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Taking the Clippers’ pulse after the first few weeks of the NBA season

The “it’s early” caveats can only last so long.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

I saw some silly chatter on Twitter this past weekend in relation to Adam Silver’s recent comments about tanking. The Tweeter in question specifically disparaged the idea that Silver would somehow limit what the Golden State Warriors have built “instead of addressing whatever the hell” the Oklahoma City Thunder are doing.

He called it nuts; the replies were mixed, with some questioning why the Thunder consistently find themselves scapegoated, while others defended OKC’s approach based on their through-the-draft approach to team building.

That tweet was sent on Oct. 28, three nights after the Thunder beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 108-94, and less than 24 hours after they beat them again, 118-110. Early season losses aren’t exactly a litmus test for what the rest of the season portends, but at the moment, whatever the hell the Thunder are doing is working better than whatever the hell the Clippers are doing.

As of this writing, the Clippers are a dispiriting 3-4, a team whose latest action — a win over the Houston Rockets — required late-game heroics from Paul George to warrant masquerading as a positive result. A more appropriate distinction? That the Clippers have recently been taken to task by the Thunder (twice) and almost the Rockets, two franchises currently on a trajectory opposite to that of the Clippers. They are building; the Clippers, ostensibly, are built. Though it has yet to look like that this season.

(Ironically, this is the same Tweeter who called out the Thunder’s effort and direction. Full circle?)

Let’s continue the pile-on before attempting to pose as optimistic: The Clippers currently own the league’s second-worst offensive rating (100.6), bested (worsted?) only by their neighbors across the hall, the Lakers (100.3).

Despite having the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA (106.8), the offense can’t keep up, leading to a -6.3 net rating that ranks them fourth-worst. Only the Nets (-6.5), Pistons (-7.9), and Rockets (-9.1) trail them; those teams have a combined record of 5-18. The Clippers’ 17.1 turnover rate is last in the league by a whole percent.

They rank 29th in offensive rebound rate (23.4, somehow ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers). They’re puttering around the league’s cellar in far too many statistical areas to count — no team considered a preseason title contender should do so.

These numbers look an awful lot like they did throughout much of last season. Though things stabilized by season’s end, as the Clippers finished with an even net rating (their rating on both sides of the ball ended up at 109.5), the offense never really materialized, and the defense never made things all that uncomfortable for other teams. An offensive rating of 109.5 was 25th in the league; even though the Clippers owned the league’s “eighth-best” defense, statistically speaking, they often still found themselves getting outscored.

That was all supposed to change once Kawhi Leonard returned, once Paul George was fully healthy, once John Wall added to head coach Tyronn Lue’s seemingly never-ending war chest of depth, etc. Yet before it even felt like he was back on the court, Leonard was back on the injury report. He didn’t travel with the team to Texas for their current road trip as he continues to deal with stiffness in his right knee. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and though his recovery period has stretched longer than that of the typical ACL rehab, the issues persist. By the time this road trip concludes, Leonard will have missed six straight games.

“He’s frustrated,” Lue said before the game against the Rockets on Monday, per ESPN. “He wants to be out on the floor and then not being on the floor, and then now he can’t travel. He wants to travel, but the doctor said it’s not the right thing to do right now with the stiffness and what he is going through.”

Though Leonard returned in two of L.A.’s first three games this season, he hardly showed even a semblance of the burst he had before his injury. A slow start after a long, injury-enforced layoff is natural; to find himself back on the sidelines mere days after that layoff was supposed to be in the rearview, however, is nothing if not dispiriting.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

“We all got to figure it out,” Lue said recently, after the team had lost its fourth straight game. “It’s not just on the players, myself included. If we are not going to be able to do things that we are supposed to do, then we got to do something different. So that lies on me... I am not the one to point the finger. We got to do things better, do things harder. There is really no coaching for playing harder. Just got to do things a little harder, a little bit more pace put into the game.”

The upside? Well... is being just one game below .500 enough? It’s not difficult to envision a version of this season where the Clippers are 0-7. Their three combined wins this season have come by a total of eight points; George, the team’s leading scorer, is averaging a meager 21.7 point per game on 43 percent shooting and 31 percent from three. One might argue that his dip in production is because there is more love to be spread, though their second and third leading scorers are John Wall (13.8) and Marcus Morris Sr. (13.6). When the love has to be spread to too many places, it’s difficult to strike the balance necessary for a contender to be built.

And that’s exactly what the Clippers are supposed to be already: a contender. After a 2021-22 season full of “ifs” for the Clippers, 2022-23 looked like it was supposed to be the ultimate “then”. Yet here they stand, perhaps with less “ifs”, but with more questions than ever. The roster is stacked, but might it be too stacked to the brim, to the point of overflowing and doing more harm than good? It’s still early in the season, but it might not be too early to worry about the Clippers.