It’s Time To Finally Start Buying The Clippers
DENVER— The Los Angeles Clippers have likely found rock bottom and are on their way up.
On the surface, LA’s loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night was more of the recent same: another loss since adding James Harden (their sixth straight loss since the trade for the former MVP). Another painful loss, this time collapsing with a late lead on the road vs. the defending champs who were without Jamal Murray, watching Paul George wedgie what would have been a game-tying three.
It’s painful. It’s brutal. To a certain degree, it’s embarrassing for a November game on a weird blue court.
But it’s also different.
The Clippers were lost in those first five games. They were meek, downtrodden, confused. In their loss to Memphis, they were outplayed by one of the worst teams in the league.
Against Denver, the Clippers were not lost. They rallied back from a 13-point deficit to take a 4th-quarter lead. Their collapse was due to the determined physicality and greatness of the league’s best player and reigning Finals MVP, at home, with a substantial tactical advantage. (We’ll get back to that part in a second.)
The Clippers weren’t outplayed by Denver; they just lost a regular-season road game. The Clippers had fewer turnovers, more rebounds, more fastbreak points, and more made 3-pointers. The Nuggets won with clutch defense and free throws (earned by a size advantage).
James Harden had 21 points and four assists and finally made a shot inside the 3-point line as a Clipper. (Yes, this was the first game he had done so. Yes, that is bad.) Nikola Jokic was the best player on the floor, but Paul George had the best performance with 35 points on 26 shots, seven rebounds, three assists, and three steals (and some excellent defense).
The Clippers had moments, they had life, they had verve for the first time since the trade. There’s still miscommunication; Denver’s players identified after the game that they’re still trying to figure out how to play together.
But there were also flashes. Paul George leading in the way the Clippers really need from their star players. (Kawhi Leonard was 5-of-14 for 15 points.) Russell Westbrook is cutting backdoor off good ball movement for easy dunks, using his remaining athleticism. The Clippers’ switch-all defense made things tough for Denver in the third quarter by forcing seven turnovers.
The four-man lineup of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden was a +3. That’s a tiny victory in a tough loss. But it means they can figure out ways to win the minutes with those four together.
Let’s not go too far down the path of sunshine and roses; the Clippers lost to the Nuggets, who were without their star point guard, despite leading Denver in the fourth quarter. Also, this team wasn’t put together to set the bar at “only lost by three after Denver had two missed clutch free throws and a wild turnover.”
But the Clippers showed life, and they put pieces together vs. a good team Tuesday. To put it another way, the Clippers’ loss to the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Mavericks, or Grizzlies would be concerning at any point in the season. But the loss to the Nuggets was only notable because of those previous games. Tuesday was a normal NBA coin flip that didn’t go their way.
Now for the bad news.
The Clippers are too small. With Mason Plumlee out with an MCL sprain, Clippers coach Ty Lue is falling back into the same habits that got him in trouble in the playoffs vs. Phoenix by playing small-ball lineups. Against Denver, he chose not to re-insert Ivica Zubac into the game despite 13 rebounds and having helped spark the 3rd quarter run to establish a lead.
Instead, Lue went with Terance Mann at center. Terance Mann is 6-5. He gave PJ Tucker run as well. PJ Tucker is also 6-5.
So the Nuggets just spammed post-ups for Nikola Jokic and either scored, drew fouls, or delivered passes to open Nuggets when the Clippers were forced to double.
The advantage in that situation is found by out-pacing the opponent with 3-pointers vs. their twos. But the Clippers only took nine threes and, down the stretch, were looking for contested twos. Denver and the Clippers both made two 3’s in the 4th quarter. If you don’t have a mass advantage with the spacing of small-ball, the edge goes to the dominant post-up player.
“There’s no balance. You punish them in the post,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after the game about how to attack those small ball lineups without losing their offensive identity. And that’s what Denver did. Harden is a big guard. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are big wings. But attempting to beat bigger teams without a player over 6-7 is doomed.
Maybe Lue recognizes his mistake, as ironically, he seemed to when he said in preseason that Robert Covington should have played more at center in the playoffs before Covington was traded in the Harden deal. Maybe Mason Plumlee’s return ensures their size. Maybe PJ Tucker looks closer to the impact player he was in Milwaukee in 2021 and Miami in 2022.
But for as much stress and scrutiny as there is on the Big Four, the Clippers’ big problem is their bigs, or lack thereof, on the floor.
Still, the time has come to recognize the Clippers have likely hit rock bottom, and there is a good chance their climb back to evening out the post-trade nightmare has already begun.