May 23, 2020, 12:32 pm
So much for momentum. Before the NBA decided to suspend the season, the Clippers had ripped off seven wins in eight tries with the lone defeat coming at the hands of the Lakers. In fact, their 44-20 record placed them second in the West behind those very same Lakers. Despite a few growing pains along the way, Doc Rivers had his squad in good form heading down the stretch. As evidence of the roster’s balance, the Clippers ranked fourth in the league in terms of offensive efficiency and fifth overall in defensive efficiency.
The Clippers had an offseason for the ages, signing 2019 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to a three-year deal. They followed it by dealing for Paul George. The Thunder ended up receiving Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a boatload of draft picks. While Shai ended up thriving in Oklahoma City as a starter, President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank had gotten his man. The signings of Ivica Zubac and Patrick Patterson helped to round out the roster.
George only ended up playing 42 of a possible 64 games largely due to shoulder and hamstring injuries. Rivers was able to keep him at 29 minutes per contest after he averaged 37 for the Thunder the season before. While missing a third of his team’s games caused some observers to label his season a disappointment, George shot 39.9 percent from deep and his stats per-48 saw few signs of decline. For instance, he reached 3.9 assists compared to a career average of 3.3 per night. Practically automatic from the line, George sank 88.2 percent of free throws in 2019-20 after making 83.9 percent during his final year in Oklahoma City.
While George and Russell Westbrook were clearly the best scorers on last year’s Thunder when George scored 28 points per night, his scoring average fell to 21 while surrounded by quality scorers in Los Angeles. In my Hoop Ball staff fantasy league, Leonard was selected ninth while George came off the board at #15 overall.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 30, 2020
Through March 2, the only team with a better points differential than the Clippers when Leonard and George played was the Milwaukee Bucks. The Clippers often chose to rest Leonard when the team played on back-to-back nights, but Leonard still started 51 contests overall. He ranked fifth in the league in terms of Player Efficiency Rating, just ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns. Not bad for someone with an ADP of 18 in ESPN leagues.
Prior to the season, it was certainly defensible to wait until the second round of drafts given all the talent on the roster. Nevertheless, Leonard has dominated even against strong competition. For instance, he averaged 30.7 points over three games against the Lakers while converting 54 percent from the field and hitting 38 percent of his 3-point attempts. He scored 26.9 points per game, good for eighth in the NBA and a slight improvement over the 26.6 he posted with the Raptors en route to a title — in about two fewer minutes per contest. He added five assists per night, which was the best of his career. Meanwhile, the averages of 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals were identical to his 2018-19 figures.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 25, 2020
Feeling A Draft
While the Clippers did not have a first round pick in the 2019 draft, they were able to strike a deal with the Nets for their first rounder Mfioundu Kabengele, a power forward who played at Florida State. In exchange, the Nets acquired former UCLA point guard Jaylen Hands, who the Clippers had taken 56th overall, and a bit of salary cap flexibility. With the 48th overall pick, the Clippers also selected shooting guard Terance Mann, a college teammate of Kabengele. The team also signed guard Amir Coffey to a two-way contract. All of them spent part of the season alongside second-year forward Johnathan Motley with the Agua Caliente Clippers of the G League.
Motley led the G League squad with 24 points per game. Mann spent 20 games with Agua Caliente while piling up 15.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per night. For his part, Coffey averaged 15.7 points and hit 40 percent from behind the arc. Kabengele paced the team with 9.3 rebounds per contest with a scoring average of 18.7 per game.
There’s not a high-profile youngster coming up to boost the core, but the organization has to be encouraged that the cupboards are far from bare after all of this summer’s maneuvering.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) March 11, 2020
Best Supporting Actors
Zubac and Montrezl Harrell form an intriguing frontcourt tandem. As usual, Harrell started only two games but still played nearly ten more minutes per contest. Harrell’s 18.6 points per game were a career high, although the 58 percent shooting from the field was actually the worst he has posted over a full season. He added 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 blocks, and 0.6 assists per night.
Meanwhile, Zubac’s primary strength of rebounding was on full display as he won 81.3 percent of contested offensive boards. Zubac grabbed 16.7 rebounds per 48 minutes which ranks 17th in the league. Only an average allotment of 18.1 minutes kept him at 8.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 0.9 swats per game. In keeping with our theme, Zubac was a 2016 second round draft selection of the Lakers.
Harrell isn’t the only superlative Clipper who doesn’t regularly start. Lou Williams barely edged the big man with 18.7 points per contest. While he had averaged 20 or more in the prior two seasons, Williams essentially met expectations on a roster so full of talent. His 5.7 assists per game would represent a career high in his 14th professional campaign, though the extra distributing is also killing his turnover numbers — he’s a top-90 player in 8-cat but falls all the way to the top-150 in 9-cat. Williams is also good for a few jaw-dropping plays like this one.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) May 14, 2020
Patrick Beverley carries the reputation of a defensive stopper, and perhaps his most famous play of the season came on Christmas Day against the Lakers. By blocking LeBron James, he sealed a 109-106 victory for the Clippers. Beverley’s production ended up being remarkably similar to that of 2018-19, with the 1.1 steals per game helping to make him borderline playable in standard fantasy leagues when healthy. Unfortunately, he played only 48 games after suffering wrist and groin injuries and managing 65.9 percent from the charity stripe would be the worst mark of his career. Deeper league owners can point to Beverley’s diverse overall line as a reason to roster him through thick and thin, including 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 0.5 blocks per contest.
Pat Beverley let it all out after his game-sealing block
— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) December 26, 2019
JaMychal Green is the perfect example of a depth player who was able to step up when regulars missed time due to injury or rest. When he played 32 minutes against the Rockets on November 13, Green ended with 14 points, 14 boards, one block, and two steals while shooting 4-for-7 from downtown. In his final appearance on March 10 against the Warriors in San Francisco, he posted another double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Green averaged just over 20 minutes per game, but it made sense to add him to daily fantasy lineups when stars like Leonard were scheduled to miss a game.
Patterson was George’s teammate on the Thunder for two years before finding himself on the same roster again in Southern California. While he played meaningful minutes off the bench for stretches in November and January, his playing time basically dried up as the page turned to February. Patterson averaged 1.1 made threes per game and hit 38.7 percent behind the arc, but 11.9 minutes per contest represented the lowest usage of his career.
Since being acquired from the Sixers in February of 2019, Landry Shamet has become something of a “glue guy” for Doc Rivers. In 2018-19, he shot a scorching 45 percent from deep over 25 games in a Clippers jersey. Shamet started 27 games in 2019-20, checking in a shade over 39 percent from 3-point land and over 90 percent at the foul line. The 9.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per contest aren’t eye-popping. Moreover, his efficiency was hampered by 32 percent shooting on two-point shots. Nevertheless, he played quite extensively prior to a flurry of trades at the deadline.
Rodney McGruder became a Clipper after the Heat waived him in April 2019. However, a career low 15 minutes per game in 2019-20 didn’t do much to get his offensive game going. He shot 39.1 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from long range just a season removed from being a reliable bench player in Miami. In 2018-19, McGruder averaged 7.6 points and 3.6 rebounds while making 35.1 percent of his threes.
As luck would have it, I ended up attending the first home game for Marcus Morris in a Clippers uniform. The Knicks did well to receive a first-round pick for Morris, who scored a career-high 19.6 points per game and shot an eye-popping 43.9 percent from behind the arc prior to being traded West. Los Angeles also shipped out Maurice Harkless and Jerome Robinson (who ended up in Washington) at the deadline. While the transaction looks much less rosy if the rest of the season ends up getting scrapped, it’s hard to blame the Clippers for loading up as they looked ahead to a possible playoff showdown with the Lakers.
Morris shot just 38.6 percent from the field in 12 games as a Clipper but is still a nice complementary player to have for a team with championship aspirations. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, his uneven performance coupled with a reduction in playing time sent his mid-March Yahoo ownership plummeting to 48 percent. Isaiah Thomas, also acquired, was immediately waived. Derrick Walton Jr. also lost his roster spot amid the roster reshuffling.
Reggie Jackson also came to the Clippers after the Pistons agreed to buy out his contract. Jackson had been hampered by injuries in 2019-20 but was both impressive and durable the year before. He started all 82 regular season games and improved his 3-point shooting from 30.8 percent in 2017-18 to 36.9 percent in 2018-19. Jackson played his best game as a Clipper on March 10, scoring 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting while making 3-for-4 from distance and adding four assists. However, Rivers generally deployed him as a depth option as he averaged 19.4 minutes on the court over nine games.
In early March, the Clippers added Joakim Noah as a reserve big man. While Noah hasn’t played a regular season game since the 2018-19 season which he split between the Grizzlies and Knicks, it was a low-risk transaction for a team hoping to shore up its postseason roster.
This is an important time in the history of the Clippers franchise, and not just because of the product on the court. In late March, owner Steve Ballmer managed to purchase the Forum in Inglewood from the Madison Square Garden Company for $400 million. There’s a bit of irony in the Clippers buying the site that was once the home court for Magic Johnson and other legends of the rival Lakers. In any case, it set the stage for the team to eventually play in its own arena.
There are valid concerns about the site’s public transit accessibility compared to Staples Center’s downtown location. For instance, plans are being drawn up for a train that connects to the arena, but the venue will not be directly accessible from a Metro line like Staples. It also will not be adjacent to fun downtown diversions like the FIDM Museum, where I stopped after the game to see costumes from many recent films. Nevertheless, Ballmer clearly sees this process as a way of forging a distinct team identity.
The core should mostly remain intact for the 2020-21 campaign, but Harrell will be an unrestricted free agent and is due a sizable raise from his $6 million salary. The good news for the Clippers is that they hold his Bird rights, and most other teams well-positioned to sign him are firmly in rebuild mode. Green possesses a $5 million player option which would give him another shot at a title even if the rest of 2019-20 cannot be played after all. Jackson, Morris, and Patterson will become free agents as well. The little-used Johnathan Motley and Amir Coffey will also have the option of joining new franchises.
Beyond next season is where things really get murky, especially if the specter of COVID-19 continues to loom over American professional sports. Both George and Leonard can opt out in the summer of 2021. Even Williams, who has gained fame for winning two of his three Sixth Man of the Year awards in Los Angeles, is only signed through 2020-21. There is plenty of talent in Clipperland, but with it comes a definite sense of urgency.