We’re back again with Clippers vs Spurs player grades after a disappointing loss for the Clippers, who really should have taken care of business against a Spurs team that is projected to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference. Like every other game this season, it was a contest of extreme highs and lows–LAC fell behind early, came back and took the lead near the end of the first, fell behind by 21 in the second quarter, tied the game at the end of the third, fell behind by 15 in the mid fourth, and clawed back enough to have three shots at winning the game or forcing overtime in the closing seconds.
As the Clippers have had their extreme highs and lows in this young season, and had their extreme highs and lows last night, so too will the player grades for this game have some extreme highs and lows. The question on my mind tonight, though, is how much to really blame guys for who they are. We know who Reggie Jackson is. We know who Lou Williams is. We know who Luke Kennard is. The team’s defense sucks when those three guys play together. Ty Lue doesn’t really have any options on nights when Paul George and Marcus Morris are both out (the reason he doesn’t have options is because the other bench guys are Terance Mann, who is an active defender with terrible positioning, and Patrick Patterson, who is an immobile defender who knows where he should be but can’t get there).
Clippers Starter Grades
- Patrick Beverley: A. Man, this was the quintessential Pat Bev game. A monster line–20 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists–with positively huge shots down the stretch and a number of possession-winning hustle plays. To come back so many times LAC needed to win in the margins and he did everything he possibly could have to give them a shot. Yes, he found a way to finish with 5 fouls (of course), but he never had to be subbed out for foul trouble and two of his infractions came in the final moments of the game.
- Luke Kennard: C+. It was a rough night at the office for Luke Kennard, who I thought played well offensively but just didn’t get some good looks to drop, both creating for himself in the lane and on spot-ups. He finished 3-10 from the field and 1-5 from deep, including two misses in the waning minutes that would have been huge. But those are shots that you want him taking, and they’re shots that he’ll make. Despite his inefficiency I think his threat and creation (4 assists) were a net positive on the first unit’s offense tonight. But there’s a pretty hefty knock for being a part of the second unit disaster, even if he wasn’t solely responsible and was pulling double duty.
- Kawhi Leonard: A-. Kawhi had an A+ stat line but I’m taking points off. We shouldn’t shrug at his efficient 30 points, and 10-assist-to-0-turnover distribution that would make Chris Paul blush. But the Clippers’ starters came out with a lack of urgency and he was loafing a bit early. They managed to pull even late in the first but with the team so shorthanded, the starters needed to provide a buffer (which would have alleviated the Patty Mills onslaught). They didn’t. He was also quiet down the stretch, putting up just 2 points on 1-3 shooting in the fourth quarter of a close game. He did have 3 assists, and would have had a fourth if Kennard had made the would-be game-winner, but he didn’t even come close to taking over.
- Nic Batum: A. I keep checking because it doesn’t seem right: Nic had 21 points tonight. The last time he did that was in 2018. Throw in 9 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block, and Batum’s consistent good performances continue to fuel some unexpected conversations: is he the Clippers’ third-best player? Should he keep starting when Marcus Morris returns? What does a contract for him look like next summer?
- Serge Ibaka: D. Serge wasn’t great on defense tonight, but we know he isn’t a great defender. His offensive versatility is supposed to more than make up for a little bit of limited athleticism on the other end. But even more than other Clippers, he really struggles to impact the game when his shots aren’t falling. He was 1-7 tonight, including some easier two-point attempts, and couldn’t find a way to contribute to the offense.
Clippers Bench Player Grades
- Lou Williams: C+. Lou had some moments tonight–he came in in the first quarter and boosted LAC’s offense after early struggles, and he got a couple of buckets in the fourth. But 5-13 still isn’t efficient, he only had 2 assists, and both of the second unit’s horrific stints tonight were squarely due to defensive woes. Nobody expects Lou to be a great individual defender, but any time an entire lineup is awful on defense the accountability has to be shared.
- Reggie Jackson: C. Yeah, I just don’t think Reggie was terrible tonight. I’m often hypercritical of him and he had some typical Reggie moments that made me cringe, but I thought he overall gave the Clippers some fine minutes. I want to pause for a second here and make sure anyone who is new to this series, or otherwise forgot, knows that these grades include expectations. So a C for Reggie, a third-string point guard on a minimum-salary deal pressed into duty in deeply flawed three- and four-guard lineups because of injuries and poor roster construction, means he was adequate. The lineups he was in sucked, so he’s not getting a good grade, but I’m also not going to fail him because the lineups that were bad on the floor are bad on paper too.
- Ivica Zubac: D. Again, expectations are a factor here. I honestly don’t think the second unit’s defensive woes are Zu’s fault. You can’t throw one good-but-slow 7-footer out there with four guys 6’5″ and under who don’t know where to stand and then blame him for not single-handedly saving your defense. He’s not Anthony Davis or Kevin Garnett. When Zu played drop tonight, his guards died on the screen and let their man walk into open threes. When he stepped up, the Spurs moved the ball and the guys behind him were clueless in rotation. If he doesn’t help, opponents walk to the rim. If he does help, opponents kick the ball out and there’s no rotation to help him in return. Like everyone else in this lineup, he shares the responsibility for the defensive atrocity that went on with LAC’s bench tonight. Unlike some of the others, he didn’t offer much off-set offensively. Seriously, catch the ball, dude.
- Terance Mann: F. He’s just not playable. In theory, Terance is supposed to be an energetic, athletic defender-turned-point-guard who can defend multiple positions and push the ball in transition. We’ve seen it at times. But a lot of the time, like tonight, he’s just bad on both ends. All the length and energy in the world won’t save you on defense if you’re dying on screens, making bad gambles, and not positioning yourself well. And offensively he offers nothing against an organized NBA defense in the half-court. Mann shouldn’t be expected to play the fourth guard in this lineup as well as Paul George on either end, and it’s not his fault that these bench shifts couldn’t be saved. But he needs to bring a baseline of acceptable play when called on, and that didn’t happen tonight.
- Patrick Patterson: D. I feel similarly about Patterson, but he gets a little bit of credit for making both of his shots in 7 minutes to at least somewhat limit the bleeding on another disastrous defensive shift for the bench. Particularly, at the start of the fourth quarter where the bench just needed to try and maintain a tie, Patterson was part of a three-minute disaster where the team didn’t get a single stop. There might be moments where Patterson makes sense, but his lack of foot speed on defense makes him really hard to have utility against teams that play extremely small at the 4 like San Antonio, and frankly while he has value as a floor-spacer you need to protect him with good defenders rather than ask him to be a positive on that end. Again, it’s unreasonable to ask PatPat to save the Reggie-Lou-Luke triumvirate defensively, but it’s gotta be noted that he is contributing to the problem rather than mitigating it.
Clippers Without Grades
Paul George, Marcus Morris, and Jay Scrubb were all unavailable with injuries. Amir Coffey played briefly for a defensive possession at the end of the first quarter, while Mfiondu Kabengele and Daniel Oturu didn’t play tonight.
I won’t give Clippers head coach Ty Lue a grade, and I haven’t been grading him nightly all year, but I do want to touch a little bit on him here because I so frequently said above that players were being put in situations where you couldn’t reasonably expect them to succeed. A lot of folks might read that as pointing back towards a critique of coaching, which is fair, but not really how I feel about this game. Yes, of course, Ty put lineups out there that were a disaster defensively in the most predictable ways. But he also kind of had limited options.
Sure, maybe he could have staggered Beverley, Leonard, and Batum more effectively to keep two good defenders on the floor at all times. But just with the limitations of the roster he’s been given, that would have also meant having two liabilities on the floor at all times. The gamble he took was to try and survive horrible defense in his second unit shifts by loading up the firepower on that unit and keeping a solid defensive starting unit intact for the vast majority of the game. It didn’t pay off, in part because the bench was so atrocious defensively, in part because the Spurs didn’t miss any threes, in part because the bench firepower didn’t produce enough (30 LAC bench points vs 57 for SAS), and in part because the starting unit had several lackluster stretches. Everyone shares a bit in the failure, as it should be.
In reality, I just don’t think Ty had great options given to him. The Clippers have 11 players who can play 1-4. Five of them (Beverley, George, Leonard, Morris, Batum) are good defenders, and five of them (George, Leonard, Morris, Batum, Patterson) have the size to play the 3 and 4. You’ll notice the heavy overlap in that group. The Clippers have 1 small good defender, 5 small bad defenders, 4 big good defenders, and 1 big bad defender. Take away two of the big good defenders and you’re gonna end up stuck playing lineups that are both undersized and weak defensively. I’m not sure what Ty is supposed to do that.
The real failing grade here should go to LAC’s front office. We talked a lot about how LAC hit on the big moves this summer but made gaffes around the edges, and the lack of adequate depth that lost the Clippers this game is a direct result of those mistakes. I will be the first to admit that Reggie Jackson has far exceeded my expectations and played well individually so far this season, but he’s still a bad fit alongside Lou and Luke when the Clippers needed someone who was defensive-minded. Patrick Patterson has some (limited) utility as a shooter as I outlined above, but he’s also a bad fit because the team simply doesn’t have the defenders to protect him–and by inexplicably paying him over three million dollars, the team didn’t leave themselves enough room under the hard cap to fill the 15th roster spot. PatPat is essentially taking up two minimum-salary roster spots, and Ty Lue is playing 4-guard lineups ahead of him because of his defense. The team drafted big man Mfiondu Kabengele 27th last year, and he isn’t good enough to play emergency minutes at center. They also drafted Daniel Oturu 33rd this year, and he isn’t good enough to play emergency minutes at center. So on a roster limited to 14 players by the bad Patterson contract, the team is using two of those 14 spots on project bigs who they don’t even trust enough for third-string minutes.
You want to know why LAC can’t muster adequate defensive lineups on a night like tonight? It’s not because individual players are failing to live up to expectations, and it’s not because Ty Lue is playing the wrong combinations of guys. It’s because of the aforementioned series of errors in roster construction. It probably isn’t a big deal. When the Clippers are healthy, none of these guys will be playing anyway. But over the course of an NBA season, there was always going to be a night in the middle of the season with two starters out where you needed to be able to put together a serviceable lineup for the second quarter. We’ll probably get another tomorrow with Kawhi load managing on the back-to-back, and we’ll probably get a handful more here and there throughout the year. LAC’s FO didn’t plan well for them.