After starting the season on a tear, the Clippers are facing their first losing streak of the year. Defeats on the road to the shorthanded Pistons and the Paul George-less Pacers have knocked them off the first place in the West.
Their record is still a very solid 14-4 but every time a contender drops two winnable games in a row, concerns arise. In the Clippers’ case, the issues that caused those losses seem to be familiar ones.
Chris Paul has to be exceptional all the time, not just good
Before the two losses, Chris Paul was averaging 18 points while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 43 from beyond the arc. He’s always been the Clippers’ engine, and his hot start as a scorer was a big reason why they were at the top of the West.
In the past two games, Paul has averaged 10 points while shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 10 percent from beyond the arc. It’s really not surprising that the Clippers have lost.
The problem is that Paul simply stopped looking for his shot at times, which makes Los Angeles’ offense much more predictable. He’s a distributor first, but the Clippers need the threat of his scoring to create opportunities for others. He just wasn’t as aggressive as Los Angeles needs him to be.
Paul averaged two fewer shots in the two losses. His assists increased but so did his turnovers. He needs to go back to being a dual threat to keep defenses guessing.
It might be unfair to Paul, but since the Clippers lack a perimeter scorer in the starting lineup, these stretches of poor play are extremely hard to hide. Paul can’t afford to have off nights. If he struggles, the offense will likely struggle too.
Luc Mbah a Moute is useless in certain matchups
The Clippers have always had a gaping hole at small forward. Their top four of Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is so good that it can survive with pretty much anyone at that spot, but they still need someone who contributes more than he hurts the team.
So far this year, Luc Mbah a Moute has been doing a good job of filling that description. Before the two losses, he was giving Los Angeles 23 quality minutes a night. On top of his very good defense, he was doing enough in the scoring department not to be a drain.
Mbah a Moute is not a volume three-point shooter, but he was hitting on 44 percent of his attempts. That’s all the Clippers need from their designated perimeter stopper.
In the past two games, however, there was no one for him to stop. The Pistons start Marcus Morris at small forward, a solid player who can hit tough shots but not a star. Paul George was out for the Pacers. To justify being on the court, Mbah a Moute had to contribute on offense.
He couldn’t, as he finally regressed as a shooter, missing all three of his three-point attempts and mucking up the Clippers’ spacing.
Doc Rivers decided to cut Mbah a Moute’s minutes in the game against the Pacers. It was probably the right decision, but it had a downside, as there’s not a lot of quality depth in the roster.
The bench overachieved early but is still unproven
Rivers has a tendency to play all sub lineups. In the past, that hurt the Clippers, but this season they seemed to find something that worked. Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Marreese Speights have been a killer five-man unit. Their stingy defense allowed them to outscore opponents by over 17 points per 100 possessions before the latest losses. By that metric, they were one of the best lineups in the league.
Against the Pistons and the Pacers, however, the complete lack of playmaking in the lineup and the streaky shooting of its members came back to haunt them. The defense remains solid, but the offense was a disaster. As a unit, the bench shot a paltry 29 percent and failed to score at a high level at the rim and from outside.
Speights’ outside shot stopped falling, and neither Felton nor Rivers could score on drives. That forced the unit to rely on Jamal Crawford, which is not a good idea. Crawford is a low-efficiency volume scorer who can shoot the team out of games if he’s cold. He needed 24 shots to score 26 points in the two losses. For the year, he’s averaging 11 points on 40 percent shooting.
The newfound defensive aggressive from the bench is a good development for the Clippers, but Crawford’s mid-range gunning is not enough to prop up that unit on offense. That lineup simply lacks the firepower to bail out a bad night by the starters.
The new and improved Clippers have familiar weaknesses
The Clippers have looked better than ever for most of this season, which prompted many to believe they had turned a corner. That might be true, but these past two losses are a reminded that the makeup of the roster hasn’t changed in any meaningful way. The same issues that plagued them in the past are there.
Fortunately for them, the talent to overcome them is still there as well. It’s on the coach and the players to understand their weaknesses and do what they have to do to avoid having more letdown games. If they can do that, they should be able to keep up with the Warriors and solidify their place as the second best team in the West.