basketball

A Sort-of-Healthy Kawhi Leonard Won’t Fix the Los Angeles Clippers

It’s been an erratic month for every NBA entity associated with the Crypto.com Arena. The stadium sponsors and Staples replacements might be in trouble. The Lakers are 5-11, closer to last place in the West than a play-in spot. And the Clippers have quietly been struggling, too, starting the season 2-4 with star Kawhi Leonard missing yet more time due to 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 national TV game against the Warriors, they sit in fourth place in the West, and they’re cofavorites—along with those sub-.500 Warriors—to win the Western Conference, according to the most recent FanDuel odds.

But a sort-of healthy Leonard—who will happen to miss Wednesday’s showcase game, along with star teammate Paul George—won’t solve all of the problems for a team expected to be at the front of the title race. Even after winning three games in a row, their point differential of plus-0.3 points per game is still underwhelms, 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 issues 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 on offense. That imbalance is alarming for two reasons. The first concerns their company in 2022-23: Nobody else near the bottom of the offensive rankings looks like a contender.

Least Efficient NBA Offenses, 2022-23

Team Offensive Rank Record
Team Offensive Rank Record
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. Granted, that team was the 2021-22 Warriors, who just won the title with the 17th-ranked offense—but that’s still scant 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 crucial, too.

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

The issue isn’t what happens when the Clippers shoot the ball. They have the league’s worst shot quality, but second in shot making (Or, how their actual shooting percentage compares to theirs expected percentage based on factors like shot location and defender distance). Only the surging Kings have a better shot-making mark this season, because George, Norman Powell—heating up after an abysmal start—and the rest of the Clippers who make up Leonard’s supporting cast can turn out difficult looks. These Clippers are a perfect example of the phenomenon I explored last season, in which shot quality doesn’t matter much anymore.

The 2022-23 Clippers’ shot distribution looks a lot like it has throughout the Leonard-George era: They barely get to the rim, but compensate with solid accuracy from the midrange and 3-point range. They’re actually faring worse from distance this season than they have in any recent season—

Clippers’ 3-Point Percentages

Season 3P% Rank
Season 3P% Rank
2019-20 37.1% 6th
2020-21 41.1% 1st
2021-22 37.4% 3rd
2022-23 (so far) 36.0% 15th

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

But even with their 3-point accuracy lagging, the Clippers still rank in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage. The problem, instead, is everything that happens before and after a shot goes up. Basketball statistician Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors of Basketball Success” are shooting, turnovers, rebounds, and free throws—and the Clippers offense is failing in the three non-shooting categories of that quarter.

The Clippers rank 27th in turnover rate, according to CtG, ahead of only the reckless youngsters 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 last year were adding Powell and John Wall; it’s the franchise’s worst turnover rate since 2010-11, which was their last season before trading for Chris Paul.

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

The combination of more turnovers and fewer offensive rebounds means the Clippers take fewer shots per 100 possessions than any other team in the league. And while other teams near the bottom of that list, like the 76ers, Kings, and Trail Blazers, compensate for their lack of field goal attempts by getting to the line at a healthy clip, the Clippers rank only 19th in free throw rate. Hot shooting isn’t enough when the Clippers lose the opportunity battle 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’s adept at drawing fouls. And perhaps most of all, he should provide a huge boost when George is off the floor, because the Clippers have cratered without their stars so far.

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

That ambition hasn’t been fulfilled. Lead guards Powell, Reggie Jackson, and Wall have been hit-and-miss. (Returning to the court after missing all of last season, Wall looks great 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 a dismal 99.2 points per 100 possessions with both Leonard and George off the floor, per CtG.

The big question for coach Tyronn Lue with Leonard back in the fold is how much to lean on five-out, centerless configurations. Playing even more small ball could accomplish two goals. First, it would help find playing time for all the capable perimeter players on the roster; Already, even with Leonard absent, Covington had fallen out of the regular rotation and Nicolas Batum had seen his minutes slashed. (Covington and Batum are better on defense while limited on offense, so it’s an encouraging sign that the defense has been so stingy regardless.)

Second is how embracing a five-out approach could directly juice 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, rating in the 59th percentile in offense without Zubac, per CtG, versus just the ninth percentile when he’s on the floor.

Yet the defensive tradeoff if Zubac plays less might prove costly. With Zubac helming the defense, the Clippers are stout and structured; The team forces few turnovers, but also scarcely surrenders any shots at the rim, offensive rebounds, or free throws.

Clippers’ Defensive Percentiles

Stat With Zubac Without Zubac
Stat With Zubac Without Zubac
TOV% 6th 94th
Rim Frequency 96th 3rd
REB% 87th 10th
FT Rate 99th 23rd

When Zubac departs, however, and the likes of Batum, Covington, and Marcus Morris take the nominal center position, the team’s defensive identity transforms. The small ball Clippers are much more aggressive in hunting for turnovers, yet allow way more looks at the rim, second-chance opportunities, and trips to the line. For now, that approach is thriving (mainly thanks to luck on opponent 3-pointers), but it might not be as sustainable given those worrisome underlying indicators, and could also expose the Clippers’ injury-prone stars to more physical exertion over the course. of the season.

So in all likelihood, the Clippers will continue to use the regular season as an experimental setup, tinkering with different lineup combinations to determine which will work best in the playoffs. Unlike other teams that need to determine whether they’re capable of downsizing in the postseason, the Clippers already know they are. But as Lue identifies the right role players to surround Leonard and George, his top priority should be clear: figure out a way to generate more points, in bunches. For now, the Clippers offense isn’t close to where it needs to be by the spring.

Leaguewide stats through Monday’s games.

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