Los Angeles Clippers

Under The Bright Lights: How the LA Clippers can regain the NBA's spotlight

The Clippers have largely been an afterthought this season. This has been a remarkable turn of events considering the star power on this roster and the market they play in, but the combination of them meandering through much of this season and the residual disappointment from last year has pushed this team right out of the national spotlight.

From a purely on-court perspective, most of the consternation about the Clippers' 29-16 record feels overblown. Their defence has been middling but has shown enough glimpses to remind us of their elite potential. Their offence, on the other hand, has been anything but pedestrian.

Their 117.1 offensive rating is not only second this season, but also in NBA history. That achievement is made even more remarkable by the fact that they play at the league's sixth-slowest pace. This is one of the best half-court offences in recent memory and may be the best shooting team we've ever seen.

That feels like an explosive statement about a team having such a nondescript season, but their numbers back up that claim. LAC is shooting a league-best 41.6 percent from three and is as far ahead of the Nets (39.3%) in third as they are ahead of the tenth-place Knicks (37.4%). The Clippers are also first in free throw percentage (83.8 percent), eFG% on wide-open attempts (65.7 percent) and catch-and-shoot eFG% (63.1 percent).

They are setting a new benchmark for team shooting and yet, that perception hasn't taken hold because of their reluctance to join the three-point arms race. LA is just 15th in attempted threes per game so, while they lead the league in three-point efficiency by a substantial margin, they are just fifth in makes.

This offence isn't built on extremes, it's built on balance. They don't tilt too heavily to one spot on the floor but are fully capable from everywhere. They thrive off what the defence gives them which, in today's NBA, are often mid-range jumpers and corner threes.

The Clippers take comparatively few above-the-break threes but make up for it by taking the third-most from the corners. They happily accept that trade-off as this roster makes a truly incredible 49.0 percent of those shots. They can't quite match that lofty standard from mid-range but they are fifth in attempts and hit a respectable 42.4 percent.

That diet of shots wouldn't work for many teams but it's perfect for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the rest of the Clippers. George and Leonard are a rare bread in today's NBA: elite scorers who rarely get to the rim or foul line. George takes 76.5 percent of his attempts at least six feet away from the rim. Leonard's number is up at 78.0 percent.

That ratio is at the root of a lot of Clippers' skepticism. This team is 29th in restricted area field goal attempts and, as a result, is just 26th in free throw attempts. They've built a historically efficient offence largely independent of the two most efficient ways of scoring.

Over-reliance on jump shooting is a legitimate concern for every team. Hot and cold streaks are inherent in that type of offence, but over-reliance on free throws is just as risky of a gamble.

We kill teams all the time for foul hunting to artificially inflate mediocre offences. The deeper into the playoffs you go, the less reliable those tactics become. While getting to the line more would undoubtedly help the already incredible Clipper offence, I'd argue it's a point of pride to have built such a dynamic unit without using free throws as an unstable foundation.

It is worth noting, though, that while Leonard is currently averaging just 5.9 free throws per game, he has averaged 8.4 FTA/gm in the playoffs since 2017. That number is pretty comparable to both LeBron James (8.6 FTA/gm) and James Harden (9.1 FTA/gm) over that playoff time period. So, even if you're skeptical that LAC's shooting luck will last four rounds, Leonard has a history of being able to answer those concerns when needed.

This is clearly a championship-calibre offence but this roster isn't bereft of issues. This team has - or possibly, had - a glaring hole at point guard. They've been lacking a true lead ball-handler to initiate offence and help grease the wheels when they start sputtering.

Swapping Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo is their attempt at answering those questions. Rondo gives Ty Lue a prototypical point guard to platoon with Reggie Jackson and Patrick Beverley, but his fit is far from certain.

The 35-year-old Rondo has been mired by the worst season of his career in 2021. He averaged just 3.9 points and 3.5 assists in his 29 games as a Hawk, and Atlanta was 9.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor.

That isn't the player the Clippers traded for; they made this move to acquire the player that was a key piece in the Lakers title run a year ago.

We know how impactful Rondo was in the Bubble last season but there's no guarantee that he will be that player for the Clippers. It's very possible he has another run in him but, eventually, the Playoff Rondo well will run dry.

What is clear is that the Clippers believe he can still be that player.

They acquired him in part because of how much they've struggled to find the right guard to close games. So far this season, the Clippers have a -14.1 clutch net rating and are just 9-11 in those games. Leonard has shot just 34.4 percent in the clutch and George just 21.4 percent so, clearly, point guard hasn't been the only issue but it has contributed to the problems.

This was the ninth-best clutch team in the league a year ago but the lasting memory of last season will be them stalling when it mattered the most. Clutch success often doesn't translate year-over-year and the Clippers have played just 50 minutes of clutch time this season, but the shadow of the Nuggets series clearly still hovers over this team.

This remains the most significant - and hardest to quantify - concern about this team. That the intangible remnants of last season may limit how good this roster can truly become.

Following their 20-point drubbing at the hands of the Pelicans earlier this month, Leonard made clear his concern about the lack of consistency with this team. The words themselves weren't all that inflammatory but, considering the source, any sentiment of frustration has to be taken seriously.

This team has no more moves left to make. Lou Williams and the two second-rounders they sent to Atlanta were the final chips pushed into the pile. This franchise has set a new standard for going all-in for a championship and, barring the unlikely addition of a buyout to help boost the margins, this is the roster the Clippers need to win the franchise's first-ever title.

That is the standard for this team and they undoubtedly have the talent to meet those expectations.

They were on-paper preseason favourites when they were assembled a year ago and have only gotten more talented since then.

This team has everything it takes to win a title.

It's time for them to meet those expectations.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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