The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner and the Clippers find themselves hovering along the top half of the Western Conference standings. With either of the top two seeds within striking distance, the Clips have pieced together a familiar post-all-star break surge. Currently sitting at 42-19, they share an identical record through 61 games as they did in the 2019-2020 season. And while the 2021 Clippers have walked a similar path to get to their record — injuries and player acquisitions/departures — the journey has been quite different.
It’s been well-documented by now how the stubbornness of the previous coach impacted the wins and losses throughout both the regular season and the postseason; too much Trezz, not enough Zu, under-utilizing JaMychal as a small-ball center, not staggering Kawhi and PG, etc. Well, the new coaching staff has come in and adapted to the makeup of the team — adjusting to guys’ strengths and implementing different strategies throughout the season to find what is and is not tangible.
One such implementation has been playing small, which has become a regularity in Clippers games this season; so much so that sometimes it can even feel like too much, especially now with the back injury that has shelved Serge Ibaka for quite some time. Nic Batum and Morris Sr. have had their share of minutes at the 5 with Kawhi and PG sliding down a position at times — things that were previously unheard of — and conversely have seen big lineups that featured PG as the defacto point guard while accompanied by Leonard, Morris, Batum, and Zubac.
We also can’t forget about the decision by the staff to dedicate specific periods of time towards lineup evaluations. The decision to end the three-guard lineup experiment has been the most noteworthy, but more general experiments and changes like Nic Batum starting and then moving to the bench, or Terance overtaking Luke’s role off the bench, have been appreciated as a fan. Even something as general as switching pick-and-roll defenses throughout the season has been an ongoing process that the staff is observing over time. These examinations have been especially satisfying as the Clippers once again have had to face the battle of overcoming injuries.
WINNING WITHOUT PAT / FUNCTIONING DEPTH
Speaking of dealing with injuries, the Clippers have been dealt another bad hand in the 2021 season, and coach Lue has had to get creative with the ever-changing lineups — 22 starting lineups to be exact. When you combine that with the mid-season acquisition of Rajon Rondo, and to a lesser extent DeMarcus Cousins and Yogi Ferrell, the cohesion and chemistry on the court remains a bit of a long-term concern — things that have been detrimental to Clippers teams of the past decade.
So, coming into the season, if you would have told me that Pat would miss 29 of the team’s last 30 games I would have figured the 2021 Clippers would be in a world of trouble based on how they fared without him last season. He hasn’t been as missed this time around. And by no means am I writing this with any disrespect towards the great Patrick Beverley or rejecting his importance to the team. I simply must recognize how night and day different these two seasons have been with him out of the lineup. If you include the final two games of the 2019-2020 regular season in which the Clippers’ opponents were resting their starters and other key players ahead of the playoffs, the Clippers ended the regular season at 11-10 without Pat — slightly above .500, including suffering some incredibly embarrassing losses to inferior teams. Fast forward to this season and the Clips are 20-9 without him, and you can attribute much of that to the guys who have stepped into his minutes — leading into my next and most important explanation of the Clippers.
ACTUAL FUNCTIONING DEPTH
Probably the biggest thing that plays into the differences between teams is the overachieving of expectations that almost every player has surpassed this season. Sure, one might see the departures of former sixth men of the year winners Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell and conclude that the team’s depth took a major hit, but the Clippers’ complimentary/depth pieces have played much better than anyone might have expected.
I’m not here to bash last year’s team too much, but I must ask how much of last season’s disappointment had to do with the Clippers not maximizing their talent? We had high hopes for Landry Shamet who never found a comfortable fit in the rotation, a guy like Rodney McGruder who didn’t play well and eventually fell out of the rotation, and even current Clippers Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson who never really found their way in what would end up being an awkward season to adjust for mid-season acquisitions. Replace the 2020 versions of the latter two with the 2021 versions and what you’re getting is exceeding what you had envisioned. Add onto that the revival of Nic Batum and the development of Terance Mann and you’re looking at a roster that has a real argument to go nine or ten players deep in any given playoff game.
In closing, nothing that I’ve written guarantees that the 2021 Clippers will have a greater or different outcome than in past seasons, but that the process should leave us a bit more optimistic regarding their chances.