Though the Los Angeles Clippers have procured a dominant 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets (despite the historical jest associated with that record), the Montrezl Harrell dilemma needs to be sorted out fast – and soon. Simply put, Harrell needs to produce more than points with his minutes.

As the season’s Sixth Man of the Year, Harrell deservedly played 27.8 minutes a game during the regular season. Those minutes led to Harrell averaging 18.6 points per game, a stat which holds a weighty load of determining who takes home an award that rewards exceptional play off the bench.

However, during the regular season, Harrell accomplished much more on the court than merely putting the ball in the hoop. He averaged career-high numbers in offensive and defensive rebounds per game (7.1 total) while providing interior defense with 1.1 blocks per game and boasting a defensive field goal difference percentage of -9.9 on shots less than six feet from the rim.

Through 10 playoff games, Harrell’s production has plummeted to questionable numbers that make you ponder whether he should play at all. In 18.6 minutes a game in Orlando, Harrell is averaging 10.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 0.6 blocks on 57.4% shooting (6.1 attempts). Unsurprisingly, those figures are all inferior to his regular-season numbers.

Before we dive into the film, it’s imperative to outline the external factors and challenges Harrell is facing. Following the death of his grandmother and the countless emotions that come with a significant loss, Harrell’s feet never got wet with any warm-ups or scrimmages. Harrell re-entered the bubble and dove straight into the deep end, with his Orlando debut coming against Dallas in game one of the playoffs. Whereas most players shed their rust in the 11 scrimmage and seeding games, Harrell encountered the challenge of finding his form in a playoff atmosphere – and that challenge is burdening him.

Let’s start by acknowledging Harrell’s scoring ability, which has been his best asset to the Clippers so far. Harrell is going to score in the paint: that’s a given. The downside in the playoffs, however, is that a decline in efficiency is hurting his overall effectiveness.

Against Dallas, these issues weren’t as prominent; Harrell attempted 5.2 shots a game, converting on 61.3% of them. With the Mavericks high-powered offense, you knew scoring wouldn’t be an issue. Despite the Clippers possessing one of the better defenses in the league, they needed players not named Kawhi Leonard or Paul George to score. Still fresh to the bubble, Harrell provided L.A. with an option down low.

In this play, some of Harrell’s distinguished strengths shine. The Clippers clear out the interior for George to penetrate, with Harrell roaming the baseline as you often see with L.A.’s big men as one of George, Leonard or Lou Williams attacks the paint.

Tim Hardaway Jr. forces George to drive left, allowing Luka Doncic to collapse for a double-team. George’s only option is to split the double and get the ball to Harrell. Harrell bobbles the pass, but keeps it inbound and goes to work. Hardaway Jr. and Doncic collapse on Harrell, but Harrell utilizes a strong two-handed dribble to establish authority. He uses his body to create space and goes up strong for the finish.

Against Denver, Harrell’s baskets have a similar theme – he will attack the paint using brute force and score over anyone. It doesn’t matter if there are two or more bodies in his way: he’s fearless in the paint, as the play above illustrates.

But the Nuggets pose a more resilient, tougher defensive threat in the frontcourt than Dallas did, and that’s causing more problems for Harrell offensively. He’s attempted 7.5 shots per game in this series, but is finishing just 53.3% of those looks. Harrell’s shooting in game one and two is why that percentage is anchored down, because he’s 10-13 overall in the last two games.

In spite of that, his points per shot attempt (PSA) in this series sits at 118.4, according to Cleaning the Glass. Including the six games against Dallas, Harrell’s PSA is at 116.4, ranking in the 38th percentile. Considering his figure against Denver is just two points higher, it’s not a notable rise. For comparison’s sake, in two regular-season games against Denver this season, Harrell attained a PSA of 146.4. His shooting numbers may captivate on paper, but there’s plenty of room to progress.

Transitioning to Harrell’s rebounding numbers, it’s not astonishing that they’ve declined in the playoffs. During the regular season, he ranked fifth on the team in defensive rebounding percentage (min. 20 games played). With a DRB% of 16.3, Harrell trailed Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in that category. You can add Joakim Noah and Johnathan Motley, but they didn’t have larger enough sample sizes to qualify.

If it wasn’t for Harrell’s offensive rebounding, his overall rebounding numbers would fall further. In the regular season, Harrell’s ORB% was 9.9, a fairly stout number. In the playoffs, it has plunged to 4.9%. It’s yet another glaring example of how Harrell has failed to regain his regular-season form.

In this clip, the Clippers clear out on the left so Leonard can work on an iso. Gary Harris’ stance propels Leonard to drive with his left. Paul Millsap adds a brilliant contest, leading to a rushed attempt from Leonard. What bothers me is that Harrell watches Nikola Jokic pull down the rebound when he easily could’ve gone to contest it. You’re down ten with seven minutes remaining in the fourth – make a play! The odds are against Harrell, but the lack of effort was very perceptible.

To highlight two rebounding stats, Harrell’s fgDR% is 9.8, placing him in the sixth percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. His fgOR% is 4.5, which sorts him into the 29th percentile. To compare, he ranked in the 73rd percentile for fgOR% and 19th percentile for fgDR% in the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass. Already a bad defensive rebounder, he’s been truly absent in that facet during the postseason.

Let’s shift to the area of Harrell’s most consequential struggles – defense. I have watched this clip on an infinite loop, and I have no idea what Harrell is doing. Harrell falls asleep mid-pick and roll, allowing Mason Plumlee to walk to the rim while he stands on the perimeter guarding oxygen. L.A. is fortunate that the play resulted in a missed corner three because that should’ve been an easy two points.

Even when the rebound comes to Harrell, he smacks the ball off Reggie Jackson’s face as it rolls out of bounds under his legs. That wouldn’t be the only thing to roll right past him in the clip.

Jokic will positively affect the game on paper and on the court. But when you give the “Joker” a quality look like this, maybe we need to reevaluate who the real joker is.

Harrell can’t shoulder all the blame here, but a portion of it falls on him. The point of a pick-and-roll is a switch to hunt a mismatch. Jackson goes over the screen, but he needs to let the switch materialize. Harrell doesn’t need to drop here. Monte Morris is angling towards the sideline; Harrell can pursue Jokic on the perimeter.

It doesn’t help that the Clippers lose this battle 9 times out of 10, barring a missed shot. Jackson and Harrell have struggled mightily on defense, and though Jackson’s minutes have decreased, Harrell is heading in a similar direction.

This is poor blitz defense on a high pick-and-roll between Jamal Murray and Jokic. Leonard and Green invite Murray to split them with a pass. But Harrell needs to be held accountable for not coming to help. As the low man, Harrell needs to slide to the rim the moment Jokic catches the ball; he has to force Jokic to kick it out, rather than letting him walk in for a dunk.

Another interesting stat brings us back to a number I emphasized earlier – Harrell’s DIFF% on defense. On shots less than six feet from the rim, Harrell didn’t allow effortless baskets during the regular season. Harrell’s DIFF% of -9.9 shows that Harrell had some ability to protect the rim. In the playoffs, that number has taken a stark jump to +3.1%. Players have a better chance to score at the rim against Harrell now than they did in the regular season.

Despite the modern NBA rewarding offense more than defense, rotations shorten and defenses tighten down the stretch of these vital games. Winning a title will always come down to defense, at least to some extent. Montrezl Harrell can score points down low, no doubt. But since he’s stumbling everywhere else, the Clippers have to have some doubt about his ability to be a pivotal player when the game is on the line.

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Sanjesh Singh

Sanjesh Singh

Studying journalism at CSULB. Writer and Instagram Manager for The Kings Herald covering the Sacramento Kings. Featured Columnist for 213 Hoops covering the Los Angeles Clippers. Follow me on Twitter @TheSanjeshSingh

9 Comments

  • Darius Miles Forever Darius Miles Forever says:

    Thank you for posting this. Appreciate it.

    After GAME 3, some fans on twitter or reddit said “Trez is back!”
    Nah. Don’t get fooled by his scoring stats. He can score because they sacrifice too much possessions for Trez’s inefficient post-ups or free throws.
    Besides scoring, he doesn’t anything helpful for the team. It’s always been like that during regular-season. This is why I really hate Trez. He can act like a BEAST on a bad team which only has a bunch of inexperienced young players or G-league players as their options. But contending teams don’t need him at all because he doesn’t know how to help the team or how to play defense. And worst part is that he’s not even interested in playing defense, doing the small things.

    Please play Noah over Trez…
    10 minutes of Noah is way more useful than 10 minutes of Trez. Trez plays to score. JaMychal/Patterson/Noah plays to help the team.

    • Sanjesh Singh Sanjesh Singh says:

      Appreciate you reading! JaMyke is definitely worthy of more minutes, especially with his ability to space the floor.

    • Avatar TheGreatestShowman says:

      Noah is not the way.

    • ianbaron ianbaron says:

      I would want to counter this because at least Trezz IS scoring. When we said Trezz is back, we mean you can see him slowly getting back into game shape and have that similar type of energy he used to provide in the regular season. Saying that we don’t need Trezz is simply underplaying and undervaluing how much Trezz means to this team. Don’t forget that Trezz miss the most time from the team and it’s very hard to get back into game shape ESPECIALLY when it’s already the playoffs.

      Please don’t underestimate how much Trezz can provide for this team. His energy, his effort and intensity is vital. Trezz also bring the intangibles that other players do not have.

      If you were to ask me, Doc should’ve given more min to Zubac in the regular season. I’m just glad that he finally sees that Zu has been the more viable and reliable option at the 5

      • Lucas Hann Lucas Hann says:

        I dunno man, I don’t think Trez’s game is built for the playoffs. He was brutal in last year’s playoffs too–even as the whole team had bad metrics because they were overmatched and lost in 6 games, there are glaring differences in the team’s offensive, defensive, and net ratings when he was on and off the floor. For a guy who we know is a one-way offensive player, it’s brutal that they had their worst ORTG when he was on the floor of any rotation player and their best ORTG when he was off the floor of any player. Plus, their worst DRTG when he was on the floor of any player and tied with Lou for the best DRTG when he was off the floor of any player.

        All in all, a team-worst -23.7 NETRTG with Trez on the floor last playoffs compared to a team-best +9.5 with him off the floor. This year the Clippers are better but it’s the same story, a team-worst -6.6 with him on the floor and a team-best +19.3 with him off the floor. They are KILLING teams when he sits and losing ground when he plays.

        The most brutal bit is that him and Lou don’t seem like a viable duo in the playoffs. Last year, in 139 shared playoffs minutes, Clips had a -27.3 NETRTG. They were +8.0 in 37 just-Lou mins and +3.4 in 18 just-Trez minutes (sample size alert). This year, they’re -10.9 in 143 shared playoff minutes, +33.2 in 130 just-Lou minutes, and +7.1 in 44 just-Trez minutes. The data is noisy because they normally play together with other bench guys and some of their solo minutes are in lineups like Lou-PG-Kawhi-Morris-Zu or Pat-PG-Kawhi-Morris-Trez, but it’s clear that the Lou + Trez minutes are killing the team and that Lou deployed in other situations has been absolutely lethal. The Trez +7.1 is encouraging but the team as a whole is +8.7 in NETRTG this post-season, so even his more successful solo lineups are below average.

        Doc may be able to find a way to make Trez into a net positive if he can play him in the right situations, against the right matchup, with the right guys around him (rebounding guards in particular help make up for Trez’s poor rebounding and prevent 2nd chance points). But the Lou-Trez lineups that had a +5 NETRTG in 1400 minutes this season seems like the kind of thing where their pick-and-roll shreds 2nd units all year but doesn’t quite pass the test at a slower pace against better teams in carefully-gameplanned 7-game series, especially since those teams are playing their starters (and therefore better defenders) higher minutes.

    • Josh Josh says:

      I don’t know why so many people want Noah to play. He’s too old. He would be less effective than Montrez. I think the main reason why the Clippers picked up Joakim is to mentor Zubac

  • lying dog-faced pony soldier lying dog-faced pony soldier says:

    My opinion is that Trez took too much time off and hurt his team because of that. Everyone has had deaths in the family. I never had the option of taking a month off from work because of that. Sorry if this seems callous. I like Trez and think he is a unique player who adds a certain something that other teams don’t have. I hope he will perform better as the playoffs progress.

    • Lucas Hann Lucas Hann says:

      Those of us who aren’t millionaires definitely lead different lives than players do. But Trez is a millionaire, and he has the luxury of being able to take time off if he wants to. That absence will probably cost him a lot of money on his next contract, but he’s a grown man who can make that decision himself.

      Clearly Trez and his grandmother were very, very close and she was a hugely important and influential figure in his life. He didn’t just take a month off after her death–he got to spend her last month with her. I think if most people, given the financial flexibility to do so without worrying, were given the chance to be with someone they love during the last month of their life, they’d take that chance. It sucks that more people don’t have that opportunity but I’m happy for Trez that he did and I don’t think any negative impact that may have had on the team should have been a factor in that decision.

      The kicker is that I actually don’t really think Trez’s extended absence is a major factor right now. It maybe cost the Clippers a seeding game, but the flaws he has now are the flaws he’s had all season, and he’s playing in a playoff setting with a slower pace, facing better defenses, and getting fewer touches, three things that we have always known would limit his ability to make his normal positive impact. The best thing Trez does for this team is provide consistent, efficient offensive production at a high volume in a bench role. That production allows you to finish 2nd in the conference despite PG missing games at the start of the year and KL load managing on back to backs. It wins you regular season games that you’d otherwise lose with a more traditional backup C who can’t score at the volume he does.

      But in the playoffs, it’s easy to see how that comes apart. PG and KL are playing every game, and bigger minutes than usual (30->36 and 32->39). That means Trez is sharing the court with stars more often, and getting fewer touches. The slower pace means fewer easy buckets for a guy who thrives in transition. The increased defensive intensity means fewer open dunks conceded than casual RS games. And the teams with bad offenses are watching from home, meaning not only is his defense up against an elite offense every night, but in a 7-game series setting where coaches are specifically targeting weak points in a focused way that doesn’t happen in the RS.

      I think before the bubble games even started, Robert and I had a podcast with The Athletic’s Dave DuFour where we specifically talked about, and all agreed, that Trez’s play really wasn’t suited to the playoffs and speculated that if he was playing more than ~12 minutes a game he would cause problems for the Clippers. That was totally not factoring in the potential of an extended absence from the bubble.