Los Angeles Clippers, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: How are the Clippers still in the playoff race?

Entering this season, the Clippers’ roster didn’t include a single player who had been with the team for more than two years. The roster also didn’t include a single All-Star, and after not landing a blockbuster free agent and facing one of the hardest schedules in the league, it would’ve been reasonable for the Clippers to treat this season as a transition year.

But halfway through their schedule, the Clippers’ budding roster has put together a record good enough for the Western Conference playoffs, while playing a style of basketball uncommon for its era. Shooting few 3s and scoring almost half of its points off bench play, the refreshed Clippers are reclaiming their identity and initiating a new era of Clippers basketball.

One of the defining features of this Clippers team is their depth. At 51 points a game, they lead the league in bench points, scoring 15 more points than the average bench.

With such a flexible rotation, the Clippers have had success optimizing lineups and matchups, getting the right players involved and creating difficulties for opposing defenses. Earlier in the season, Boban, who has only started in six games all season, was tapped for the job against Deandre Ayton. Exploiting Ayton’s unimpressive 4.5 defensive box outs per game, Marjanovic pulled down 6 offensive boards in the first 8 minutes of play and finished the game with 32.9 percent of his team’s total rebounds.

The second unit is led by Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrel — an intentional play by Doc Rivers who hasn’t started either player in a single game this season. Harrel, an early candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, is taking full advantage of the 8.5 extra minutes per game this season, elevating his play to career-highs in every major statistical category and climbing to 12th in points in the paint. Lou Williams on the other hand, one season after winning his second Sixth Man of the Year Award, started out the year shooting a career-low 39 percent from the field, but has since improved his shooting and remains a vital piece for the Clippers as both a shot-creator and finisher. Not to mention that he’s the highest scoring bench player in the league.

But the team’s uniqueness comes out most in its versatile approach to high-percentage scoring. Their field goal percentage is in the top-five and they’re fourth in points per game, but contrary to the success of other top scorers, the Clippers don’t shoot very many 3s. In fact, only a quarter of their points come from 3-pointers — the lowest in the league.

Chart by: Jimmy Feterman

Offensively, they’re concerned with points inside of the perimeter and, most of all, prioritize opportunities that draw contact. The Clippers lead the league in shots with a defender 0-2 feet away so it’s unsurprising that they also dominate the league in free throws per game. But unlike other teams that rely on a single elite scorer or big man for the majority of its free throw attempts, the Clippers’ league-best 23.2 free throws per game come from the involvement of the entire offense.

For reference, there are four Clippers in the top 50 for free throw attempts whereas, James Harden, who leads the league in free throw attempts per game, is the only Rocket player in the top 50. The Clippers instead can bait defenses on drives from players as varied as Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (currently second in points off drives among rookies) and can pass into the paint for Gortat, Boban, and Harrell. And to make it all worthwhile, the Clippers convert their frequent trips to the line with laser-sharp accuracy, especially among its top scorers — Harris, Gallinari, and Williams – who are first, third, and seventh, respectively, in free throw percentage (among players with at least 100 free throw attempts this season).

Having a pliable roster that can compete against diverse matchups and distribute responsibilities is an invaluable resource in an 82-game season where teams will often wear down at the end of the year. Nonetheless, as the NBA regular season winds down, rotations tend to shorten and superstars take over. Tobias Harris is the obvious first-option for the Clippers, and after turning down an $80 million contract this offseason, betting that he would be able to earn a max deal potentially worth $188 million for five years (or $145.5 million for four years with a different team) has been on a mission to prove himself. But it’s hard to believe that a seven-year journeyman with only one round of postseason experience (as a No. 8 seed with the Pistons in 2016) will be able to shoulder the load when the chase for a playoff spot finally heats up. From this perspective, the Clippers versatility looks more like a result of necessity and working-with-what-you-got, than a carefully designed tactic.

Next: How to evaluate big man defense in the draft

The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks faced a similar dilemma — a deep team with no true star  — and after winning the Division Championship, became the first No. 1 seed to be swept in the playoffs since the Pistons in 2003. Of course, these teams are not totally alike and the stakes are different, but the lesson is still relevant — stars win rings. With multiple players in contract years, and a star-studded free agency class up next season, the Clippers are right where they need to be — playing the long game and convincing the league that they’re a strong and balanced team. Star-power may not be in the Clippers’ arsenal right now, but if they stay on track they’ll finish this season looking like a team just one-piece away from championship hopes and an obvious destination for a top-flight player.

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