Los Angeles Clippers, NBA

The Clippers are surprisingly good, and they’re building something more

The team hears the noise, but they’re changing what people are talking about.

The Los Angeles Clippers front office isn’t shy about their desire to land a super star free agent. After remaking the front office under owner Steve Ballmer and bringing star whisperer Jerry West on board, they remade the roster, shipping out Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and parting ways with DeAndre Jordan. They supposedly have big dreams of Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard (or both) playing in red and blue in 2019.

With an eye toward next summer, however, many people overlooked the Clippers in 2018. This was labeled as a transition year to lay a foundation on which to potentially erect a super team. But 15 guys and a coaching staff saw an opportunity to win some games and, at the start of December, the Clippers have the best record in the Western Conference.

Now there’s a new conversation: From wondering if the Clippers can land a star to if the Clippers could sustain this start. The Clippers hear this noise, too.

“Nobody cares. Nobody cares,” Clippers guard Lou Williams told The Step Back after a recent win in Sacramento. “People gonna talk. That’s what people do. You get paid to make sure people get their information and that’s not gonna stop, so we can’t worry about what people are talking about. We just win, do our jobs, keep moving.”

Moving is what several players on this roster have done all their careers. Of the 13 non-rookies on the roster, only one (Sindarius Thornwell) was acquired by the Clippers during the draft. This is otherwise a group of journeymen — players like Tobias Harris who have been traded four times in eight seasons and Williams who has played for six teams in seven years.

“You got a lot of veteran guys in here who just want to win,” Williams said. “A lot of guys in here has had individual success and it’s done nothing for them. I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways from this group, I think we just want to win at this point.”

How are they winning? The offense is good but a notch below elite. The defense is middle of the pack. They aren’t at the top of the league in any meaningful measurement other than free throws made and attempted. That’s helped them create consistent offense in lieu of a constant star presence. The Clippers get to the line nearly 30 times per game and convert 81 percent of those attempts. Williams, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell all get to the line at least five times a game. For a team with a history of battling against the refs, now they’re using them to their advantage, and it’s helped them win a number of close games this season.

No team outside of Philadelphia has won more close games this season. The Clippers have the third-best true shooting percentage in the NBA during what the league considers “clutch” time. It helps that their leading scorers are guys who make tough shots when defenses buckle down. The Clippers lead the league in contested shots where the closest defender is within two feet.

Williams has carved out a career of making those shots. Guys like Harris (6-foot-9) and Gallinari (6-foot-10) shoot over defenders and Harrell dunks on them. Tracking stats don’t account for that vertical separation and don’t necessarily reflect the fact that rarely does any Clipper face a double team. That’s the perk of playing in an egalitarian system. LA’s top three scorers, Williams, Harris and Gallinari, have each averaged 18 points per game several times in their respective careers, and now they’re often playing one on one because none has the individual gravitas to command a double.

Harris, however, is playing like a star. After coming over in the Griffin deal last season, Harris ramped up his scoring from 18.1 points per game in Detroit to 19.3 points per game in his last 32 games with the Clippers. This season, he’s averaging a team-high 21.4 points per game.

There are only five other players in the league currently averaging 21 points with a true shooting percentage of at least 60: Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, James Harden and Steph Curry. All former MVPs or MVP candidates…and Harris. In fact, Harris is even starting to get some love for the award himself.

It’s more than just scoring. Coaches asked Harris over the summer to work on drawing fouls, rebounding (he also leads the team in rebounds per game) and creating out of the pick-and-roll.

“You don’t have to ask him but once,” Rivers said. “He’s a worker, so you tell him what you need him to work on and he works on it. It doesn’t mean he’s going to be good at it, but he has. He’s passing the ball so much better for us. He’s starting to draw so many more fouls for us, and he’s rebounding better.”

Harris studied film of different defenses and pick-and-roll situations so that he can make better reads based on how opponents react to him off the bounce. Before games, he works on coming off screens, taking one dribble and making a decision to either shoot or pass. Running the pick-and-roll is new for Harris, but he’s embraced it as a means to open up offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates.

“I really wasn’t a pick-and-roll player when I came in. The game is different from when I first came in. The guards did the pick-and-roll. You didn’t see a lot of 3s and 4s running the pick-and-roll back then,” Harris said. “I had to develop that kind of game because that’s how the ball gets in your hands more.”

The work is paying off.

Harris can participate in the pick-and-roll as a ball handler or a screener, and the Clippers have several frontcourt players like that. Players who can be the sidekick or the scorer. That versatility keeps defenses on their toes.

“There’s guys who fit the role of creating and creating space and creating plays,” Harris said. “You have Trez that’s rolling, and we have different kinds of bigs, where Trez is the kind who rolls fast to the basket and can score. [Marcin Gortat] is the guy who sets really good screens and gets guys open, and Boban’s another one who screens and he can score it down there, too. So we have a different set of bigs.”

Danilo Gallinari is another one. If one were to look for an obvious difference between last season’s team and this one, it’s that Gallinari is healthy. There’s never been a shortage of talent when it comes to Gallinari, but he’s played in at least 60 games just once over the previous five seasons as he’s dealt with various injuries. People around the team are cautiously optimistic.

Healthy Gallinari is one of the most effective power forwards in the league. Even with the injuries, he’s averaged at least 18 points per game in two of the last three seasons. This season he’s averaging nearly 19 a game and, with his legs under him, shooting a career-best 47 percent on 3s.

Opponents have to be prepared for any of the Clippers to get hot, which makes scheming against them complicated. The Clippers offense is like an improv show at The Groundlings, and if one teammate is on a roll, everyone else’s job is to say yes.

“Before the game, we don’t know who it’s going to be,” Rivers said. “We have candidates and the audition is during the game, and then we go to that guy. What makes this team unique is whoever that guy is accepts it, and rest of the team accepts it, and I think that’s what makes us a unique team.”

Harris opened up a recent game in Sacramento with seven quick points and that was all the Clippers needed to see. He nailed the audition. The offense ran through him and he finished with 28 points and four assists.

“If somebody’s got it going, you’re gonna make sure you get them the ball,” Williams said. “Especially on this team, where we don’t care who gets the credit, we don’t who care who has a big night. I think so far this season we’ve had six or seven guys have big nights. We don’t have one particular guy who we force feed the ball to. Tonight it was Tobias, who knows who it will be in Dallas, who knows who it’s gonna be after that. It’s just how this team is built.”

Harris is in a contract year and Gallinari’s contract will be tradable this summer as it expires after next season. There’s a chance one or both could be back, but there’s also a chance they won’t if the Clippers decide to rebuild the team around a pair of imported stars. But the team believes they already have a star in the making in rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

During the draft, the Clippers sent their pick and two second-round picks to Charlotte to move up one spot, from No. 12 to No. 11, to get him. The Clippers rave about his talent and his attitude. Some wondered if he’d get playing time on such a deep roster but, according to Rivers, being around so many vets helps his development.

“He’s one of the better [rookies in the league], obviously,” Rivers said. “It’s great that he can play with guys like Pat Beverley and Avery Bradley, just defensively alone watching those two guys play, it rubs off on Shai. And then with scorers like Galo and Tobias as well, everyone teaches him, to Lou to everyone, and he’s a good listener.”

After Bradley went down with an ankle sprain before a Nov. 5 game against Minnesota, Gilgeous-Alexander got the starting job and hasn’t given it up since. While his scoring numbers are modest (about 11 points per game) he has a habit of stuffing the box score. The illustrious Luka Doncic is the only other rookie averaging at least 10 points, three rebounds, three assists and a steal per game, and Gilgeous-Alexander surpasses him with almost one block per game. He plays with feel and at his own pace. Careful but not timid. Quickly but not hurried.

He may already be one of the better defensive point guards in the league. With his 6-foot-11 wingspan he’s as long as Andre Iguodala at the point of attack and he uses that length to smother opposing ball handlers.

Iguodala may be a good projection for Gilgeous-Alexander who, coming out of Kentucky, was compared to old-man Shaun Livingston and Michael Carter-Williams. He has more to give as a scorer than those two. During his highest usage seasons, Iggy was an 18-to-20 points per game scorer who still managed to rack up rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Like Iggy, Gilgeous-Alexander if comfortable on or off the ball and, depending on what happens this coming summer, should be able to fit snuggly next to whomever he takes the floor with next season.

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The Clippers will be in the mix for Leonard and Durant. Leonard is from Los Angeles and may seek a return to his comfort zone. And, remember, it was Jerry West’s phone call to Durant that helped lure him to Golden State. You better believe Durant will be the first call West makes when free agency begins in July. The Clippers will have enough cap space to pitch them both.

The pitch will be very different from the team down the hall. Magic Johnson will be pitching Lakers lore and a spot in the sidecar next to LeBron James. The Clippers will be pitching strong bones. A supporting cast to take over the top, organizational structure and integrity, and a chance to be the greatest Clipper ever. That could make for a very enticing offer to someone who craves those sort of things.

No matter what happens, if the team’s hot start proves anything, it’s that the Clippers are laying the bricks to build something they can be proud of.

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