Before Blake Griffin’s plane even made it to Motor City, the implications of his eastward journey were clear: His former team was ready to reset.
The Los Angeles Clippers woke up on January 29 with a nine-figure payroll and in the Western Conference’s ninth spot. Paying the luxury tax to field a middling contender is problematic enough, but the Clips were past the tax threshold to pay a roster that stood below eight teams in the playoff race. Griffin was having another solid season, pushing the limits of his outside game and posting his best scoring average in four years, but the Clips sent him to Michigan that day, a clear sign that they were ready to move on, even if that meant walking away from the playoff race.
Plot twist: The Clippers are 9-3 since Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Boban Marjanovic first suited up for them on February 3.
Sure, they still have the nine-figure payroll. For that matter, they are still in ninth place, too. The problem is that even as they found success over the past five weeks, other Western Conference teams have also been surging. But that doesn’t take the shine off a surprisingly competitive run by a team that looked prepared to pack it in.
The Clippers could have followed the Griffin deal with a fire sale to collect assets for veterans DeAndre Jordan, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, and most believed they would. But then a funny thing happened – they just kept winning.
Harris, Williams and Gallo have averaged just over 60 as a trio during the Clips’ 9-3 post-Blake renaissance. Jordan’s flypaper hands (15.3 rebounds in this stretch) and defensive paint presence have been on display, and even role players like Montrezl Harrell and the recently transplanted Marjanovic have had their turns as Clippers heroes.
Sure, the squad has done most of its damage against non-playoff teams, but five of those wins came outside of Staples Center, including a double-digit upset of the Celtics and a big comeback in Denver behind an improbably unstoppable Boban. Once a seemingly sure bet to fade from the brutal Western Conference playoff race, they’re right in the thick of it with 20 games to go. They’re even in the loss column with three of the teams currently holding down playoff spots, including the fifth-place Wolves.
There’s no one ingredient to their turnaround; the Clippers are simply getting solid contributions from everybody. They don’t have a single player (aside from Sean Killpatrick, who just joined them on a 10-day contract) who has a negative Net Rating since the trade.
When the newly acquired Bradley had to bow out after suffering a groin injury, they survived by reallocating more minutes to Milos Teodosic – who suddenly can’t miss from downtown – and two-way player Tyrone Wallace. When Gallo suffered a non-displaced hand fracture, they simply dialed up Harrell’s role and have gotten .717 true shooting and a bundle of hustle plays from the energetic forward.
The parts feel almost interchangeable. Only three of their main guys have appeared in all 12 games, and around those three, it’s a band of specialists and utility players who find a way to complement one another.
Those three constants, of course, are Jordan, Williams and Harris, who have to be considered L.A.’s core trio at this point.
Harris isn’t doing anything wildly different from his Piston iteration. His shot profile is, broadly speaking, about the same, and he’s shooting an almost identical percentage from 3. Perhaps the subtlest change is that he is attacking a bit more. He already had one of the highest drives-per-game figures of any non-guard in the league. He has bumped that up to nine drives per outing as a Clipper, and he’s shooting over 50 percent as a driver. That’s Blake territory there. He is also far more likely than Griffin (30 percent compared to the latter’s 20) to pass off the drive.
It has to help his driving game that he is surrounded by better shooters than he was back East, but the 25-year-old also deserves credit for simply making great decisions off the bounce. Watch him here as he uses a “horns” wrinkle to attack a very good defender who is back to contain:
His handling ability allows Clippers coach Doc Rivers to keep running “4-5” pick-and-rolls, a staple of the Griffin-based offense from earlier in the season. Just like the Griffin-Jordan version, step over to contain Harris at your own risk; he’ll read the coverage and throw that same lob that has resulted in so many buckets for the big guy:
That clip is a good illustration of why Tobias works as an all-around threat: At one point he is surrounded by three Nuggets. The passer’s man has to cheat over a bit to prevent the shot, Wilson Chandler squeezes behind the screen, and the sagging big is forced to engage when Harris starts his move into the paint. Harris is not the passer Griffin was, but when he gets three guys within arm’s length in the paint, he knows where to look to find somebody open. He has never had a season where he has averaged anything close to the 3.1 assists he handed out in his first 12 Clippers games.
He can post up, spot up, and guard two through four. He’s not a paint protector, but he can handle most switches with varying levels of success. In today’s NBA, big men usually have to add defensive value in one of those areas to be considered a “plus” defender, and that’s where Harris will start to build a foundation on that end of the court.
Harris’s versatility and Blake-Lite skill set, along with Williams’ scoring punch and Jordan’s presence underneath, might give the Clippers enough juice to stay in the playoff hunt even as the schedule turns. All but four of their remaining games are against playoff teams (or teams in the mix, at least).
More than any other West playoff hopeful, they’ll also play the closest thing to a play-in tournament over the next weeks. Of the 26 games still to be played among teams in the conference’s 3-through-10 morass, nine of them involve the Clips. In other words, there are eight teams in the race, but more than a third of the games that still need to be settled among those teams involve the Clippers. That’s a lot of tough, intense nights of basketball.
Of course, the optimist would answer that those nine contests provide the Clippers a chance to control their destiny. Any wins they can squeeze out of those nine games also allow them to directly inflict some damage on a competitor’s record. But that just masks the fact that L.A. has a lot of difficult games left. Overall, it will face 11 teams that currently own a top-10 winning percentage — also the most of anybody in that group.
Their average opponent winning percentage from here on out trails only the Spurs and Thunder, but both of them have home-heavy schedules. Furthermore, the Clippers have already lost the season series to those two teams, as well as to the Timberwolves, which could become relevant if they tie one or more of those squads. (They also currently trail the Jazz, while the tiebreakers with the Pelicans and Blazers are still up for grabs. They have clinched the season series win over Denver, which could come in handy since the Nuggets are currently in the No. 8 spot.)
And of course, whether or not they qualify for the postseason, this group still has big questions just around the bend. Jordan can opt out of his contract this June, and if he does, the Clippers would be without a single player who logged minutes for them in Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs. Teodosic and Austin Rivers can also opt out, and Bradley will become an unrestricted free agent.
Jordan’s uncertainly looms largest. The lone All-Star (past or present) left on the roster, D.J.’s departure would certainly complete the identity overhaul that began in SoCal since Chris Paul traded himself last summer.
Not that the Clippers wouldn’t have a place to start over. They have at least another year with Harris, and Gallo and Lou are locked in for longer than that (the latter as the result of a bargain extension signed last month). Gallinari’s health makes him harder to bank on as a foundational piece; he has missed roughly two-thirds of the Clippers’ games thus far, and he’ll come back next season at age 30. But when he plays, he is a borderline star. While Lou is one-dimensional, few can fill it up like he can.
The Clippers should also get a healthy Patrick Beverley back at some point next season. Whether he, Harris, Williams and Gallinari are enough to start the next generation of Clippers basketball is a question L.A. fans would not want to answer.
In the meantime, they have a quarter of the season left to see how the pieces fit together — and to see if they can ride their recent momentum into the postseason.