LA Makeover: Should the Clippers Still Be Considered Title Contenders?
It used to be that you’d be considered a “knower of ball,” as the kids say, if you had the Los Angeles Clippers penned as your pick to make it out of the Western Conference.
On paper, they had everything. The two superstars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The cavalcade of switchable wings and forwards. The depth. The genius coach.
But basketball isn’t played on paper (sorry, Dean Oliver). It’s played on a piece of hardwood that’s 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. And for one reason or another, the Clippers are barely maintaining home-field advantage with an unspectacular 33-28 record.
What gives? Are the Clippers the team that their record indicates? And should we still consider them to be one of the league’s top clubs?
Mann Changes the Math
As we talked about last year, Tyronn Lue is the master of adjustments. But even with this information, his decision to promote Terance Mann to the role of starting point guard – he’s only ever been listed as a small forward or shooting guard on basketball reference – seemed questionable at first.
For some context, after getting the brakes beaten off them against the Denver Nuggets at the beginning of 2023, Lue decided a change needed to be made. So, he swapped Mann for Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup.
Since then, their record hasn’t changed drastically (21-19 before, 12-9 since), but the process makes more sense. And in his last six games, Mann has averaged 16.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 64.4% from the field and 11 of 21 from the 3-point line.
In retrospect, the change makes perfect sense. The Clippers don’t need a conventional point guard who can handle the ball consistently and create because they have Leonard and George at the wings. Reggie Jackson was becoming redundant (and inefficient). Mann gives them something different.
First, he adds some much-needed freneticism to the starting unit. Leonard, George, Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris are a slothful bunch. So adding Mann into the mix gives them a much-needed pace pusher (he leads the team in transition frequency).
And second, as The Ringer’s Michael Pina recently pointed out, the Clippers can now stick Mann at the point-of-attack on defense, which affords Leonard and George the autonomy to operate as off-ball disruptors. It’s loosely akin to when the Chicago Bulls got Ron Harper to guard the point-of-attack so that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen could roam freely and wreak havoc as they pleased.
An Offense Made for the Playoffs
You hear it all the time that the playoffs are a completely different game than the regular season.
The execution tightens up, the scheme becomes tailored toward a specific opponent, and most importantly, teams are actively trying to coerce opponents into taking low-value shots. That’s why you hear all the time that the pull-up jumper is a playoff shot – it’s the perceived low-value shot opponents are trying to coerce opponents into taking.
The Clippers only rank 21st in the NBA in our adjusted offensive ratings, but they are the masters of the low-value shot. According to NBA.com, they are third in the league in points off of pull-ups (24.4), third in attempts (26.3) and fourth in pull-up field goal percentage (40.6%).
So you want to seduce them into taking pull-up jumpers? Cool, don’t ask twice because they are more than happy to take them.
Deep in Reserve
The Clippers may tout the deepest roster in basketball. There are only two teams in the NBA this year with seven players who have played at least 1,000 minutes and have a neutral DRIP score or higher, and it’s the Memphis Grizzlies and the team in Los Angeles that doesn’t wear purple and gold.
And as we discussed in our examination of trade deadline winners and losers, the Clippers spent the transactional holiday further adding to their depth. By adding the likes of Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee, Bones Hyland and Russell Westbrook (in the buyout market), they’ve ensured they have an answer for almost (we’ll get to that in a bit) any matchup they face.
We mentioned Lue’s knack for midgame/midseries/midseason adjustments. Just imagine the kind of alterations he can make in a postseason series with all the options he has at his disposal.
If he faces a low-post banger, he’s got Zubac and Plumlee to battle him and eat some fouls. If he wants to turn up the tempo, let Westbrook and Mann run ablaze up and down the floor. If he’s facing a team that gets flustered by length and switching, he’s got eight different guys (Leonard, George, Mann, Gordon, Morris, Nicolas Batum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington) to toggle between for their token small-ball lineup.
We could keep doing this all day. The point is, when the margins between teams are as slim as they are this season, matchups are ultimately what makes the difference between winning and losing. And the Clippers’ new-look roster gives the team a chance to (arguably) handle more types of matchups than any other team in the association.
The Cause for Concern
We’ve mostly glossed over the load of injuries they have had to manage (haha, see what I did there). But even if they can overcome that and are whole for the playoffs, there are two glaring schematic weaknesses this team still has to deal with.
Oddly enough, both of these blindspots are present on the defensive side of the ball – the facet of the game in which they have been performing better during the regular season (14th in adjusted defensive rating).
As we’ve established, they have a deep cast of characters capable of carrying out a wide array of schemes and functions on the court. But they struggle defending two things: smaller, slipperier guards and dynamic off-ball actions.
Basketball, like economics, is a discipline of tradeoffs. Every skill is a double-edged sword. And one drawback of having so many long, strong, switchable defenders is that they struggle to keep shiftier speedsters in front of them. We saw this come to fruition a few weeks ago when the Clippers squared off against the New York Knicks and seemingly had no way of slowing Jalen Brunson, who finished his evening with 41 points and seven assists.
The other problem their personnel presents is that they aren’t agile or nimble enough to continuously navigate through the obstacle course of off-ball actions some of the league’s most prolific offenses regularly deploy. They are 27th in points per possession (PPP) allowed on handoff actions, and they’re 22nd in PPP conceded on off-screen actions (per NBA.com).
If you’ll recall, the Clippers’ inability to navigate the Denver Nuggets’ constant off-ball motion was one of the main reasons for their 3-1 collapse in the 2020 Western Conference semifinals. That was three years ago. The team’s core has only gotten older and stiffer now.
Just look how arduous the off-ball screen navigation looked for Leonard right here. Do you really want him to have to deal with that for an entire seven-game series?
No matter how you slice it, the Clippers’ offense is always going to be muddy. You live with that because playoff games are often fought in the mud. But the Clips need their defense to keep their opponents in the mud with them because they don’t have the fighting power to win against the big guns in a shooting match (we’re speaking in metaphors here, they actually have plenty of great 3-point shooters).
This is worrisome because teams like the Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors have the slippery guys and dynamic offensive sets to escape the mud. And as we’ve seen before, drawing one of them in a series could ultimately signal their demise.
The saving grace in all this is that every serious title contender has a roster shortcoming that a bad matchup could easily exploit. That’s what makes the prospect of this upcoming postseason so interesting. A handful of teams could realistically come away with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
And despite their sluggish start, the Clippers remain one of these serious title contenders, desperately trying to be the last squad standing at the end of what may go down as the most parity-rich season we’ve ever seen.