Why The Clippers Haven’t Looked Like Title Contenders This Season

Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers appeared four minutes away from weathering Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 54-point explosion and notching an applause-worthy road win over the Milwaukee Bucks. After Kawhi Leonard busted out a fake and stepped around his man to loft in a short push shot, Los Angeles led, 105-99, with under three minutes remaining.

Yet those would be the final points of the evening for Los Angeles. Milwaukee scored the next seven and won, 106-105. Down the stretch, the Clippers’ offense stalled into an isolation contest fueled by Leonard and Paul George, as Wesley Matthews and Jrue Holiday relished the challenge and stymied the star duo.

That loss dropped L.A. to 29-26. A month later, they’ve done nothing but tread water, sitting at 35-33, fifth in the West and only two games up on the 10th-seeded New Orleans Pelicans. For a club that entered the season with justifiable title hopes, the first 68 games of 2022-23 have been a colossal disappointment. While Leonard and George missing a combined 45 games doesn’t help matters, this team touts glaring flaws even when they do suit up. They’re 25-15 when Leonard plays, but competent teams are good when their superstar is available; that record alone is not a boarding pass for title contention. His presence does not absolve the Clippers of their flaws.

Broadly, Los Angeles cannot seem to merge effective two-way play. Through 31 games, it ranked 29th in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating, according to Cleaning The Glass. Over the past 37, it’s 11th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. On the year, it’s 23rd in offensive rating, 17th in defensive rating and 24th in net rating,

This dissonance, to some extent, stems from the concessions the Clippers constantly have to embrace with their rotation choices. The majority of options give something back substantially on one end or lack in critical areas that exacerbate team-wide shortcomings.

Russell Westbrook, Norman Powell, Mason Plumlee, Marcus Morris, and Eric Gordon can all provide offensive gusto, but create significant defensive issues. Luke Kennard was the same way prior to being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies. Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum, and Robert Covington provide defensive boosts but can all hamstring the offense. There’s not much two-way talent outside of Leonard and George.

To a massive fault, the Clippers are overly reliant on jumpers. Slow developing offensive sets amplify the problem and leave them without much wiggle room on many possessions, as they scarcely create quick-hitting chances. Their crunch-time foibles last month against Milwaukee aptly summarized that white-knuckled, jumper-heavy ethos.

They rank fourth in long midrange rate and 15th in accuracy, per Cleaning The Glass. On a singular play, those midrange shots are generally acceptable and they’re comfortable reps for Leonard and George. Stretched out to a wider sample, however, and the issues that shot profile indicates surface, especially given the middling efficiency. They need diversity, but can’t engineer it. They’re 23rd in rim frequency and long for a viable pick-and-roll big to release tension on the interior. Their brigade of shooters ensures they’re well-spaced horizontally, yet they’re insufficiently spaced vertically. One without the other is sinking these Clippers.

Zubac has certainly progressed offensively, but it feels like he eats up space to the detriment of the offense rather regularly. When he rests, his own team’s rim frequency jumps 3.1 percent, while opponents’ rim frequency spikes 6.9 percent, a dichotomy that speaks to the dilemma the Clippers face in determining his ideal playing time.

They rarely coax the defense out of its shell and into scramble mode, allowing the opposition to guard them straight up. They spend so much time stagnant, play at the league’s ninth-slowest pace and are often forced into settling for suboptimal late clock looks at the end of aesthetically displeasing sequences. This is a rigid team offensively and its primary means of flourishing is already tenuous.

The dearth of quality decision-makers and passers is another major hurdle. George is a tremendous player who’s been overextended into lead ball-handling duties for lengthy stretches. He’s simply not the playmaker or slasher required to assume those responsibilities so prominently for this team.

Leonard’s amid a dominant 30-game run, but he’s also susceptible to missing openings or identifying them late, once they’re no longer available. Powell’s immediacy as a slasher and shooter are vital boons, but he’s not an adept passer. When they were still on the roster, Reggie Jackson and John Wall added to the decision-making trials.

Whether it’s reading the floor slowly or firing inaccurate passes, Los Angeles’ offensive hubs (current and former) are prone to disrupting the flow built on a given possession with gaffes. Defenses are enabled to recover or nab takeaways when recipients of passes have to go out of their way to collect them. A 17th-ranked turnover percentage derails opportunities as well. The passing and processing speed simply aren’t at the requisite levels for this offense to hum on a nightly basis.

Although the offense is the leading culprit of Los Angeles’ perils, its defense is not without blame either. Regardless of scheme and personnel, the connectivity has contributed to the struggles. The Clippers typically switch and the execution hasn’t been pristine all the time, as offenses can often find driving angles.

That’s particularly troubling during the 19 minutes Zubac sits each game because the interior depth behind him can’t defend the rim effectively. I’d wager some of the cohesion suffers from various absences and a carousel of rotations. Adding three new players to the rotation (Plumlee, Westbrook, Gordon) around the trade deadline only heightened that challenge.

Then, this circles back to the concessions they’re cornered into. Head coach Ty Lue is devoted to grant Morris heavy minutes, though the veteran forward’s declining mobility causes breakdowns on the perimeter in various fashions, not to mention his offensive decision-making is dubious.

Plumlee’s passing and finishing are welcomed aspects inside, though he’s an ineffectual rim protector. Westbrook’s passing and breakneck cadence are beneficial, though his risk-taking at the point of attack and ball-watching away from the action are worrisome. Gordon’s lateral quickness has regressed the past couple years. Powell doesn’t smoothly navigate screens or cover ground East-West. A lot of players designed to elevate the offense come into conflict with the defensive output.

When the personnel is limited, the synergy must be sharp. That’s not the case. The result is a 17th-ranked defense on the downswing. The margin for error on a roster short rim protection depth is small. Los Angeles’ errors routinely eclipse such a margin.

The other angle residing over the Clippers’ recent slide (2-5 in their last seven) is Westbrook’s domineering style. His arrival prompts a reorientation from other integral role players. He is certainly not the leading or lone factor in their demise since he joined the rotation and has in fact produced some good outings.

Yet he is not a seamless addition. Powell and Terance Mann must adapt. There’s also the reality that he is maximized as an on-ball creator whose playmaking can fill clear gaps in the offense. His scoring ineptitude renders him a less effective initiator than George and Leonard, while his shooting constraints and finishing hiccups muddy his off-ball fit.

Navigating that entire dynamic as players, Westbrook included, and coaches is arduous, let alone doing so the final six weeks of the regular season as a team yearning for consistency. Westbrook seeing 30 minutes per game intensifies the tribulation. Had his integration occurred around the holidays in a 20-minute, reserve capacity rather than late February in a 30-minute, starting gig, the transition would be easier. The decision to sign him at this point in the season and hand him such a grand role is risky and ripples across the roster, and the complications of his addition are not solely tied to his skillset.

The Clippers are headlined by two stars, one of which is performing like an All-NBA player the past three months. Their rotation is stocked with dudes who most would consider viable ancillary cogs. And yet, with only a month remaining in the regular season, they sit much closer to the outside of the playoffs than rubbing shoulders with the West’s elite.

It’s largely the product of a team-building method that neglected valuing specific skills, which prove themselves paramount after every underwhelming result. Schematically or individually, this group doesn’t have a nucleus to unify possessions on either end and provide a roadmap each trip down the court. As the playoff landscape crystalizes, those mistakes and holes will likely be the reason this franchise again falls short of its aspirations during the Leonard and George Era, one that began so optimistically and is currently hazy as ever.