The Clippers Don’t Feel So Good
1:11 PM EST on March 2, 2023
If you've watched any recent nationally broadcast NBA games featuring a team in the Western Conference playoff hunt, you may have noticed that the graphics showing how tightly packed the standings are currently cuts off at fourth place. The visual effect is unsettling; on Tuesday night the stack of teams looked like a horse race, and ESPN's contribution on Wednesday was equally stressful to look at. All those crowded graphics make the same point, which is that this particular drainpipe is entirely too clogged. I bring this up not to crow about which team is safely in third (though you are free to look that up if you want) but to point out that, despite a few big moves, the team that was closest to sneaking onto those graphics is currently sliding back into that luridly jammed-up toilet, and not up and out towards freedom. The Los Angeles Clippers are 0-3 since the all-star break.
Good teams, even ones with championship aspirations, lose three in a row all the time. This downturn is noteworthy primarily because it is happening during the first stretch in a while in which the Clippers have decided to try and actually win some games. For a worryingly long period that only recently ended, the Clippers treated the regular season like an extension of the preseason; the team they ran out there most nights was competitive but flawed, and not really that much like the one they hoped to have on the floor in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard only played in five games until December, and only really started playing more than 30 minutes per game in January. Paul George, for his part, has been in and out of the lineup all year; the two stars have played together in just 31 of the Clippers' 64 games, and only shared the court for 799 minutes. When they both played, the team was good. When one played, the team was middling. When neither played, teammates and national television audiences alike got to watch Marcus Morris jab-stepping for 14 seconds.
To a certain extent, this strategy makes sense (not the jab-stepping, the caution). Both of the team's cornerstone veterans have suffered serious injuries in the past, and there aren't any real postseason hopes to be found here without both of them on the floor. The Clippers are also at least 11-deep with real NBA players, and good enough to hang around the playoff picture even without their two stars in the lineup. After two fruitless postseason trips and one play-in loss, everyone involved is doing what they can to make sure the team peaks in May. All perfectly reasonable.
Of course, this only works if those stars instantly snap into place in peak form. If any of that doesn't go right, you're left with a juice-less team—and one that's already overdependent on Leonard and George creating and hitting tough jump shots—that doesn't get much time to develop on the court, and so with basically no margin for error. By the time the Clippers finally assembled their full team, with Leonard and George in the lineup and after acquiring Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee, and Bones Hyland via trade and Russell Westbrook on the buyout market, they were 33-28.
Westbrook represents an attempt to solve both the Clippers' big problems, as his passing and open-court athleticism theoretically give the Clippers a way to score that doesn't involve asking Leonard and George to hit contested pull-ups while everyone else watches. Westbrook, if he's right, could deliver the sort of easy buckets in transition that the team seems allergic to even trying to get, and could also—again, in theory—soak up a bunch of minutes and stabilize the team while George and Leonard are sitting. The Clippers are loaded with shooters yet weirdly light on creators, and so there's a logical use case—drive-and-kick, basically—for even a diminished Westbrook that doesn't hinge on him setting ball screens and making hard cuts off the ball and doing all the other stuff that he's never shown the faintest interest in doing with any of his previous teams. That all of this depends upon Westbrook being "good" is just part of the risk.
L.A. is not 0-3 because Westbrook has ruined them, though he's shown everyone what the full-spectrum, pharmaceutical-grade Russell Westbrook experience looks like during his brief time with the Clips. Their three losses include one of the greatest regular-season games of all-time, a brutal, overtime road game in Denver, and, after those three cumulative overtimes, a disappointing home loss to the Wolves. Westbrook has figured in all three, and has been consistent throughout: he's shooting it pretty well, on a healthier shot diet; he's passing the ball; he's killing teams in transition and getting steals; and he's committing backbreaking turnovers at the worst possible moments. When the Clippers' whole team lobbied management to sign Westbrook, they should have known that this was the version they were getting.
Not great! That said, Westbrook is also the only Clipper willing and able to make these sorts of passes.
The Clips scored just 46 points in the second half against Minnesota on Tuesday night, and while the Wolves are a good defensive team and match up well against the Clippers, the all-consuming gumminess of L.A.'s offense made for a pretty gross watch. It would almost be more relieving if the Clips' problems began and ended with Russ; it would certainly be an easier diagnosis. But no, Paul George—who, more than anyone, lost that Kings game by turning it over on what felt like nine straight possessions—didn't play with any pop, and the rickety Leonard has logged fully 10 percent of his season's minutes in the past three games and unsurprisingly looked kind of gassed by the end of the Wolves game.
One of the chief selling points for the Clippers as S-tier contenders is their tactical flexibility, which is probably even more pronounced now. Ty Lue is more willing than basically any other coach in the league to microtarget opponents' weaknesses and press on them, thanks to his deep bench and pair of killer two-way wings. It's simple to, say, go small, put Nic Batum at center, and hit a franchise-record 26 threes against Sacramento by forcing Domantas Sabonis out of the paint. It is also possible for the Clippers to swarm and scratch and attempt to destroy Nikola Jokic's body. They can toggle between big and small, and now that Westbrook, Bones, and Plumlee are around, they're notably less ground-bound and a bit more peppy. I don't know how that will go for them in the playoffs, and as someone who was doing playoff-style matchup-hunting in the second quarters of mid-December games, Ty Lue surely knows the downsides of playing someone who will get picked on in the playoffs.
About those two-way wing terrors: the Clippers' defense is also now down to 12th in the league after allowing a combined 310 points in two games against the Nuggets and Kings. Leonard and George are still elite one-through-four defenders, and the Clips are still set up to switch comfortably against most teams in the playoffs. That said, their two lead guys have not quite been the nightmares they were two years ago. Westbrook has seven steals in his three games with the team, but he's not going to help the defense when he's gifting opponents free transition opportunities all the time. The Clippers also have the sixth-toughest schedule left, with zero games against openly tanking teams on the docket. You can see the problem.
I don't expect any of this to be fatal, or for their current losing streak to continue for too long. If they were a normal team, the Clippers could shrug this off as the growing pains of integrating four new pieces into the rotation. But they are not that. They are a team with championship aspirations that has 18 games left in the regular season and fell to sixth in the west after getting passed by the Warriors on Tuesday. Maybe that's fine, too, and they, like their crosstown counterparts, want the third-seeded Kings in the first round. The Clips should still make the top-six, and they still could feasibly beat almost everyone above them.
But that qualifier is precisely the problem. The Clippers evidently believe that they could afford to snooze and tinker through the regular season even if it means they play four straight postseason series on the road. They might be right. They also might have outsmarted themselves and made the odds against their championship-or-bust goals even steeper.