The Clippers have gone 1-5 since the All Star Break (and the signing of Russell Westbrook), dropping them from 4th to 8th in the Western Conference standings. Since Russ absorbs an inordinate amount of coverage, here’s a look at some good, bad, and ugly since the break, with limited Russ content.
Kawhi Leonard – Kawhi was already ramping up in the game leading up to the All Star break, but has simply exploded after it. In the five games he’s played (he missed one against the Kings for load management), he’s averaged 31 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in 38.7 (!!) minutes played while averaging just 2.2 turnovers. Moreover, he’s scoring at that level on insane efficiency, with a 71.3 True Shooting % uplifted by 58.6% on threes (nearly six per game) and 89.5% on free throws (close to eight per game). The defense is still not at peak levels, and honestly the rebounding could be better too, but this is true superstar Kawhi, and his doing this in his first season after the ACL tear in June 2021 is pretty wild. The Clippers’ scant and fading hopes of a deep playoff run reside squarely in Kawhi’s giant hands.
Mason Plumlee – The Clippers’ most important trade deadline acquisition was Mason Plumlee, filling the long vacant role of “second competent 7 footer on the Clippers” behind Ivica Zubac. Plumlee’s presence has been even more beneficial because Zu has struggled with a calf injury, playing in just two games after the break and not looking like himself. Plumlee’s brought what we expected – very good rebounding (11.0 per game), some playmaking (2.0 assists), and efficient scoring around the rim (67 True Shooting % on 11.5 points per game). The defense hasn’t been great, and his having more turnovers than assists is less than ideal, but the Clippers would be in greater trouble than they already are without Plumlee.
Marcus Morris – Morris’ play should go in “Ugly” but I don’t even have the heart to continue berating his play. Really, it’s not his fault that he continues to get minutes – it’s Ty Lue’s. In four games after the break (Morris missed two with an elbow injury), Morris is averaging 5.5 points and 2.3 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game while shooting 2 of 11 from three and getting to the line just twice. His efficiency has been going downhill since December (it’s been abysmal from January on), his defense is unbelievably bad, and his rebounding is pitiful. Really, the only thing Morris offers is spacing (teams still respect his jumper) and usually turnover-free play. Those things matter, but they should not be enough for him to keep starting. Yet start he will, as Ty Lue seems to determined to go down with Morris for god knows what reason. He’s well-liked in the locker room, and has started nearly all of his games as a Clipper, but it’s long past time to remove him from the starters, if not take him out of the rotation entirely.
Injuries – I’ve already mentioned Zu’s and Morris’ injuries above, but that’s not all. Norm Powell, the Clippers’ leading bench scorer, will miss the next few games (if not more) with a shoulder subluxation. Not only do these injuries take away from the Clippers’ ability to win games now, but they sap valuable remaining time for the Clippers to develop any cohesions and chemistry with their new players. There are only 15 games left, and the Clippers will have their full, updated roster together for just a couple of those at best (provided no more injuries). It’s not great.
The Defense – In the Clippers’ six games post-All Star Break, they’ve recorded an abysmal 121.9 defensive rating, ranking 29th in the NBA in that period ahead of just the Kings. It’s a small sample, sure. If you look at February, they ranked 23rd in defensive rating, at 117.1. In January, 21st at 117.6. Simply, the defense has been bad for months, and it’s gotten even worse recently. The Clippers are not rotating well or smartly, they make poor decisions, and they are not playing optimal defensive lineups. As the new players are integrated and Zubac gets healthy the team will improve on defense, but they have a long, long way to go to get to even “good”. Playing Robert Covington instead of Marcus Morris would help, but alas, that ship has not just sailed, but it’s sunk somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
The Standings – The Clippers’ five game slide cost them dearly in the standings. It removed any likelihood of them getting 2nd or 3rd in the West (they’d need to go 12-3 and have the Kings and Grizzlies go below .500 the rest of the way to catch them), and has put them four losses behind the Suns for 4th. The fifth seed is still in reach, but the Warriors just got Steph Curry back and have two fewer losses than the Clippers – 6th very likely seems like the best the Clippers can realistically hope for, which is just one seed out of the play-in. Even more worryingly, teams like the Thunder, Lakers, Blazers, and Jazz have refused to let go of the rope completely; all four of those teams have 34 losses, just one fewer than the Clippers. One more slip by the Clippers and a couple of those squads getting hot could have the Clippers in the bottom half of the play-in, or theoretically out altogether.