The Clippers entered the season as one of the top contenders for the NBA title, having retooled their roster around their two superstars. Three months later, that hasn’t changed, even though the Clippers have gone through their ups and downs in the process.
The team’s offense has impressed — at least through the first 43 minutes or so of each game — while the defense has seemingly been less of a priority. But the team still has the sixth-best point differential in the league and is 18-6 when both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play. With that in mind, here’s how they fare in the league-wide power rankings.
This week: 6th | Last week: 4th
Second-half storyline: Are the Clippers better than last year or are they headed toward another disappointing finish?
Through 28 games, the Clippers have looked like a better offensive team, even with Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell gone and Lou Williams’ inconsistent play. But in the clutch against strong teams, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have shown a tendency to get too stagnant and could use a little help. The Clippers’ defense has yet to live up to its elite expectations. Like last season, the Clippers have had injuries and other health issues disrupt the team’s continuity and chemistry. As long as Ty Lue has a healthy Leonard and George, the Clippers’ play will be closer to that of their 21-8 start than their 3-5 slide into the break.
Bold prediction: The Clippers will show signs that they are better than a year ago. George will continue his bounce-back campaign, Leonard will remain a steady MVP contender and the offense will be better under Lue.
This week: 8th | Last week: 6th
Three numbers to know:
1. The Clippers lead the league in both 3-point percentage (41.9%) and free throw percentage (84.4%). The latter mark is the highest in NBA history, while the former is the second highest in NBA history.
2. The Clippers have seen the league’s biggest drop in the percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted area, from 31% (19th) last season to 23% (29th) this season. They’ve also seen the league’s biggest drop in free throw rate, from 29.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field (second) last season to 23.0 (22nd) this season.
3. Kawhi Leonard has scored 1.18 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. That would be the highest mark (minimum five possessions per game) in 16 seasons on Synergy tracking.
This week: 6th | Last week: 4th
The Clippers ended the first half on a sour note, dropping six of their last 10 games, but they’ve once again been dominant with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the court together. The clutch statistics are slightly alarming — a league-worst minus-26.4 net rating and a 7-11 record — which may encourage the front office to make a move for another playmaker before the deadline. That being said, the Clippers still have the third-best offensive rating in the league, and should have confidence as long as Kawhi and P.G. are healthy.
This week: 8th | Last week: 7th
The Clippers headed into the All-Star break on a sour note, having lost three straight and four of their last five. All three losses before the break highlighted their clutch problems as they lost by an average of four points. In the final three minutes of games with a three-point differential this season, they have the NBA’s second-worst offensive rating (83.3).
L.A. is a confusing team. It has plenty of talent with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George as the headliners and great depth with Lou Williams and Marcus Morris Sr. coming off the bench. Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka have been solid additions, but the Clippers haven’t been able to put it all together, especially on defense.
They had a top-five defense last season, but it has slipped to 15th this year. A team loaded with this much defensive talent should not be out of the top 10. That is something head coach Tyronn Lue must correct in the second half if the Clippers want to avoid falling further in the rankings.
Previous first-quarter grade/ranking: A | Ranked 2nd
Updated first-half grade: A
Obviously, people are going to have their reservations about the LA Clippers as a contender until they prove in the playoffs they can come through. But through the first half of the season, this team is damn impressive. The defense isn’t what many people hoped it would be. They’re basically a league-average defensive team, and their ridiculous offense carries them. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are playing some of their best basketball, and it feels a little under the radar. The Clippers still have to prove themselves in the postseason, but it’s a great job so far of bouncing back from bubble embarrassment.
Positive spin? The Clippers defense should get better as the season goes. They allow the fifth-highest field goal percentage at the rim, but they’re top 10 in keeping teams away from the rim. They typically don’t get hurt from the 3-point line, so I’m confident things will tip in their favor.