel it’s necessary to dedicate another few hundred to his efforts of late. But in five of his last six outings — all of which have been starts — he’s scored in double-figures, pouring in a high of 18 against the Thunder the other night. Mann, as I wrote last week, looks like the kind of player capitalizing on every opportunity he receives in this perfect role. If he can continue to do so consistently, he’ll only see that role grow as the season roars on.
8. This will never not be weird
Is it too late to change it back? Money be damned?
Its official, official. Staples Center is no more. pic.twitter.com/PdCIwPdEMo— Farbod Esnaashari (@Farbod_E) December 20, 2021
9. I’m gonna need to see a little more from Ivica Zubac
Here are some numbers from Zubac’s last 11 outings, in chronological order. I’m not going to tell you just yet what they represent. I’m just going to present them, context-free.
4; 7; 5; 11; 6; 10; 6; 5; 6; 6; 12.
Any guesses? None?
Those are the rebounds Ivica Zubac has pulled down in each of his last 11 games; they amount to an average of 7.1 rebounds per game, which ranks first on the Clippers, but is a mere 0.6 more boards than Terance Mann and 0.9 more than Paul George. In short: it’s not enough. For a seven-footer, and a once-elite rebounder, 7.1 rebounds per game is hardly enough to keep your team in games, especially when they’re needed late.
Not to mention: the team kiiiiiiinda sucks on the boards overall. So, it’s not ridiculous to expect their seven-footer to step up the most.
The 67 rebounds for the San Antonio Spurs tonight is the most an opponent has had against the Clippers since 1993.— Joey Linn (@joeylinn_) December 21, 2021
The Clippers allowed more rebounds tonight than they have in 28 years.
10. Overall, the Clippers have yet to be consistent, but there’s room to grow
If going 6-4 in their first 10, 5-5 in their next, and 5-6 in their most recent 11 doesn’t prove to you that this team has failed to play consistent basketball at any point this season, perhaps the up-and-down streaks they’ve gone on can paint a picture. At one point this season, they won seven straight, a slew of victories that vaulted them into conversations about contention alongside the West’s best teams. But on two separate occasions, both falling within their last 12 games, they’ve lost as many as three in a row. That includes their currently losing streak of three games, with a predictable loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz, but two less-than-acceptable efforts against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Spurs. One of those teams is tanking; the other, though playing better of late, might as well be.
What the Clippers have done too often this season is play to the level of their opponents. It sounds simple, perhaps even trite, but if you look at the results, it’s often the case. Matthew Scammahorn pointed this out on this very site this morning: More than half of their 15 losses have been against teams with records below .500, and five of their wins decided by less than 10 points have been against those same teams. They’ve gone wire to wire with the Thunder twice now, and are 0-2 this season against the Zion-less Pelicans who seem to be having a full-on identity crisis every time they take the basketball court. I shudder to think about a game between the Clippers and the Houston Rockets just as I’m eager to watch them take on the Miami Heat or Milwaukee Bucks. This, in summation, is an odd bunch with an odd track record. But with the red flags come bright spots, too, all of which have made them fascinating to watch.