We are now 31 games into the season, which seems like a good round number to catch a breath and look at some big storylines going on for the Clippers. This was supposed to go up before the second Jazz game, but there was too much other stuff happening, so most of the stats are pre-Jazz game. With that said, here are some great Clippers’ stories, some worrying ones, and some things to watch. Read on below for a full overview of the Clippers’ 2021 season, 31 games in.
Nic Batum – The biggest and best surprise of the year for Clippers fans has to be the play of Nicolas Batum. Coming off an injury-shortened season with the Hornets, and at age 32, most people didn’t think Nic had much left in the tank. Be a playable 10th man who can play competent defense and move the ball? Sure! Much more than that, and people were skeptical. I was among the skeptics, and I’ve rarely been more wrong about a Clippers’ signing. Batum hasn’t just been playable – he’s been the 3rd best player on the Clippers on the season, and it hasn’t been close. Looking at advanced metrics, raw stats, or the eye test, they all point to the same thing; Nic is really, really good. We are now 28 games into the season, and while the 44.9% from three might regress, the rebounding, passing, defense, and overall smarts will remain. He’s definitely regressed overall since a blazing start, but he’s clearly a trusted, rotation-worthy player who is capable of playing big minutes in big games. An incredible signing and even better story, Nic Batum may well have rescued the Clippers’ season.
Offensive Improvements – The Clippers have the best offense in the NBA (just a hair ahead of the Bucks), and it’s all due to the new system implemented by Ty Lue. Lue has given the Clippers’ star players (more on them in a bit) more offensive responsibilities, and also delineated their roles – Kawhi operates out of the post and midrange on the wings, while Paul George handles the ball in pick and rolls while also running around screens off the ball. This has created greater diversity for the Clippers’ offense, which was much needed after last year.
However, the biggest leap the offense has made is in terms of ball movement. The Clippers’ assists per game is up slightly from last season (23.7 to 24.6), but that underrates how different they look. They are currently passing the ball 284.6 times per game, which is middling among NBA teams. Last season, however, they passed the ball a mere 271 times per game, ranking 28th. The Clippers do not have a James Harden or Damian Lillard who can create shots for themselves and others easily every time down the court. Kawhi and George are awesome offensive players, but they are not on that level of shot creators, which means the Clippers need to rely move on offensive sets and free-flowing play. By reducing isolations and encouraging on- and off-ball movement, Ty Lue has bettered the Clips’ offense, and also made it more fun and enjoyable.
Play of Kawhi and PG – While Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played great last year (both in the regular season and for most of the playoffs), they have each taken steps forward this season. George has increased his assist percentage substantially, and while his turnovers have made a similar rise, the Clippers will live with some giveaways if PG is more consistently finding open teammates. More impressively, he’s improved his already great efficiency, putting up a simply ridiculous 50.8/47.8/90.5 slash line for a bananas 66.2% True Shooting. George still doesn’t get to the line quite as much as you’d like, and his shooting will probably regress at least a bit, but he’s just been an absolute flamethrower, and there are no real signs that any major comedowns will happen this season.
Kawhi has taken a small step back as a playmaker and on the boards, but he too has been more efficient than he was last season. He’s getting to his spots more consistently, and just seems to have a bit more pep in his step. More importantly, he’s cut down on his turnover rate by a significant margin, making up for George’s increase in that area. He hasn’t been quite as good as Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, but he’s somewhere in the 3-5 range for MVP based on his all-around play. He’s just an insane talent. As long as the Clippers have both George and Kawhi playing at this level, they are championship contenders.
Injuries – While no Clipper has suffered a serious, season-ending injury, they have been quite nicked up. In fact, Ivica Zubac is now the only Clipper who has played in every game, with Beverley, George, Morris, and Leonard all missing at least a handful of games. In the short term, of course, this is damaging because the Clippers are losing games they might otherwise win.
In the long-term, even if none of these injuries linger or cause lasting damage (the obvious worst outcome), every game and minute that the Clippers don’t play whole is a knock against their chemistry. That lack of chemistry is something the Clippers discussed at length at the end of last season when breaking down their playoff collapse, and while they’ve been more together this season, there have still been far too many games where the Clippers haven’t had their full complement of players. Finally, the Clippers are an old team – of their top 10 players in minutes played, only three are under 30, and one of those is Kawhi Leonard, who is 29. Injuries usually linger longer for older players, and are harder to recover from. The Clippers need to be especially wary of injuries given the age of their roster.
Not Getting to the Rim/FT Line – While the Clippers’ offense is great, there are a couple weaknesses in their profile. Notably, they do not take many free throws, and they don’t get to the rim much. Those two items are, of course, related. The Clippers don’t get to the rim because they have no quick, jittery, explosive guards, or big men who eat up a lot of attention around the rim. The free throw rates of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams are all down (though all still get to the line at an ok clip). None of the Clippers’ other main players get to the paint much – Marcus Morris, Nic Batum, Serge Ibaka, Pat Beverley, and Luke Kennard are all mostly jump shooters. Getting to the rim not only draws fouls, but also leads to kick outs and increased ball movement. The Clippers don’t want to rely on getting free throws, but it is a weakness in their repertoire.
Things to Watch
The Center Rotation – The Clippers have been mostly strong at center this season, but Serge Ibaka is the weakest point in their starting lineup, and there are some big rotation decisions Ty Lue will have to make in significant games (read: playoffs). While Ibaka has played well enough, his shooting hasn’t translated to spacing enough in close games. In games against the Jazz, for example, Rudy Gobert has barely bothered to guard him beyond the three-point line. Teams know that even if Serge can shoot and make threes, he won’t take or make enough to truly punish teams repeatedly. This is all the more true considering the caliber of shooters that populate the rest of the starting group. If Serge isn’t offering much beyond an occasional three and some midrange pop, he shouldn’t be playing more than Ivica Zubac, who is a much better defender, rebounder on both sides of the glass, and rim-runner.
Of course, the issue with Zu is that he can’t shoot at all, and therefore offers no spacing. With how much shooting the Clippers get from elsewhere, this isn’t much of an issue, but Zu’s only intermittent playmaking flashes mean teams can are comfortable letting him try to create for others when he gets the ball out of the pick and roll, knowing that they will probably recover to shooters by the time he makes the read. In short, the worry is that unless he’s getting offensive rebounds, Zu won’t be making much of an impact offensively at the highest level.
As we’ve seen in many close games, Ty Lue has turned to a small ball lineup to close, with Beverley-George-Leonard-Morris-Batum being the primary grouping. While Morris is the biggest player on the court, Batum is usually the one who guards the opposing center (as he did with Gobert yesterday), and has done so well. This is a lineup that could be really good, but I worry about it against teams with top-notch big men (Embiid, Giannis, AD, Jokic) who can dominate Morris or Batum down low, as well as against teams with quick guards who can get dribble penetration and won’t face resistance at the rim. The switch-everything defense and overwhelming firepower might be enough to win anyway, but it’s not as a good a solution as the Warriors’ Death Lineup, which was bigger and had a true big man in Draymond Green anchoring the defense.
While I think all three looks (Serge, Zu, small) can work, it will be a very fine juggling act, and might end up being the toughest rotation decision Lue will need to make when push comes to shove.
The End of the Guard Rotation – Nothing has changed more about Ty Lue’s rotations since the start of the season than his guard rotations. For most of the early part of the season, Luke Kennard was the first guy off the bench, and was getting a lot more minutes than Lou Williams while Reggie Jackson was a mere fill-in starter and Terance Mann mostly served as a defensive sub only. That minutes distribution has shifted greatly, especially over the past month. Lou Williams has received more and more minutes due to his playmaking and scoring returning in full force, while Reggie proved himself a capable-enough interim starter and Mann showcased more traditional wing abilities when George and Leonard were out. Amidst all this, Luke has lost ground, and last night, he received a “Did Not Play – Coaches Decision” (DNP-CD) for the first time this season. Now, it could be partly because he’s still recovering from a minor injury, but still, it’s notable.
While Ibaka has probably been a bit of a letdown, there’s no doubt that Kennard has been the biggest disappointment on this year’s Clippers team. Luke has shot well from three (44.2%) but on only moderate volume (3.6 attempts per game), and hasn’t contributed much elsewhere on offense. Certainly, the ball-handling, playmaking, and shot creation that many fans expected as not shown itself outside of spurts. The talent is clearly there, but the impact is not, and he’s also been bad defensively. Considering how much shooting the Clippers have elsewhere, it’s not a surprise that Lue has turned more towards Reggie (better handling and passing) and Mann (better defense, rebounding, and energy) of late.
The question, is, of course, what will happen throughout the rest of the year. Even with a shortened 72-game calendar, the season is long – Luke will almost certainly get another extended shot in the rotation. But can he do enough besides shoot to warrant his minutes? Conversely, can Mann offer enough as a defender and energy guy to warrant minutes in big games when teams are helping way off him to clog up spacing? Does anyone really, truly trust Reggie’s decision-making in big games? The only thing that’s clear so far is that none of the aforementioned players is ready to take Lou Williams’ spot, with a Lou trade seeming more unlikely with every passing day. The Clippers could probably use a better 4th guard, but they are highly unlikely to get one. In the playoffs, when all the chips are down, it seems likely that Lue will go to an 8-man rotation, with Lou, Morris, and Zu getting nearly all the bench minutes and the other guys just chipping in when injuries, foul trouble, or unusual game circumstances warrant their playing time.
That’s about it for this overview of the Clippers’ 2021 season with 31 games played. Let me know in the comments below if there are any big storylines I missed, or what you think the most compelling topic of the last 40 games will be.