When Lebron James signed up to play at the Staples Center for forty-three games this year, we all foresaw a renascence of Los Angeles basketball. What we didn’t predict is that the Clippers would be joining the Lakers in the renascence. Currently fourth in the West and shooting for home court in the playoffs, the Clippers have taken the league by storm. The strangest thing about it? They’re doing it with no “superstars” in a superstar driven league. It’s a fun story line and the Clippers are a fun league pass team, but can they’re current roster construction work in the playoffs?
The regular season and the playoffs are two different animals. In the playoffs teams trim their rotations and have more time to game plan for each other. Good coaching staffs can make adjustments and find holes in the opposing teams game plan. Teams that survive on depth have typically fallen prey to the playoffs. When an offense breaks down, a team with a superstar can get them the ball in an iso situation and let them go get a bucket. The NBA is a superstar league and teams that don’t have a superstar usually don’t have that luxury. The Clippers will certainly be targeting a superstar in the upcoming free agency. They’ve been linked to both Kawhi and KD, and if they land either one they’ll be instant title contenders. However, neither of those guys are walking through that door this season, and for this season, they may not need them too. The Clippers may be a rare case of a non-superstar team being able to compete without a true superstar. The last team to pull off a title with no true star was the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, and Michael Wiggins have put together a team built with a plethora of depth, an explosive bench, a super promising rookie, a Boban, and three guys who can get shots in isolation when the offense bogs down. The Clippers have guys all over who can play any style and long defenders to match up with anything that opposing teams throw at them.
If you’re going to be a team without a superstar, you need a guy or two who can do their best superstar impersonation when it matters most. For the 2004 Pistons; Billups, Sheed, and Rip Hamilton all had the ability to get a look off in crunch time and Billups could put his superstar hat on when he needed too. Everyone knew the Pistons could defend, but nobody had faith that they had the offensive players to take down the Lakers in the finals. When the playoffs arrive, the Clippers will hope that Lou Williams, Gallo, and Tobias Harris can be their version of the Pistons trio. It’s only the regular season, but so far it’s worked. Even in the clutch, when you really need a superstar to close games, the Clippers have managed to get it done. The Clippers are second in the league in clutch wins and each member of the trio has a TS% of over 60 in clutch time. Lou Williams has established himself as the last second go to guy for the Clips. Williams has always been a tough shot maker and he already has two game winning buckets this year. He’s also carrying a monster NetRating of 38.6 during clutch time, which is higher than Steph this year. He’s been performing like a true go to guy. The Billups parallels are there for him if he can lead LA to a deep playoff run.
On the defensive side of the ball the Clippers have hawks in all the right places. The defense starts up top with Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverly. Those dudes are as tough a defensive guard duo as you’ll find. There’s been a sentiment going around that guard defense isn’t that important anymore, but that simply isn’t true. Whether they get there through screen and rolls, hand offs, or isolation; NBA offenses are looking to dribble, drive, and kick. If you can make it hard for the offense to create penetration, you’ll make it easier for the rest of the defense to fall into their help.
Coming into a season where the team lost Deandre Jordan, it looked like the hole in the Clippers defense would be rim protection. That hasn’t been an issue for the team with the emergence of Montrezl Harrell. Harrell is averaging a career high 1.6 blocks per game after not ever averaging even 1 per game his first three years in the league. He isn’t out there just chasing blocks either. Opponents are shooting only 58.1% within six feet or less of the hoop against him. That’s the same percentage that Rudy Gobert is holding opponents to this season. Harrell plays like an energizer bunny and is switchy enough to cover guards out on the perimeter and recover back to the paint. Harrell hasn’t been the only Clippers big man protecting the paint. Gortat has held opponents to 57.5% shooting within six feet and Boban has been a destroyer in his limited minutes, holding teams to 49.1% within six feet. Boban won’t be playable in most postseason match-ups, but Gortat and Harrell give you enough size and versatility to match up with most front courts.
With all of that said, the Clippers have been a bit middle of the road defensively coming in at fourteenth in the league in DefRtg. There is good reason for that. Outside of the first four games of the season, the Clips have been without their best wing defender in Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute is long and strong with good defensive instincts. He’ll give the Clippers the type of defender that they can throw on the elite wings in the West come playoff time. He won’t stop the Lebron’s and KD’s, but when you get deep in the playoffs you need someone who can make them work for their buckets; and he’ll make them work.
Getting Mbah a Moute healthy will bring another strong playoff contributor to an already menacing Clippers bench. The Clippers are first in the league in bench scoring at 52 points a game. When the playoffs come around and rotations shorten, big bench scoring numbers usually drop significantly; but the Clippers bench just so happens to have two of the team’s best players doing most of their bench scoring. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are two of the top Sixth Man of the Year candidates and they’re combining for over 33 points per game off the bench. The Clippers are just getting huge contributions all over the place. Even their one and done rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a major contributor and has established himself as a starter. SGA is long, slithery, and has advanced moves that make you think that he’s a ten-year vet on the floor.
Doc Rivers has done a fantastic job this year getting his entire group to exceed every expectation put on them. They play to their strengths and don’t try to pretend to be anybody they’re not. Health permitted, they look like a team built for a legit playoff run. They may not have what it takes to win the title this year, but if they can get pseudo-superstar production out of their core guys in the post season, they may just show enough to convince Kawhi or KD to make the move to Southern California and be the guy to battle Lebron for Los Angeles supremacy. Don’t put it passed Jerry West to get it done, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Logo got his man.