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Amir Coffey’s playmaking has been an unexpected key to the Clippers offense

The offense has taken off since Coffey and his ball movement entered the starting lineup.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Amir Coffey was supposed to be a 3-and-D player. He’s 6’8 and competes defensively, and he shot 40 percent from three-point range as a rookie in the G League. As a two-way player trying to find his niche on the Clippers NBA roster, that seemed like the obvious fit.

The Agua Caliente staff prepped Coffey with that goal in mind. When he was in the G League bubble last year, Coffey put up 14 three-pointers in a game the day before he was called up for NBA action. He took the court against the Miami Heat and shot six threes that night, making five as the shorthanded Clippers improbably beat the Heat.

There will always be a role for a smart 3-and-D wing in the league, and Coffey has progressed nicely on that development track. He’s shooting 38.4 percent on threes (league average is 34.8 percent this season), a figure that ticks up to 41.9 since he entered the starting lineup full-time. Threes make up 55 percent of his shot attempts, and he’s actually better above the break, which gives the Clippers some variety since most of their shooters are corner snipers.

Defensively, Coffey seamlessly toggles guarding 2, 3, and 4. He found himself switched on Joel Embiid a few times against Philadelphia and had to foul him once but did also force a turnover. The players he’s matched up most against range from Desmond Bane and Chris Duarte to Kevin Durant and Jaren Jackson Jr. As Reggie Jackson has said, Coffey is asked to do everything and just goes out and does it.

One of those asks this season has been an increased playmaking load. For a variety of reasons, the Clippers can’t play their best playmakers in the starting lineup: Eric Bledsoe compromises the spacing, Isaiah Hartenstein is a little limited offensively, Justise Winslow has both those problems, and the list goes on. Luke Kennard has generally been a good playmaker, too, but Ty Lue thinks having Kennard with the starters makes them too small.

As a result, in this new iteration of the starting five (Reggie Jackson, Amir Coffey, Terance Mann/Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, and Ivica Zubac), the Clippers have a lot of players who — in Ty Lue’s words — can eat, but can’t cook. Even Batum, who is a good passer, doesn’t have the scoring gravity or handle to be a primary creator. Someone has to do the table-setting, and that job has often fallen to Coffey.

Over the last 12 games, since Lue settled on the current starting group, Coffey is fourth on the team in assists with 3.0 per game compared to only 0.7 turnovers. The types of passes he makes are ones that other Clips don’t have in their arsenal, like the fact that he makes good decisions in transition, a rarity on a team when every fast break possession can be an adventure. The Clippers rank dead last in the NBA per Cleaning the Glass, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions in transition; with Coffey on the court, that number rises to 119.2, which would at least put the Clippers around 21st in the league.

Coffey also delivers some killer entry passes to Ivica Zubac, who has become more prolific in the post in recent games, and it’s in the half court that Coffey’s passing value really shines. Without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, no offensive player on the team regular draws two to the ball, which compromises the drive-kick-swing philosophy if the defense isn’t going to collapse. But Coffey has the size to spray out to shooters anyway. It helps that he shoots 74 percent at the rim, making his drives a real scoring threat.

The Clippers are also putting Coffey in pick-and-roll, and his skip passes are a thing to behold. He gets real zip on those dishes, hitting his teammates right in the shooting pocket more often than not.

“It’s really just ball screen reads,” Coffey says. “I think it’s pretty simple. If the corner guy helps, the guy’s open. If he stays, usually you hit the big. So it’s a simple play.”

In his weekly 10 Things column for ESPN, Zach Lowe noted that Coffey is in elite company among pick-and-roll operators:

The Clips have scored 1.24 points per possession when Coffey shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who launches — third among 232 ball handlers who have run at least 50 such plays, per Second Spectrum. (Coffey has run only 90.)

“When he first came up to this team, his job was to be a defensive player, and take spot up shots, but now we’re putting the ball in his hands more, he’s making plays out of the pick and roll, he’s attacking the basket,” Lue said after the Clippers’ miraculous win over Washington. “He’s just a great all around player.”

Coffey had arguably his best passing performance in the team’s Martin Luther King Jr. matinee game, when he accounted for seven assists in a 139-133 win over Indiana. On that day, it wasn’t the difficulty level of Coffey’s passes that stood out, but rather their simplicity. Time and time again, all Coffey had to do was swing the ball to the man in rhythm — Nicolas Batum — and his teammate would do the rest.

The third-year Clipper’s feel for the game is apparent. Batum has repeatedly said that he sees himself in Coffey in that both try to play the game the right way, moving the ball and trusting that good things will happen.

“I tried to build my career around, like, what you can do to help your teammates, help your team, play the right way,” Batum says. “I know every single night, maybe 10 guys are better than me, but they don’t want to do the right thing for the team — (Amir’s) doing it, he’s gonna be all right. I’m not worried about him because he got that stuff, play for the right way, play for the team, and you need guys like that in the NBA, because it’s so rare.”

One play against Orlando combines the little things that Coffey does to put the team first. He starts the possession in the corner to space for Kennard’s drive, and when the Clippers make a play to save the ball from going out of bounds, Coffey is first to it despite having to cover some ground. He quickly surveys the floor and sends a bullet to Kennard in the corner, who splashes the triple.

Those little acts make a tangible difference — since Coffey became a regular starter, the Clippers are 21.0 points per 100 possessions better on offense with him on the court. Even though the team keeps digging big deficits with the starters on the floor, Coffey is a common denominator in those comebacks.

“I think just our whole player development staff has done a good job with him. It starts with Shaun Fein and his crew, the guys that really work with him and Jeremy Castleberry, they do a good job. In the last three years, he’s really developed,” Lue said after the Indiana win. “First he was a defender because you have PG and Kawhi and Reggie and those guys on the floor, Marcus, so he didn’t really have the ball in his hands. He wasn’t really creating. But tonight, leading the team in assists, with seven assists and getting downhill and making the right play. He’s a good player, and he’s really done a good job of developing and working on his game and understanding who he is as a player.”

Or to put it it more plainly, from Batum, “He’s been balling out lately.”

The scouting report is coming for Coffey, though. A month ago, Michael Malone name-dropped Coffey as a guy some of his players may not know. Now, Erik Spoelstra is (facetiously) taking credit for kickstarting Coffey’s progression in that Heat game a year ago and devising a game plan around his strengths. Miami switched heavily and went under ball screens, negating his ability to get into the lane with pick-and-rolls, and Coffey had no assists for only the second time as a starter. Jimmy Butler was sitting on the skip pass, picking one off for a steal and a score in the third quarter.

The fact that Coffey is being scouted is a win. The prospect of him in an all-wing, switch-everything lineup with Leonard, George, Batum, and Mann/Jackson/Morris somewhere down the line is tantalizing, with every player equipped to make plays on and off the ball. It’s a far cry from where Coffey stood in the preseason, when the Clippers put more long-term equity in their three rookies than they did in Coffey by signing him to another two-way contract, which makes him currently ineligible for the postseason.

That feels like a lifetime ago. The Clippers and Coffey have found something by putting the ball in his hands. With restricted free agency approaching, it’s in the team’s hands to make sure they hold on to their latest development success story.