Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Clippers’ stagnant offense since James Harden trade could be boosted by emulating one Russell Westbrook trait

SAN FRANCISCO — When considering whether or not to fork over the money for a new TV, there’s always a moment where you think, “Hey, the old one’s not that bad…” Even when you see the still frames and videos of the newest models online, you’re still not fully convinced you need an upgrade. But when you walk into an actual store, gawking at the massive displays, vivid colors, stark contrast and crystal-clear images — suddenly your five-year-old model at home might as well be a black-and-white, cathode ray tube dinosaur.

That’s what it was like watching the stagnant, isolation-heavy offense of the Los Angeles Clippers, so blatantly juxtaposed to the free-flowing, egalitarian, quick-hitting attack of the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.

After Golden State’s 120-114 win over the Clippers at Chase Center, you could easily be fooled by the assist numbers — the Warriors had 30, compared to the Clippers’ 26. No big deal, right? But, when thinking about ball movement, you can’t just look at assists.

Golden State made 299 passes during Thursday’s win, according to NBA.com. The Clippers made just 249. The number underscores a troubling trend that’s befallen the Clippers since acquiring James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers on Halloween. 

Last season, the Clippers were in the middle of the pack in terms of passes per game — not surprising, considering the dominant isolation players they have in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This season, after the Harden trade, however, the Clippers have plummeted to dead last in passes per game, and it’s not even close. Over that stretch, they have a 5-8 record and the league’s 24th-ranked offense.

Clippers passing Passes/Game NBA Rank

2022-23

277.5

17th

Since Harden trade

247.8

30th

Don’t be misled — more passing doesn’t automatically lead to more efficient scoring. The Toronto Raptors make the third-most passes per game and have the league’s 22nd-ranked offense. The Dallas Mavericks, led by elite, ball-dominant guards in Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, make the second-fewest passes per game, but are fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency. It’s not a direct corollary.

When you watch the Clippers, though, the extreme lack of passing results from an obvious culprit: Nobody moves.

It’s one thing to isolate Leonard and George or run pick-and-roll with Harden — they are three of the best players in the league in those areas — but the rest of the team can’t just stand around and watch as they go to work. 

Here’s an example from the third quarter of Thursday’s Warriors game, where Leonard rejects Terance Mann’s screen and decides to isolate against Draymond Green. Maybe not the best decision, but Leonard is certainly talented enough to take on any defender one-on-one.

As he operates, not one Clipper makes a significant movement. They might as well be Greek statues. Leonard gets stonewalled in his first attempt, kicking it back out to Mann for a repost as the shot clock winds down. Even then, his teammates refuse to budge, and the result is a contested fadeaway.

This was just one of dozens of glaring examples during Thursday night’s contest. If you ask anyone about the Clippers’ struggling offense in the James Harden Era, they’ll tell you the same thing: There needs to be more movement.

Head coach Tyronn Lue sees what we all see, and has tried to add more set pieces and plays to ensure ball and player movement. He said that sometimes his players take too long getting into those actions off of made baskets, which leads to scrambling and eventual stagnation.

“We have three calls that we want to make and sometimes we’re unorganized,” Lue said on Thursday. “So we’ve just got to make sure we continue to stay organized, to make sure we’re getting into something — not playing as much random basketball.”

Here’s an example of a lack of synergy and urgency on the first play of the third quarter on Thursday. Presumably, the Clippers went over this set at halftime as a way to jump-start the offense. Watch how badly things go, as the designed play devolves into a Leonard fall-away jumper against a double-team:

Harden was presumptively brought in to help with the organization that Lue is talking about, but that hasn’t yet been fully realized. As everyone in the Clippers franchise has mentioned repeatedly, it’s going to take time and patience.

“With Kawhi, PG and James starting in that first unit, just understanding one another, what plays they want,” Lue added on Thursday. “Like, what plays that Kawhi and PG want ran for them by James, and guys getting to their spots and understanding when James comes up and pick-and-roll, where we want Kawhi, PG and where we want T-Mann.”

There is at least one player on the Clippers who seems to grasp the value of movement, and he’s the same player who’s become a scapegoat for various franchises over the latter part of his career. Russell Westbrook has done significant damage as a cutter, particularly when teams elect to blitz the Clippers’ stars, creating a four-on-three opportunity.

While his limitations don’t allow him to play 40 minutes per game, and at times he’s a disaster, Westbrook’s effort and movement often lead to better looks for himself and his teammates. The other Clippers would be well-served by taking that specific page out of Westbrook’s long and complicated book.

“Just put him in positions where teams are gonna blitz James or PG or Kawhi, getting it where he’s getting that back-door cut for dunks or layups,” Lue said of Westbrook’s movement. “And then working the baseline in a short action, which he’s done a good job of too.”  

Several times since Harden’s acquisition, Westbrook has started off in the corner — where he draws little defensive attention due to his 26% 3-point shooting. Then, once the dump-off pass has been made to the middle of the floor, he energetically cuts to the basket. It’s been one of the Clippers’ most successful, reliable actions.

Obviously it’s going to take time for players like Harden, Leonard, George and Westbrook to get used to one another, and there are already encouraging signs that it will work. Since Lue moved Westbrook to the bench, for instance, the Clippers’ starting unit has a sparkling plus-21.5 net rating in 148 minutes.

But, as the growth continues and the Clippers hit bumps in the road, a little movement — both from the ball and from themselves — could go a long way.

“I feel like it’s, keep recording or playing the same tapes over and over. We all know what it’s going to take,” George said on Thursday. “It’s going to take some time. But we’re all getting used to one another still, and we’re having fun through the process.”

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