A healthy Kawhi Leonard species won’t fix the Los Angeles Clippers

A healthy Kawhi Leonard species won’t fix the Los Angeles Clippers

It’s been a bumpy month for all NBA entities associated with Arena. The stadium sponsor and replacement for Staples may have problems. The Lakers are 5-11, closer to last place in the West than a playoff spot. And the Clippers have also been quietly struggling, starting the season 2-4 with star Kawhi Leonard missing more time with injury.

The Clips have since righted the ship (sorry), winning all three games following Leonard’s return last week to improve to 11-7. Heading into Wednesday’s nationally televised game against the Warriors, they sit in fourth place in the West and are co-favorites, along with the sub-.500 Warriors, to win the Western Conference, according to the most recent FanDuel odds .

But a healthy Leonard, who will miss Wednesday’s opener along with star teammate Paul George, won’t solve all the problems for a team expected to be at the top of the race for title Even after winning three straight games, their point differential of plus-0.3 points per game is still underwhelming, ranking eighth in the West. And that’s despite one of the NBA’s easiest schedules to date; more than half of their wins are against the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs, the three worst teams in the Western Conference.

The problems are concentrated on one side of the ball: While the Clippers rank second in the NBA in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass, they rank just 28th in offense. This imbalance is alarming for two reasons. The first concerns his enterprise in 2022-23: No one else near the bottom of the offensive rankings looks like a contender.

Least efficient NBA offenses, 2022-23

team Offensive grade registration
team Offensive grade registration
Hornets 30 4-14
rockets 29 3-14
clippers 28 11-7
lakers 27 5-11
spurs 26 6-12
pistons 25 4-15
wizards 24 10-7
magic 23 5-13
heat 22 7-11

The second reason reflects history: Since 2009-10, only one team has reached the Finals while ranking outside the top 10 in offense, according to Cleaning the Glass. Of course, that team was the 2021-22 Warriors, who just won the title with the 17th-ranked offense, but that’s still a thin precedent for a team to succeed with such inefficient offensive production. Defense might win championships, as the cliché goes, but a top-10 offense is also crucial.

While the Clippers have increased their scoring in their winning streak since Leonard’s return, they have done so against the Pistons (29th defense), Spurs (30th) and Jazz (24th). They still have a ways to go to prove they can score at a championship level.

The problem isn’t what happens when the Clippers shoot the ball. They have the worst shooting quality in the league, but they rank second in shots doing (or, how his actual shooting percentage compares to his expected percentage based on factors such as shot location and defender distance). Only the surging Kings have a better shot record this season, because George, Norman Powell — warming up after an abysmal start — and the rest of the Clippers who make up Leonard’s supporting cast can convert tough looks. These Clippers are a perfect example phenomenon I explored last seasonin which the quality of the shot no longer matters much.

The 2022-23 Clippers’ shot distribution looks a lot like the Leonard-George era: They barely get to the rim, but make up for it with solid accuracy from mid-range and 3-point range. In fact, they are faring worse from distance this season than they have in any recent season…

Clippers 3-point percentages

season 3P% classification
season 3P% classification
2019-20 37.1% 6th
2020-21 41.1% 1st
2021-22 37.4% 3rd
2022-23 (to date) 36.0% 15th

—But we should expect that mark to improve as the season progresses, given the quality of shooters on LA’s roster. The Clippers have made 12 fewer open 3-pointers than we expected based on the history of their shooters, the second-largest deficit in the NBA. (Only the Lakers, at minus-15, they are worse.)

But even with their 3-point accuracy lag, the Clippers still rank in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage. The problem, on the other hand, is everything that happens before and after a shot goes up. Basketball Statistician Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors of Basketball Success” it’s shots, turnovers, rebounds and free throws, and the Clippers’ offense is failing in all three categories without shooting that quartet.

The Clippers rank 27th in turnover rate, according to CtG, just ahead of the young daredevils in Houston, Orlando and San Antonio. That’s a disaster for a team with so many experienced guards and wings, whose biggest moves over the past year were adding Powell and John Wall; it’s the franchise’s worst turnover rate since 2010-11, which was their final season before trading Chris Paul.

They also rank 27th in offensive rebounding, per CtG, which makes more sense given the roster construction. Ivica Zubac is the only center in the rotation as the team opted to fill out their frontcourt with switchable forwards like Robert Covington. But when Zubac is off the floor and the team plays small, the Clippers shoot just 19.2 percent of their shots. For context, that’s worse than the full-season rate for any team in the CtG database, dating back to 2003-04.

The combination of more turnovers and fewer offensive rebounds has the Clippers taking fewer shots per 100 possessions than any other team in the league. And while other teams near the bottom of this list, like the 76ers, Kings and Trail Blazers, make up for their lack of field goal attempts by getting to the line at a good rate, the Clippers rank just 19th in free throw rate. Hot shooting isn’t enough when the Clippers miss a chance to fight every game.

Leonard’s return to the starting lineup after missing 13 of the team’s first 15 games should help stabilize the situation. The two-time Finals MVP is a low-turnover ball handler. He is an expert at drawing fouls. And perhaps most of all, he should provide a big boost when George is off the floor, because the Clippers have cratered without their stars thus far.

However, as much as any NBA team would struggle without its best player, the problems aren’t all a result of Leonard’s absence. Much of the hope for these Clippers is that The deepest roster in the NBA would cheer for the Clippers even when Leonard and/or George, now day-to-day with a strained hamstring, missed time.

This ambition has not been fulfilled. Leading guards Powell, Reggie Jackson and Wall have all been hit. (Back on the court after missing all of last season, Wall looks terrific as a passer, but ranks 122nd in true shooting percentage out of 132 players with at least 140 field goal attempts.) Zubac has never been less efficient in a Clippers uniform. And the Clippers are scoring 99.2 points per 100 possessions with Leonard and George off the floor, per CtG.

The big question for coach Tyronn Lue with Leonard back in the fold is how much he should lean on five-out and no-center formations. Playing an even smaller ball could get you two goals. First, it would help find playing time for every capable perimeter player on the roster; already, even with Leonard out, Covington had fallen out of the regular rotation and Nicolas Batum had seen his minutes cut. (Covington and Batum are better on defense while limited on offense, so it’s an encouraging sign that the defense has been so spotty anyway.)

Second, adopting a five-game approach could directly affect the offense, as it did in the Clippers’ run to the conference finals in the 2021 postseason. The Clippers have scored much better when playing small this season, ranking in the 59th percentile in offense without Zubac, by CtG, versus the ninth percentile when he’s on the floor.

However, the defensive compromise if Zubac plays less could prove costly. With Zubac at the head of the defense, the Clippers are robust and structured; the team has quite a few turnovers, but also gives up almost no shots at the rim, offensive rebounds or free throws.

Clippers defensive percentiles

Statistics With Zubac Without Zubac
Statistics With Zubac Without Zubac
TOV% 6th 94th
Edge frequency 96th 3rd
REB% 87th 10th
FT rate 99th 23

When Zubac leaves, however, and the likes of Batum, Covington and Marcus Morris fill the nominal center position, the team’s defensive identity transforms. The small-ball Clippers are much more aggressive looking for turnovers, but allow more looks at the rim, second-chance opportunities and trips to the line. For now, that approach is thriving (mostly thanks to luck with opponent three-pointers), but it may not be all that sustainable given these worrisome underlying metrics, and it could also expose the Clippers’ injury-prone stars to more physical effort throughout the course. of the season

So, in all likelihood, the Clippers will continue to use the regular season as an experimental arena, playing with different lineup combinations to determine which will work best in the playoffs. Unlike other teams that need to determine Yes are capable of shrinking in the postseason, the Clippers already know that. But as Lue identifies the right role players to surround Leonard and George, his top priority should be clear: Find a way to generate more points, in bunches. Right now, the Clippers offense is nowhere near where it needs to be in the spring.

League-wide stats up to Monday’s games.

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