The Clippers head into the second postseason of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era with some momentum and confidence. Despite losing the last two games of the regular season, all the Clippers’ key players have had time to rest and prepare for a rematch against the Dallas Mavericks. With the Nuggets lacking Jamal Murray, the Jazz dealing with injuries, the Lakers just getting back from injuries, and Suns having key players lacking in playoff experience, it seems like the West might be open for the Clippers. However, the Clippers have weaknesses of their own, and their ability to overcome or mitigate those flaws will determine how far they can get in the postseason. Here are three of the Clippers’ biggest potential playoff weaknesses and how impactful they could be in the playoffs.
Not Getting to the Rim or the Line
The most efficient spots to score the basketball are at the free throw line and around the basket. The third area is from behind the three point line. The Clippers had a top-ranked offense because of that latter category, as they turned in the best three-point shooting season as a team of all time. Unfortunately, they were not so proficient in the other two categories. Per NBA.com, the Clippers scored just 14.2% of their points from the free throw line (26th in the NBA), and 37% of their points in the paint (29th in the NBA). The old adage about how “three point shooting teams” don’t win is clearly not true anymore, but three-point shooting still can feel more inconsistent than other modes of scoring. Could this cost the Clippers?
Well, sure. There is definitely higher variance to three-point shooting than to layups or free throws, so if the Clippers’ shooters go cold for even two games against the wrong opponent, they could be sent home early. But in today’s NBA, cold outside shooting will cost almost every team in the playoffs, especially after the first round, so I don’t think the Clippers are particularly unique. The issue is whether they can generate other shots if the threes aren’t dropping. Kawhi can bully his way to the hoop, Rajon Rondo has proven surprisingly adept at darting to the rim, and Ivica Zubac eats at the basket. The free throw rate is a concern, but I think Kawhi and George will attack the rim a lot more, with Kawhi in particular able to draw calls via his strength.
No True Third Option
This is a far less discussed issue, and one which I think was fair to bring up last playoffs as well. While Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were awful in Game 7 along with the rest of the team, they (especially George) were outstanding the rest of the series. It was their teammates who didn’t show up. And, while the Clippers are deeper this year, there’s a question as to who might step up to score if PG or Kawhi is off. After the two stars, the Clippers’ next-leading scorer was Marcus Morris at 13.4 points per game, and then Serge Ibaka at a mere 11.1 points. While both guys are capable scorers, neither is reliable shot creators, nor are Ivica Zubac and Nic Batum. Rajon Rondo can create shots for others, which is great, but can he (or will he) for himself?
This strikes me as a slightly bigger concern than the lack of free throws, to be honest. Most modern championship teams have a “Big 3”, and the Clippers just don’t despite how good Batum, Zu, Morris, and Beverley have been at points this season. Having a team where six or seven guys can step up is great, but would one or two more truly steady, high-level contributors be more advantageous? Probably. If the Clippers need a bucket, and Kawhi is in foul trouble, and Paul George is off, where do they turn to? Now, in that scenario, the Clippers are almost certainly in trouble anyway, but it’s still a bit concerning to only have two reliable bucket-getters in the postseason. Marcus Morris will be relied on heavily, and for as well as he shot the ball from three this year, most of his shots are created for him. There could be games where the Clippers’ lack of a third guy bites them much more than the type of shots they’re getting.
Somewhat Questionable Point Guard Rotation
The Clippers are all set at forward and center, but their point guard rotation still seems a bit shaky heading into the postseason. Fascinatingly, the most sure piece of it, Rajon Rondo, has only been a member of the team for a couple months. Reggie Jackson has been magnificent all season. He was out of the rotation when the Clippers were healthy for a brief period, started much of the season, came off the bench, and did it all with aplomb. However, however, however – the issues remain. Reggie is an excellent three-point shooter who’s fine as a tertiary playmaker, but makes too many decisions when called upon for more. His defense is atrocious. Even playing off-ball, I wonder how much he can really play past the first round of the playoffs.
Then there’s Pat Beverley, who many people would have said was the Clippers’ 3rd best player coming into the season. Pat had a discombobulated season, playing in just 37 of the Clippers’ 72 games, and missing most of the back half of the year. When he did play, he was frequently on a minutes restriction, and hasn’t looked like himself in several months. The Clippers need Pat Beverley. They need him healthy, they need him to be able to play at least 20 minutes per game, and they need him to be Pat. The combination of shooting, decision-making, rebounding, and defense is just not replaceable, and if he’s not 100%, the Clippers’ options are Jackson, Rondo, or maybe Terance Mann.
For as good as Rondo’s been, he’s averaged just 20.4 minutes per game, and was at around 25 in last year’s playoffs. Asking him to do much more than that is probably too much. So, if Beverley is out or limited, the Clippers will have to go with the defensively leaky Jackson or a playoff-fresh youngster in Mann. That’s not great. The solution to this issue is really just to have Beverley not be hurt, but if he is, or if he’s just never able to recapture his true level of play, the Clippers will be at a disadvantage at the point guard slot.
Those are really the big playoff weaknesses I could see plaguing the Clippers. Overall, I think they’re in a good spot, and have the players and coaching to overcome most of their weaknesses. Ultimately, if they do collapse, I think suspect point guard play and lack of a true third guy could be the culprits. Hopefully that doesn’t occur, and the Clippers’ playoff weaknesses fail to materialize.