More than four months have passed since the L.A. Clippers imploded in the Western Conference Semifinals. Many weighed in on the autopsy of the Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, and the Clippers also overhauled their on-court product in the offseason. Tyronn Lue is now at the helm, the roster features Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard, Nic Batum and others in key positions, and the Clippers are now flying under the radar, at least to some extent. However, the Clippers still feature the dynamic pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, with that duo fueling everything for the organization.
Through 17 games, the Clippers sport a 13-4 record that features an active seven-game winning streak. Even while acknowledging that the schedule has been reasonably soft during the winning spree, L.A. boasts a tremendous statistical profile. The Clippers are No. 2 in the NBA in offense, scoring 116.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-three net rating (+7.7) in the early going. L.A.’s offensive explosion isn’t too shocking in the aggregate, but the Clippers lead the NBA in three-point shooting (42.3 percent), and the team is generating a ridiculous 122.1 offensive rating during the seven-game winning streak.
As you may expect, Leonard and George are playing at a fantastic level. Both are sporting 50/40/90 shooting lines and, when the two play together, the Clippers are outscoring opponents by a blistering 17.7 points per 100 possessions. George was harshly criticized for his playoff downturn but, after shooting just 40 percent from the floor and 33 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason, he has captured his old self on the offensive side.
Beyond the top two, L.A.’s new acquisitions are doing damage. Batum has been an unexpectedly positive story, scoring 10.0 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from long range. Those numbers may not continue, but the Clippers acquired the veteran forward at a bargain-basement price, and he fits well in the team’s scheme as a versatile player defensively and an effective, low-usage ball mover offensively. From there, Ibaka’s arrival is paying real dividends, and the addition of Kennard helps to take some heat away from early-season struggles from veteran Lou Williams.
Within the 17-game sample, there is some statistical noise that indicates (slight) regression could be in the offing for the Clippers offensively. At the same time, they are absolutely bludgeoning the opposition when their best players are on the floor, and that includes a +25.4 (!) net rating with their starting lineup deployed together. That kind of dominance may not persist in full, but there is reason to believe that the Clippers are, in fact, the dominant team that simply evaporated for a few days in the 2020 playoffs.
Like the Milwaukee Bucks in the East, the Clippers are at a point where only the postseason “matters” for their broad evaluation, and that makes the regular season feel less significant. Beyond that, the Clippers may not be at full strength for a while, with both Leonard and George currently in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Still, it is undoubtedly encouraging to see L.A. playing at an obscenely high level to begin the 2020-21 campaign, and they remain the biggest threat to the Los Angeles Lakers in the West as a result.
Where do the Clippers land this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (14-4, Last week — 1st)
The Lakers were actually threatened by the Cavs on Monday but, eventually, LeBron did LeBron stuff. Los Angeles remains the clear favorite to repeat and, even if they weren’t, the Lakers have the best record in the league. There is no reason to drop them.
2. L.A. Clippers (13-4, Last week — 2nd)
L.A. may not be able to maintain their current form while George and Leonard are sidelined. In the grand scheme, all that matters is how they look when the full crew is available, and the early returns are exceptional.
3. Utah Jazz (12-4, Last week — 3rd)
Utah made a big leap last week and they haven’t slowed down. The Jazz came out this week and won all three games by double-digits, extending their winning streak to eight games. That seems pretty good and, at present, Utah is a top-five team on both offense and defense.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (10-6, Last week — 5th)
Milwaukee’s won five of the last seven, with the only losses to the Lakers and Nets. The Bucks also maintain the NBA’s best offensive rating and they have the best statistical profile in the East right now. In other words, things are pretty normal.
5. Brooklyn Nets (11-8, Last week — 4th)
It was kind of a weird week for Brooklyn. The Nets were swept (?) by the Cavs, but then bounced back to sweep the Heat in a two-game set. Monday’s win over Miami wasn’t exactly a portrait in beauty, but the Nets made the plays they needed to make and, obviously, the talent is undeniable.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (12-6, Last week — 6th)
A cursory look at Philadelphia’s profile would reveal an eyebrow-raising loss to Detroit in their last outing. I would simply point out that Joel Embiid didn’t play in Detroit. Otherwise, the Sixers won the three previous games, including a two-game sweep over Boston.
7. Boston Celtics (10-6, Last week — 7th)
Jayson Tatum is back and the Celtics are in a solid position despite all kinds of weirdness in the early going. Boston did lose both games to Philly this week, though, so they can’t jump over the Sixers in our rankings.
8. Denver Nuggets (10-7, Last week — 14th)
Denver had a fantastic week. The Nuggets are 4-0 since our last check-in, with three straight road wins over Phoenix and Dallas. That is quite impressive, and Denver is now third in offensive rating and fifth in net rating this season. The early-season struggles seem to be behind them.
9. Memphis Grizzlies (7-6, Last week — 8th)
Unfortunately, Memphis didn’t play all week due to postponements and Wednesday’s scheduled game is already postponed. The Grizzlies are still technically on a five-game winning streak, though, so that’s something in the encouraging column.
10. Indiana Pacers (10-7, Last week — 12th)
The Pacers are a top-10 team in net rating that is slightly above-average on both ends of the floor. Is there anything more Pacers than that? Indiana also picked up a nice win over Toronto on Monday, even with Domantas Sabonis leaving the game early with a knee issue.
11. Phoenix Suns (8-7, Last week — 9th)
Phoenix has technically lost four of five, with three postponements in between. There is no reason for panic, as the last two losses came to the scalding-hot Nuggets. From there, the Suns still have a solid statistical profile and a deep, talented roster. That usually helps.
12. San Antonio Spurs (9-8, Last week — 13th)
This isn’t a new phenomenon, but the Spurs have been flat-out better without DeMar DeRozan and/or LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor. San Antonio’s net rating is -6.5 with Aldridge and -5.5 with DeRozan, though the team’s overall net rating is positive on the way to 9-8. Maybe it’s early-season noise, but it’s not ideal to be worse with your most prominent players on the court.
13. Golden State Warriors (9-8, Last week — 11th)
Steve Kerr shook things up on Monday in bringing James Wiseman off the bench. That probably wasn’t the reason Golden State toppled hapless Minnesota, but it’s something to watch. Oh, and Steph Curry remains pretty good.
14. Atlanta Hawks (8-8, Last week — 16th)
After a badly needed three-game winning streak, the Hawks ran into a buzzsaw in Milwaukee on Sunday. Of course, Atlanta could point to the absences of Trae Young and Clint Capela in that game to explain the double-digit defeat. Now, though, the Hawks face an interesting back-to-back against the Clippers and Nets on Tuesday and Wednesday, even if the first match-up lost some luster with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sidelined.
15. Toronto Raptors (7-10, Last week — 15th)
Toronto is rounding into form with five wins in the last seven games. No one should’ve been worried that the Raptors were suddenly terrible, but they’ll need to continue this upward trajectory to get where they want to go. For one thing, Toronto is only league-average on defense so far this season, and that will need to improve.
16. Portland Trail Blazers (9-7, Last week — 10th)
Losing to Oklahoma City at home on Monday isn’t the end of the world, but it maybe wasn’t the best sign for Portland. The Blazers are going to struggle without CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. The only question is just how much they’ll struggle and how it will impact their overall pursuits.
17. Houston Rockets (6-9, Last week — 24th)
We’re giving the Rockets a bump after what they did to Dallas in a 25-point win on Saturday. It’s quite possible (likely?) that Houston will go back to the bottom-10 next week, but DeMarcus Cousins put together a 28-point, 17-rebound effort that was a lot of fun in that matchup.
18. Dallas Mavericks (8-9, Last week — 17th)
Dallas is 2-5 in the last seven games. More troubling, though, is the fact that the Mavericks essentially have a league-average offense right now. After leading the league comfortably in offensive rating last season, that is a problem. Dallas has to be very good, maybe even elite, on that end to enjoy the success they’re seeking.
19. Miami Heat (6-10, Last week — 18th)
It is hard to flat-out punish the Heat for losing to the Nets (twice) and Raptors on the road. However, Miami’s slow start continues at 6-10 and they may be digging a hole that will impact them in the playoffs. Jimmy Butler’s return will help, but the Heat have been a bad team statistically this season, which is worth acknowledging.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-9, Last week — 21st)
Cleveland turned some heads in challenging the Lakers on Monday evening, but LeBron put the game away late to end some of the excitement. Prior to that, the Cavs suffered a (very) ugly loss to the Celtics but, even then, Boston is a good basketball team, and Cleveland opened the week in beating Brooklyn twice. Cleveland is 25th in net rating, but they are better than that.
21. New York Knicks (8-10, Last week — 22nd)
New York’s season has been marked by runs. After starting 2-3, the Knicks won three in a row. Then, the Knicks lost five in a row, only to win three in a row, and then arrive here by losing the last two games. The baseline is somewhere in the middle, of course, but this is still a top-five defense statistically and that helps a lot.
22. Chicago Bulls (7-10, Last week — 20th)
This might just be what the Bulls are. There have been ebbs and flows, but Chicago is 7-10 and on the fringe of play-in contention. That almost feels right, especially with a net rating (-3.5) that is currently 24th in the Association.
23. Charlotte Hornets (7-10, Last week — 23rd)
It’s been a little bit rough for the Hornets lately. Charlotte has lost five of six, with the only win coming against Orlando, only to give it back the next game. That isn’t the end of the world, but they were closer to moving down the rankings than moving up this week.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-9, Last week — 25th)
Oklahoma City’s second unit is pretty rough and this team probably isn’t going to win more games than it loses. The Thunder are still competitive, though, and they showed that again with a win over Portland on Monday. Oklahoma City did lose five of the previous six games, but even those losses came to playoff-caliber teams. They’re respectable.
25. Orlando Magic (8-10, Last week — 27th)
We could focus on Orlando’s bottom-five offense and real creation issues on the perimeter. Those are worthwhile conversations. Instead, we’ll spin it positive to showcase the stellar play of Nikola Vucevic. The standout center is carrying Orlando’s offense to the tune of 23.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and he’s connecting on 43.5 percent of his three-pointers. Imagine where the Magic would be without his tremendous contributions.
26. Washington Wizards (3-9, Last week — 26th)
The Wizards have taken the floor for one game in the last two weeks. It was a road loss to San Antonio. Washington is still without several key pieces, and it is really difficult to evaluate their on-court product when taking everything into account. We’ll learn more about the Wizards in the coming days.
27. Sacramento Kings (6-10, Last week — 28th)
Sacramento is still in a tier of their own defensively, and not in a good way. The Kings have the worst defensive rating in the NBA by four points per 100 possessions, and that explains their overall performance. There wasn’t much to take from this week, though, as Sacramento split its only two games due to postponements.
28. Detroit Pistons (4-13, Last week — 29th)
Detroit snapped a four-game losing streak with a win on Monday and it was a microcosm of their season. The Pistons lost all four games by single digits and, while they have the worst win-loss record in the NBA, Detroit is only 22nd in net rating (-3.0). Make no mistake, the Pistons are pretty bad, but they aren’t completely wretched.
29. New Orleans Pelicans (5-10, Last week — 19th)
The Pelicans lost to the Wolves this week so, honestly, I thought about putting them 30th. That is an ugly sign overall for a team that had real expectations, but three losses in a row puts New Orleans closer to the bottom than the playoff picture. There is still talent on the roster and time to right the ship, but it’s not going all that well.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (4-12, Last week — 30th)
In 132 minutes, the Wolves have a +6.1 net rating when Karl-Anthony Towns is on the floor. When he’s off the floor, the team’s net rating craters to -11.9, and KAT has been out for a while. As such, Minnesota has the worst statistical profile in the league and they remain in the basement this week.