The team isn’t supposed to be fully clicking yet, but there are a number of positive and negative Clippers trends to note nine games into the season. Given the tough slate of games to open the season, along with the coaching overhaul and late roster acquisitions, they were figured to get out of the gates rather slowly. They’ve been better than expected so far, and there’s reason to be optimistic. The offense has been noticeably more fluid — featuring more ball and player movement, the players seem to have bought into their roles, and the product on the court has been more entertaining — a refreshing change that was lacking for most of last season. The process in which the wins and losses have come by has been effective thus far and should be sustainable. Within that process lies trends that have formed, some that are standing out.
POSITIVE TRENDS – Kawhi’s Playmaking
Kawhi Leonard’s passing has taken another leap forward this season. His assists per game (6.1) are at a career-best mark while his turnovers (2.0) are down from last season. Ty Lue is simplifying the game for Kawhi. He spoke during training camp about utilizing Kawhi offensively in similar ways to which Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were, and so far he’s been a man of his word. Lue’s sets have Kawhi operating out of both the low-post and the elbows, where his prowess as a scoring threat requires the attention of more than just one defender. This isn’t all that new as Kawhi was no stranger to post isolations last year, but now the added shooting with Serge Ibaka spaced on the perimeter makes for slower double teams and more breathing room to make the right passes. Given the personnel on the court and Kawhi’s season-by-season progression as a playmaker, this trend shouldn’t be a short-lived one.
POSITIVE TRENDS – Paul George’s Improvement
My biggest takeaway so far through these games has been the upward trend of Paul George being able to shoulder the load on a nightly basis — something that should be frequent for a star player. There were many times last season in which George didn’t hold his weight once Kawhi would head to the bench, specifically in the playoffs; leads would vanish and deficits would increase as he often struggled to be a reliable first option. To this point, quite the opposite can be said now. Against the team’s three toughest opponents so far (LAL, DEN, PHX), George has been the best player on the court. He’s led all Clippers players in plus/minus in each outing while having game-saving performances late in games that put the finishing touches on contests that were hanging in the balance.
As if watching the games wasn’t telling enough, the stats are jumping off the page. George’s 48% 3PT shooting on 8.4 attempts per game validates his already existing label as one of the most elite shooters in the entire NBA, and he has managed to return to form as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. All of the early season individual dominance has been great for George, especially after some had written him off after his struggles during the NBA bubble.
NEGATIVE TRENDS – ISO Ball: Hits & Misses
The Clippers have been pretty good with their ball movement all season long, but they still have a tendency to revert back to ISO ball when games are tight. Their January 3rd win over the Suns is still recent enough to remember the concerns I had about how sustainable that ending was. The Suns made a second half run that put the Clippers up against the ropes a bit, and the Clippers responded by vanishing ball-movement and getting the ball into the hands of their star players. The results varied: Kawhi ISO his way into many missed mid-range jumpers, while the hot-handed PG bailed the Clippers out with a plethora of tough shots. When you have two of the better players in the NBA it’s hard to argue with letting them generate for themselves, especially proven veterans who are very capable of creating on their own. However, this part of the process shouldn’t be relied on all the time.
NEGATIVE TRENDS – Closing Quarters, Missing Opportunities
For as well as the Clippers have played, they’ve missed a lot of opportunities to be even better. In their five wins, they have built 20-point leads in all of them without truly being able to slam the door shut. Also in their losses they’ve trailed by 20 or more points, letting deficits worsen while rotating lineups in and out during the ends of quarters; the common denominator of the losses.
During the Clippers’ 116-113 loss to the Spurs, they trailed San Antonio 20-18 with 2:57 remaining in the first quarter. However, they would then relinquish 13 points to Patty Mills to end the quarter down by nine points. As a result, momentum shifted, the Spurs’ lead continued to blossom, and the Clippers would play much of the game from far behind.
Similarly, the 106-100 loss to the Utah Jazz followed a comparable script. The Clippers held a 15-13 lead at the 3:47 mark of the first quarter before ending the frame down 19-31. The Jazz lead ballooned to upward of 18 points, but the Clippers would scratch and claw their way back to a one-point deficit with just under two minutes to go in the half, but then gave up nine straight points to end the quarter.
Despite winning games while holding those aforementioned leads, ending quarters has been just as problematic.
On Christmas Day, the Clippers put together a dominant 2.5 quarters of basketball; they led Denver 98-74 with 1:16 to go in the third quarter. They were in position to separate themselves even further or at least hold even, but they let go of the rope a bit. The Nuggets closed the third on a 5-0 run and found life heading into the fourth quarter where instead of being able to rest their stars in a blowout win, the Clippers lost Kawhi to injury down the stretch. Just a week later the Clippers blew a 31-point lead to the Suns, losing the last three minutes of the second and third quarters by a combined 13 points.
“I think it’s good for us to win a game that way,” said Clippers forward Nic Batum when speaking on fighting off the Suns’ late comeback after squandering a large lead. “I actually love it.” No doubt these in-game experiences hold value for future situations, but they aren’t always necessary. They must begin to execute better at the end of quarters to avoid putting themselves in tough situations.
The Clippers are entering a softer portion of their schedule and should be able to string together some wins. The process will be telling of what kind of basketball team they may round into. As always, I’ll be paying close attention to what develops and watching to see what sticks.
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