We are just about a quarter of the way through the 2023-2024 season, and with a break in play for the In-Season Tournament, now seemed like a good idea for some big picture catch-up on the Clippers.
The New Starting Lineup: The Clippers are 6-3 since they switched their starting lineup by inserting Terance Mann in place of Russell Westbrook. That unit, with James Harden, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Mann, and Ivica Zubac, is by far the Clippers’ most played of the season, with 154 minutes across 10 games. In that time, the unit has a Net Rating of 18.5 – their offensive rating of 120.5 would rank 2nd among NBA teams on the season and their defensive rating of 102 would be first by a wide margin. The sample size is still small, and the schedule has been middle of the road, but the unit makes sense on paper and has clarified the roles of each player. If the Clippers can continue their early success with this unit, more wins will come, even if this level of play probably isn’t sustainable.
Harden’s Offense: You can argue about whether the Clippers needed James Harden. You can question the package that they used to acquire him. You can rightfully point out his abysmal defense (which has been worse than I thought). However, he’s been very good (if a bit hesitant/passive) on offense. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 6.4 assists to just 2.1 turnovers per game and is scoring at an absurd 64% True Shooting. Even though he’s getting to the line less, he’s been money as a three-point shooter, and is up to 58.8% of his threes being assisted, the most in over a decade – this is a good sign for his playing off-ball next to Kawhi and George. There are times he looks slow, or doesn’t attack quickly enough, or passes up an open three for a step back jumper. But his playmaking in the pick and roll remains brilliant, and his ability to create offense for himself and others has been welcome. As he grows more acclimated, his scoring should continue to increase.
Health: The Clippers, despite being an old team with injury-prone players, have had fairly good health so far this year. They have five players who have appeared in every game, including their two superstars, Kawhi and George. James Harden hasn’t missed a game since he was traded either. Their only injuries have been the loss of Mason Plumlee due to a knee sprain (which hurt, but Daniel Theis has filled in ok), six games of Terance Mann at the start of the year, and Brandon Boston Jr (not in the rotation) missing the whole season so far with a quad. The Clippers only being 9-10 with that level of health is disappointing, but the fact that the Clippers are mostly healthy and their key players are even appearing in back to backs is encouraging.
The Youth Movement: Fans were probably hoping to see more of the Clippers’ young guys get minutes this year, and that just hasn’t happened. Third-year Brandon Boston Jr. got injured 30 seconds into preseason and is still out. Second-year Moussa Diabate has logged 55 minutes and is currently in the G-League. Second-round rookie Jordan Miller has played in two games for a grand total of seven minutes. Amir Coffey, who isn’t even that young anymore, can’t get off the bench, with only 10 appearances for 58 minutes. Promising third-year guard Bones Hyland played a lot to start the season, but has been out of the rotation since shortly after the Harden trade. The only youngster currently getting minutes is Kobe Brown, but after a decent first game in the rotation has been awful the past two, and it’s hard to imagine him getting a long leash. The Clippers are old, and the young guys they do have don’t play. It’s unfortunate.
Auxiliary Cast Shooting: The Clippers’ four primary scorers – Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, and Norm Powell – are shooting the ball excellently from three. George’s percentage is the lowest at 38.1, which is still very good, and he’s taking the most per game. Bones Hyland has also shot well, but he’s been out of the rotation. Outside of that, it’s grim. Russell Westbrook is shooting 27.5% from deep on 2.7 attempts per game. Terance Mann, who has a better track record of three-point shooting, is at an abominable 17.1% also on just 2.7 attempts per game (though a smaller sample size he’s played a lot less). Kobe Brown and PJ Tucker have only taken a handful of threes, but they’re at 26.7% and 27.3% respectively. Daniel Theis is at 37.5% but that’s on eight total attempts. In short, the Clippers’ supporting cast is not taking many threes, and when they do they miss. Really, the Clippers’ 17th rank in offense would be a lot higher if these guys were shooting the ball better. Hopefully these numbers improve.
PJ Tucker’s Offense: Of 491 NBA players who have logged minutes this year, PJ Tucker ranks 483rd in Usage Rate at 4.3%. None of the players ranked below him have played more than 12 minutes all year (PJ has played 239). The next closest rotation players are Dean Wade at 477 and old friend Nic Batum at 476 – except their usage rates are a comparatively monstrous 7.4% and 7.6% respectively. Being a low usage player when you’re not offensively gifted has some advantages, especially on a star-laden roster. But 4.3% means Tucker is basically doing nothing on offense. He’s taken 14 shots in 173 minutes (making only 4), has gotten to the line three times, and has eight assists. His biggest contribution by far is offensive rebounding, of which he has 15. PJ is still a good defender, but the Clippers can’t afford to play a rotation player who is a complete non-entity on offense.
The Denver Matchup: While the Denver Nuggets are not at the top of the Western Conference standings, the defending champions are widely regarded as the team to beat in the West. And the Clippers just can’t beat them. While their two losses this year have been more competitive than those of the past couple seasons, they are losses nonetheless, and the most recent defeat to a Nuggets team missing their three best players does not inspire much optimism. If the Clippers are to make a deep playoff run, they’ll probably encounter the Nuggets at some point, and there’s just not much to suggest they have a real shot of winning that series.