Basketball

Clippers Struggling Early

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The Clippers have gotten off to a rocky start to their 2021-22 campaign, starting 1-3 and currently sitting at 10th in the Western Conference. A large part of this can be attributed to key players missing time, including half of their superstar duo – Kawhi Leonard.

However, the Clippers still field enough talent to be competitive against most teams in the NBA. Paul George has looked like his old All-Star self in three of their first four games, averaging 24 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, and 4.0 SPG and 46-31-100 shooting splits.

They still have legitimate role players like Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac, and Luke Kennard, as well as a potential breakout candidate in Terance Mann. Marcus Morris and Serge Ibaka missing time due to injuries hurt the cause, but it shouldn’t be as detrimental to the team as it has proven to be so far. Newcomers like Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow should, theoretically, help things as well.

So why has none of this mattered so far this season? What’s happening in LA?

Gel Period

The easiest answer: the team hasn’t learned to play together yet. This may come across as hard to believe given how many players returned from last year’s roster but hear me out.

The starting five not only lost their leader in Leonard, but they’re also adjusting to not having Patrick Beverley or Marcus Morris. That’s essentially three new starters, two if you consider that Reggie Jackson started several games last season, but still.

It’s extremely common for a team with turnover in their core players to struggle at the beginning of the season. The talent is there, but the chemistry is still coming on both ends of the court. The main starting five of Jackson, Bledsoe, George, Batum, and Zubac have logged 26 minutes together so far this season. During that time, they’re a +10.3 in points but show a negative FG% and turnover rate compared to their opponents, but things that you’d typically expect to correct themselves with more experience playing together.

It’s also very noticeable on the defensive end of the court that this group hasn’t spent much time together, especially without Kawhi. In their most recent game against Cleveland, the odd lineup including two point guards and three seven-footers gave the Clippers fits. They were giving up open dunks and layups while playing a zone defense. That should never happen regardless of talent level.

This, again, is something that could work itself out with proper coaching adjustments and the players learning to play off of each other better on the defensive side of the ball. This is probably where the Clippers most miss players like Beverley, Leonard, and for the short term Morris.

Shooting

Shooting was not a problem that I foresaw the Clippers having this season, but five of the main ten rotation players right now show struggles in their shooting percentages or a lack of willingness to shoot at all.

Bledsoe is a career 34% 3-point shooter, but he’s currently shooting a career-low 15.4% from distance across four games this season. It’s a small sample size, but a concern nonetheless.

Terance Mann is a career 40% shooter from distance, including a career-high 42% last season, but he’s only hitting at a 33% clip so far this year. Again, something that might correct over time, but a concerning start for a young role player on a team struggling to win games.

Newcomer Justise Winslow has never been known as a prolific shooter, but even he is shooting bad by his standards to open the season. He’s only a 33% shooter on his career, topping out at a career-high 38% in 2018, but he’s already 0-2 in 49 minutes played this year.

Ivica Zubac is not a shooter and will never be asked to shoot the ball, but when you field guards that also struggle to shoot, it’s hard to also play a center that can’t stretch the floor in today’s NBA.

These four have shared the floor with Luke Kennard for a total of 4:16 this season. They set a Per-100-Possession pace of being outscored by 100 points by their opponents, easily the worst 5-man lineup the Clippers have fielded this year in terms of point differential.

However, the Clippers have good shooters, so this boils down to the coaching staff playing the right combination of shooters and non-shooters to mitigate horrid stretches like the 4:16 we saw from the above lineup.

Starting Five

I don’t know what the answer is to the Clippers’ issues so far this season, but it seems to me that starting our only two point guards, neither of which have excelled on either end of the court yet this season, hasn’t been the best idea. During the 77:45 minutes that Jackson and Bledsoe have shared the court this season, they’ve been on a Per-100-Poss pace of being outscored by 6.9 points. That’s not abysmal for a team still finding its chemistry, but it’s not necessarily good either.

On the flip side of this, three of the five highest two-man Per-100-Poss lineups the Clippers have fielded this year include some combination of Jackson, Kennard, and Mann.

Jackson + Kennard have outscored opponents by 26.8 points per 100 possessions.

Kennard + Mann have outscored opponents by 24.9 points per 100 possessions.

Jackson + Mann have outscored opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions.

The other two of the top five include combinations of George and either Mann or Kennard.

To me, this screams that pairing Jackson with either Kennard or Mann is the most beneficial option for this team right now. Whether this means moving Reggie to the bench unit or starting Kennard/Mann in the place of Bledsoe, I don’t know, but the numbers don’t lie.

Just Give it Time?

All of that being said, the best option for the Clippers might be to let them figure it out for themselves. Teams that go through rough patches together tend to gel together better down the line. Fighting through frustrating losses until our injured players come back might be the best option for this team right now. Losing three out of four games warrants concern, but making roster-altering moves is likely to be an overreaction this early in the season.

Morris and Ibaka will be back soon, providing much-needed spacing and more shooters to correct one of the biggest issues so far this season. This also gives time to new guys like Bledsoe and Winslow to fully find their footing and learn exactly what their role will be on this team.

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