Roughly two weeks away from the impromptu NBA All-Star break, it may be surprising to see the current LA Clippers keeping pace with their 2019-20 campaign. This year’s Clipper squad seems to be more cohesive, overall healthier, and on a better long-term trajectory than last season’s group. However, both teams started their first 32 games with a record of 22-10.
Clippers Keeping Pace with 2020
While no one stat is indicative of the whole story, putting together a group of numbers with the good ol’ fashioned eye test does help to paint a fuller picture.
The current Clippers team has been nothing short of stellar offensively. Paul George’s resurgence combined with contributions of new additions like Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum have the Clippers sitting at a Top 3 Offensive Rating in the league, but it’s still one spot below their Top 2 ranking last season. The story is the same for overall Net Rating; the current squad is ranked 3rd in the league, an elite number by any standard, but still, rank one spot lower than the 2020 group.
Though the current Clippers keeping pace with 2020 is evident, the biggest difference between the two groups comes in their defensive ratings. The 2019-20 squad boasted a Top 5 defensive rating in the NBA, while the current group is treading water at 15th in the league currently. Clearly, this drop-off has not been detrimental to the Clippers season so far, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Another interesting jump the Clippers have taken this season is in their True Shooting Percentage as a team. Last season, they ranked 6th in TS% with a combined 57.7%, also good for 4th in the Western Conference. This season, however, the Clippers lead their conference in TS% with a whopping cumulative 60.4%, trailing on the offensive juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Nets.
The most impressive part of the Clippers’ season thus far has been their 3-point shooting. As a team, they are shooting a league-leading 42.0% from behind the arc, followed closely once again by the Brooklyn Nets (40.5%). Last season, while still impressive, the Clippers shot only 37.1% from distance, good for 6th in the league. This improvement did not come from any single player, but rather a collective effort to find better looks and be more efficient.
Six different Clippers are shooting above 44% on the season: Amir Coffey (.524), Marcus Morris Sr. (.500), Paul George (.471), Nicolas Batum (.446), Patrick Beverley (.443), and Luke Kennard (.442). This goes without even mentioning Kawhi Leonard or Lou Williams who are shooting 38.9% and 37.6% respectively from distance.
Along with this trend of efficiency and creating better looks, one of the Clippers’ most drastic improvements this season has been in limiting their turnovers per game as a team. The Clippers are currently ranked 5th in fewest turnovers per game with only 13.3 cumulative turnovers. Last season, they averaged over a full turnover more per contest with 14.6 and ranked just barely in the top half of the league.
Kawhi is not being asked to facilitate as often as he did last season, but he’s still averaging a career-high in assists with 4.9 APG along with only 1.8 TOPG, nearly half the turnovers he averaged last season (2.6 TOPG). The true difference-maker, however, has been Paul George’s emergence as a legitimate facilitator. He’s been running the pick-and-roll to perfection this season, averaging 5.5 APG which is nearly 1.5 APG more than his previous career-high of 4.1 APG.
Differences Moving Forward
The biggest difference between the current team and last year’s team truly appears to be chemistry. We’re not pointing any fingers at current or former players that may not have had the best chemistry, but the current group seems to have figured it out on and off the court.
Nicolas Batum is the perfect plug-and-play player in today’s NBA. He’s a 6’8 wing with enough ball skills to play the guard position but enough size and length to play either forward position. He’s shooting a career-high 44.6% from 3-point range and averaging a career-high 1.3 steals per game, a true 3&D prototype player. His stat sheets are rarely eye-catching, but the amount of small and timely plays that he makes should not go unnoticed. It’s this type of “glue guy” that ultimately turns contenders into champions.
Big Man Rotation
It’s no secret that Clippers fans everywhere were frustrated with Doc Rivers’s decisions regarding the playing time split between Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac late in games last season. Though Harrell is a tremendous offensive player and brings a lot of positive things to the floor, it was unreasonable to expect him to close out the final 12+ minutes of nearly every game, night in a night out.
Now, with Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac having their minutes decided by Ty Lue, we’re seeing several more situation-based lineups to close out games. Sometimes it’s Ibaka, sometimes it’s Zubac, and sometimes it’s a non-traditional small-ball lineup with Marcus Morris Sr at the center position. Regardless, Coach Lue does not seem dead-set on running one of his big men into the ground down the stretch of every single game.
Super Star Efficiency
We’ve already alluded to the stellar facilitating of Paul George, but it cannot be understated. George’s 5.5 APG has been truly incredible, but it’s not even the most impressive aspect of his game so far this season. While averaging 24.4 PPG, his highest since finishing 3rd in MVP voting, George is shooting a career-high in all three shooting categories, FG% (.511), 3P% (.471), and FT% (.894), all in the same season. That level of efficiency is quite literally almost unheard of. If George keeps this pace and manages to marginally improves his FT shooting, he would join Steve Nash as the only members of the 50-47-90 club.
Along with George’s historic start to the season, Leonard has quietly but tremendously improved his efficiency. We mentioned before that Kawhi nearly halved his turnovers per game while maintaining a career-high APG pace, but he’s also had an excellent start to the season in terms of shooting. He currently holds shooting splits of .506/.389/.885 from the field, 3P line, and FT line respectively. This pace would earn him the 2nd highest mark of his career in each of the three shooting categories (none of his current career highs came in the same season).
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