Thursday marks the beginning of the second part of the NBA schedule, and the Clippers will look to rebound from a forgetful 1-4 stretch that left them stumbling into the All-Star break. Before the wheels started to come off, the Clippers had quietly put together a pretty good season; they hovered around the top two seeds in the tough Western Conference, their two superstars had performed somewhat like MVP candidates when healthy, and the remaining players had all fallen into place rather nicely — many even outperforming their projected contributions. But along the way, injuries and protocols disrupted the flow of what the Clippers had going on. Yet, the best organizations don’t make excuses and are always looking to improve, so surely the Clippers’ front office and the coaching staff have dedicated their all-star break to doing just that. I decided to join in and figure out how this Clippers team can take another step and improve over the second half of the season.
GET SERGE GOING
If there’s been one somewhat disappointing performer this season (outside of the much-discussed Luke Kennard) it’s been Serge Ibaka, who was the Clippers’ saving grace this past offseason after losing out on a lot of free agents. His splits aren’t bad — 11.1/ 6.6/ 1.8 in 24 minutes, but he’s certainly left room for improvement. At 35.6% three-point shooting on a low 2.8 attempts per game, Serge hasn’t consistently fulfilled his responsibilities as the Clippers’ one playable shooting big who can provide additional spacing for others to operate. You can get by with a 36% three-point shooting big — although the Clippers could benefit from a couple of upticks in that number — what’s got to change is the volume. 2.8 would be his second-lowest attempts per game over the last five seasons, which is a number you’d expect to increase with how the perimeter shot and floor-spacing is changing the game.
If Serge Ibaka is going to be measured with his shot selection from the perimeter, it’d do wonders for his playability if he could be better from outside of the restricted area. I’m not necessarily referring to his midrange shooting, which has been good on low volume (47 attempts), but more specifically the Non-RA paint two’s (80 attempts) that consume 35% of his non-three-point attempts. He’s shooting just 40% in that area compared to his 49% mark over his three full seasons as a Toronto Raptor. Those 80 shots have come in a bulk of ways which include short rolls to the rim, offensive boards, paint seals, post hooks, and a variety of other creations. Serge’s versatility makes him unique from the big men that the Clippers have had in past seasons, and his potential is something that can raise the team’s ceiling come playoff time. Now is the time to take steps toward that potential as the postseason inches closer each passing day. If Serge can improve his play in the second half, the Clippers will be a far more dangerous team.
MORE MINUTES FOR ZUBAC AND MORRIS
Part of the reason why Serge Ibaka’s play has been perceived as more frustrating than it might actually be is because of Ivica Zubac’s production. Simply put, Zu has been better this season and probably is the better player of the two at this point in their careers. The fifth-year big has provided better defensive rebounding, better rim protection, and is more frequently on the offensive glass — creating extra offensive possessions and drawing more fouls. For as obvious as these observations may seem, even from the most casual basketball eye, Zu’s minutes have only increased 1.4 per game; leaving him still shy of 20 minutes per game on the season. I think Zu could really break out as a player if given the opportunity to, but his low minutes this season is similar to how Doc Rivers held Zu back last year.
I may be alone here, but I think Marcus Morris Sr. is deserving of a few more minutes per game as well. The tricky thing with that is that it would likely cut into Nic Batum’s minutes — who’s a better rebounder and defender. But on nights when Batum’s shot isn’t falling and/or Mook has the hot hand, Mook should be on the court more, as he showed last year that he can fit nicely in lineups alongside Kawhi and PG. Ty Lue will have to monitor both players’ minutes a little more closely going forward.
FIGURE OUT THE GUARD ROTATION
Raise your hand if before the season started you had predicted Terance Mann would usurp Luke Kennard in the Clippers’ nightly rotation. Now raise your hand if you saw Luke Kennard falling completely out of the lineup to the tone of multiple DNP-CD’s. How about Reggie Jackson consistently stringing together quality performances while actually playing a prominent role in the Clippers’ backcourt rotation? If you’re like me, you probably have been surprised by how unpredictably things have shaped out.
When it comes to the Clippers’ guard rotation, the only constant is that Patrick Beverley will get the start and play 20+ minutes when healthy. It’s certainly a luxury to have so many options, but when those options aren’t separating themselves from the pack, it’s hard to make the rotation clean — which, to be fair, could also be what’s preventing any separation. Utilizing the right guards has been a task for Ty Lue that he hasn’t quite perfected yet, but he’s done an admirable job. We’ll have to wait and see which guards ultimately edge out the others in the playoff rotation. If Lue can improve the distribution of minutes for his guards, the Clippers should see some nice benefits.
BRING IN A PLAYER
What realistic options do the Clippers have that will actually make them a better team today than they were yesterday? A trade to bring in a clear-cut third option or an all-star caliber player comes at an expense that the Clippers may or may not be willing to pay — also, it must make sense for the other team(s) involved. Meanwhile, trading away proven vets for similar proven vets feels more like a lateral move at best. Where the Clippers will likely have to try their luck is in the buyout market. If they choose to add talent in this way, what they’ll likely acquire is depth. For as hyped as the market gets during this time, there usually isn’t anyone available that will tip the scales one way or the other — which is indicated by their availabilities in the pool in the first place.
However, the right buyout addition could potentially make a current Clippers player more expendable in trade talks. For instance, if a scenario materializes in which Javale McGee, Hassan Whiteside, or Andre Drummond hit the open market and the Clippers can acquire them, are they suddenly more willing to include Zubac in a trade? Does bringing in Otto Porter or Glenn Robinson III make Terance Mann expendable? Any signing could have a ripple effect on the roster construction moving forward.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Clippers simply need to stay healthy. Look, for every way that the team could be better, they’re already a championship contender. I think the way last season ended has overshadowed the fact that the Clippers were on the brink of making history as a franchise. That team was good. They ultimately collapsed, but they dominated Denver for the majority of that series — even for large portions of the games they ended up losing. They’ve since retooled their roster in a way that should be better suited for the playoffs. If they can stay healthy, they are absolutely a threat to win the title this year.
In conclusion, the Clippers have many paths to improve their play. Some of those paths for improvement are already in-house, while the others may be available in the coming weeks. We’ll find out soon how the team progresses through the remainder of the 72-game slate.