It’s been 12 games since we last took a gander at dissecting these Clippers, and to be quite honest, I’ve run out of unique ways to start this piece. Frankly, I blame the team: every time I return to deliver my takeaways from their last 10 or so games, they’ve gone 5-6 or 6-5 (or 7-5 as they have in the last 12). I’ve described their efforts as middling, insecure, trending downward, consistent, mediocre, consistently mediocre... you get the picture.
Alas, it’s time to check in with this consistent and mediocre squad yet again. Starting out with what I’d call an encouraging assessment, all things considered.
1. Their average-yet-consistent play has the Clippers squarely (and, perhaps, safely) in the play-in tournament
No Kawhi. No Paul George. No Norm Powell. No... problem? LA’s ability to stay afloat without its two stars has been well-documented. In this column, even. But when the newly-acquired Powell went down with a broken bone in his left foot that will keep him out indefinitely, even more reason for pause would’ve been plenty warranted. This collection of misfit toys? Bound for the cellar, without a clear-cut scorer to lead the charge. Right?
NOT SO. The Clippers have gone 6-1 without Powell, with three wins over the Houston Rockets — meh — but with their three other wins coming against the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Their lone loss was a seven-point defeat at the hands of the best team in the league, the Phoenix Suns. Not too inexcusable a blemish on their otherwise stellar record.
Sure, this boom was preceded by something of a brief bust. And those have been sporadic over the course of this entire season, causing the Clippers to never make any serious ascensions into the conference’s upper echelon. But that they’ve stayed the course is oddly impressive on its own. Perhaps there’s an unexpected run to be made, or perhaps this season will be looked back on as an excuse for developing this team’s young talent and integrating it later on with the more seasoned core.
2. With this in mind ...
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard should not rush back from their injuries. There’s no need. This team isn’t winning the title this year, maybe not even with two All-Stars returning, and definitely not if they’re only half healthy. There are plenty of examples from season’s past that show a player rushing back before they’re fully ready to embark on a playoff run can be potentially devastating; Kevin Durant (achilles) and Klay Thompson (everything in his knees) both come to mind, as does Isaiah Thomas with Boston and, as recently as last season, Anthony Davis with the Lakers. Long-term damage is hardly worth it for a run without guarantees.
That’s not to say that a title is ever guaranteed, by any means. But when fully healthy, the Clippers are — as presently constructed — a serious contender. They could legitimately win the title next year. There’s real promise in that. Imagine a Kawhi-Paul George duo with Norm Powell on the wing being buoyed by the likes of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac, and others. I can think of 20-plus teams in the league that would kill for that core right about now (including the other one in Los Angeles).
The Clippers are one of the teams best set up for immediate future success. There’s no need to rush it right this second and risk screwing it all up over a knee and an elbow. And for now, this team absorbing their true star-less reality is working just fine.
3. The Hart of the matter
Justin Russo’s great piece (with a great headline that I am now stealing) dove deep into Isaiah Hartenstein’s exciting rise — I recommend giving it a read; it’s available on this very site. I won’t step on it, in part because my look at Hartenstein won’t be quite as positive, though I wouldn’t call it negative, either. Just a temperature check on something that has caught my eye lately. (And Zach Lowe’s, for what it’s worth.)
Hartenstein has been a defensive juggernaut for the Clippers this season, and he’s been vital to their stability when the starters sit. The only reason he’s not a starter is because he fouls too much (5.5 per 36 minutes, 7.4 per 100 possessions... eep). But he fouls so much because he’s so physical and so involved; the Clippers are 15.2 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions when Hartenstein is on the floor. Of players who have played at least 40 games this season and, on average, play at least 15 minutes in them, Hart has the third-best individual defensive rating in the NBA (100.2, trailing only George Hill and Cameron Payne, which, huh?). He’s at the center of LA’s defensive effort — he likes it there, too.
But shockingly, Hartenstein has been an even more impressive passer. He’s averaging 4.1 dimes per 36 minutes this season, which as it stands would be a career-high. I love it. I love that he’s having nights with six assists under his belt. I don’t want him to stop dishing them out! But I want him to shoot when he should shoot, not pass because he feels like he needs to pass. You don’t, big fella. It’s okay to get yours sometimes.
Some of these instances — when Hart unnecessarily passes — are more obvious than others.
Others are a bit easier to parse or debate. Like, sure, he could’ve passed it in the clip below, but I love the patience and purpose on display from him here.
The best part of this possession isn’t even in the clip. He received the inbound, fired a pass to an open Amir Coffey, who then missed the open three, and then Hart got the rebound. He then dished it to an open Kennard, gathered himself in the post, received the pass from Kennard, and went to work. Insert Kylo Ren “MOOOOREEEE” meme here.
Hartenstein could very easily be a 12 and up-point scorer on a nightly basis. That he doesn’t have to be is a luxury for the Clippers. But I’m never satisfied, and I want more for a player when I see that he can get more.
4. Luke Kennard, confusing
There was a stretch in mid-January where Kennard looked a bit like a guy who wanted to make a late bid at the Sixth Man of the Year race. Over a six game period from the 21st to the 30th of the month, he scored in double fogires in each contest. He averaged 17.2 per game, along with six rebounds and three assists, all in 28 minutes. Kennard was efficient, too: he shot 52 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. Quite the stretch for an inconsistent talent.
Inconsistent being the operative word, of course, because since that run to close out January, he’s scored in double figures just four times in 11 games. He’s averaging 8.7 points per contest in 23 minutes. His efficiency hasn’t dropped all that much — 46 from both the field and from three — but he’s not nearly as hot as he was previously. And he’s shooting just 6.7 times per game, down from the 10.8 he was averaging before. It’s not exactly clear as to whether or not his minutes are being managed differently, or if he’s managing his time on the court differently. Perhaps the additions of Powell and Robert Covington are a source of the decline, but his minutes haven’t dipped so drastically as to cause just a dip in productivity.
Who’s to say whether or not he’ll come back... up to the sky? Is that the opposite of down to earth?
5. Is LA becoming the Clippers’ town?
Short answer: no, and it never will be. Longer answer: Well ...
The Lakers are a complete and utter travesty. But alas, they own Los Angeles due to their long, luxurious, lavishing lore. As they should, to be clear. But given their consistency, the promise that comes with a healthy team, and a superior coach, the Clippers are at least making a bid more for increased relevance in the long run.
That will most certainly not be the day that I die. With apologies to Don McLean, of course.