Bobi and Tobi, with Marcin Gortat and Friends.
See what can happen, when you simply let coaches coach?
The LA Clippers are swinging by State Farm Arena to face our Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Prime Ticket in LA), and our old chum, Doc Rivers, is out here living his best life.
No more appeasing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, no more traveling cross-country to hold DeAndre Jordan hostage. Team consultant-slash-overseer Jerry West helped Coach Doc and megabucks owner Steve Ballmer move on from delusions of championship grandeur with a bloated, aging roster that never reached the Western Conference Finals.
Both the Clippers and Hawks are in transition mode, breaking their perennial playoff teams apart and relieving their sideline taskmasters of the added burdens that come with deal-making duty. A distinction is that the Clips (10-5) elected to try seeing through the rebuild with their incumbent head coach.
Climbing out of salary cap purgatory, LA is crafting a team stocked with role players that are blending well on and off the court. Conceivably, it’s a team that could sell itself to prospective free agent stars so Ballmer and Rivers won’t have to soft-shoe so hard in the summertime. In the early going, the Clippers’ scheme is looking good.
CP3 facilitated the paradigm shift the prior summer by commandeering a trade to Space City, a deal that brought Pat Beverley, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell to Clipperville. Setting up a trade-and-waive deal for Jamal Crawford, plus cash and a pick that later became Omari Spellman, with the Hawks in a three-team swap brought them Danilo Gallinari to provide short-term, starter-quality offense for the post-CP3 phase.
Rather than ride Griffin’s career into the sunset, team president Lawrence Frank and GM Michael Winger shipped his freshly-extended contract to Detroit, gleaning Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and su-PER-man Boban Marjanovic from the multi-player deal. Also included in that trade was a 2018 first-rounder, which the Clips used on Draft Night to trade up and acquire stringy rookie combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Among players not on rookie or short-term contracts, the Clippers are obligated to pay only Gallinari, Williams and Harrell next season, then only Lou on a modest veteran deal in 2020-21. Coach Doc is under no mandate to win-now, nor is he tasked with strategically losing games in a chase for plum draft picks. Instead, players understand, if they play well together under Coach Doc’s watch, they will not only raise their own expiring-contract profiles with other NBA teams, it’s likely they could be asked to return to LA next season, under a brighter marquee.
What’s working for the Clippers, who seek to stretch their winning streak to five games tonight? It’s hard to surmise at first glance. Their overall game tempo is decent (9th in pace), yet they’re not hoisting a ton of threes (28th in 3FGAs per game), and they’re not dishing a bunch of dimes (24th in APG). Even with ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat and Marjanovic in the paint, the Clippers aren’t necessarily a stout rebounding team (19th in O-Reb%, 21st in D-Reb%). Even with a healthy Beverley pressuring ballhandlers, LA’s 5.4 steals and 11.7 forced turnovers per game rank last in the league.
Unlike a lot of copycat wannabes, the Clippers aren’t trying to out-Warrior the Warriors. Rivers is tasking Harris and his guards with the demand to drive, draw extra defenders, and then either force defensive foul-worthy contact or make the optimal pass.
Clipper drives (5th most in NBA, just behind Atlanta) could include kickouts to uncontested shooters outside the paint (NBA-best 41.3 catch-and-shoot 3FG%), be it Africa Game MVP Gallinari (46.3 3FG%), Harris (41.8 3FG%), or former Hawk Mike Scott (45.2 3FG%). Or, maybe to Gortat or Gilgeous-Alexander at the elbows. Or to Harris for a post-up, or Marjanovic for a high-percentage bucket when the gargantuan center barely needs to leave the ground.
Or, drivers just advance as far as possible to the hoop, daring defenders to make the stop or risk a shooting foul, so players like Gallo (NBA-best 95.3 FT%, min. 40 attempts) and Lou (94.4 FT% on 5.9 FTAs per game) can feast. Whatever the choice, the decisions with the rock are swift and decisive -- sort of a Bizarro World Hawks offense.
Rivers is no longer working outside his strength, specifically conveying X’s and O’s in an uncomplex manner. As he encourages his charges to play wholly to their own individual strengths, the Clippers currently boast the league’s 4th-most efficient offense, scoring 115 or more in nine of their past ten wins (incl. OT home wins over Milwaukee and Golden State). The defense takes a similar approach, daring opponents to barrel the ball inside and coaxing playmakers into shooting over length.
As per NBA.com’s hustle stats, LA defenders contest an average of 46.5 2FGAs per game, a volume that leads the league. Their 32.1 Box-Outs per game rank 2nd in the NBA, 0.1 fewer than GSW. They trust that the quality of the shots they derive from drives and screen plays, on offense, will be superior to that of their opponents. Key to the Clipper defense has been sixth-man big Harrell (team-best 3.8 defensive Box Plus/Minus, 9th in NBA; 1.8 BPG). Montrezl’s athleticism and energy at both ends makes it easier on Doc to avoid overusing his starter Gortat (17.5 MPG) or Boban.
Blanketing the perimeter from drive-happy guards like Atlanta’s Trae Young would be simpler if the Clippers had guard Avery Bradley (questionable, sprained ankle) and forward Luc Mbah a Moute (out, knee) available. LA will be happy if Young, hounded by Beverley, settles for target-practice clanks well beyond the 3-point arc (0-for-14 3FGs, 7-for-20 2FGs in last 3 games; only three of 95 3FGAs from the corner, all on the right side).
The Clips will be less enthralled if Young gets into the paint and darts passes to an improving array of Hawks bigs, especially John Collins. Jean-Baptiste’s persistent paint presence during a guest appearance on Saturday, in combination with Alex Len, helped Atlanta (3-13) build up an early 38-30 lead in the first half on the host Pacers. Unfortunately, poor shot selection during Young’s short-hook stints, and a lot of second-guessing in the second half (33 points), doomed the Hawks’ chances to end their losing streak in a 97-89 defeat in Indy.
Collins and Dedmon are likely to see an uptick in minutes, and touches, over the course of Atlanta’s four-game Turkey Week homestand. But for Young to enjoy longer runs on the floor, Coach Lloyd Pierce wants to see better decision-making out of his rookie floor general, setting up teammates from the outside for quality shots and moving more cohesively on defense.
Otherwise, Pierce is satisfied handing the reins over to veteran backup Jeremy Lin (24+ minutes, 16 points, 4 TOs, 5 PFs in each of past two games; 3 steals @IND), for better or worse. For Trae, the head-to-head with Beverley serves as a good appetizer with the Lowry-Kyrie-Kemba trifecta up next on the holiday menu. With Taurean Prince still sidelined, Kevin Huerter (team-best +9.5 on/off differential) will join fellow rooks Young and Spellman in the starting lineup tonight.
One NBA tenant at Staples Center hopes to woo a 1B free agent superstar in the coming summers to pair with LeBron. Conversely, the Clippers are aiming to show why their happy-go-lucky roster, backed by committed staff, is the one worth joining, especially to a star who wants assurances they’re the bona fide 1A, or a pair of 1As that wants to buddy-ball in a high-profile NBA market. Until then, the 1Cs are quite content to play their hearts out for Coach Doc, letting the Clips fall where they may.
Let’s Go Hawks!