With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.
“We’re gonna be a different team,” Blake Griffin said Monday at Clippers media day. “But that’s a good thing. We’ve had some regular-season success, but we haven’t had true success here.”
To Clippers fans, who witnessed only two winning seasons between 1984, when the franchise moved to Los Angeles, and 2011, the past six years have been as close to “true success” as it gets. But what Griffin means is playoff success. The Clippers haven’t had any of it. Since 2011-12, they’ve been bounced three times in the first round and haven’t been to a Western Conference finals. The Lob City era, led by the Big Three of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul, had its highs, but the team never reached the heights expected of it when Paul was traded during the 2011 offseason.
Now the roster we’ve grown familiar with has been overhauled. Paul is gone. So are J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford. The Clippers have only five returning players (Blake, Jordan, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Brice Johnson). The Clippers acquired a stockpile of former Rockets for Paul, headlined by point guard Patrick Beverley. Forward Danilo Gallinari was acquired in a sign-and-trade from Denver. International point guard Milos Teodosic also joined the team.
Change happened in the front office, too. Jerry West was hired as a consultant. Lawrence Frank was named president of basketball ops. Doc Rivers was relieved of his GM duties so he could focus on coaching. “Doc knows how to win championships,” owner Steve Ballmer said in a press release. “He is key to integrating our new players with our returning players and taking us to new heights on the court.”
In other words, Doc is on the clock.
It’s Rivers’s responsibility to install a system that can succeed without Paul. Since Rivers was hired in 2013, the Clippers have a 24-25 record in games that Paul sat out. In all situations when Griffin was on the floor without Paul, they had only a minus-3 net rating, per NBA Wowy. They were essentially average; unsurprisingly, the Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook set their 2017-18 over/under at 43.5. It was harder for the Clippers to play without Paul because they were so reliant on him. Paul is one of the greatest point guards in the history of basketball. As such, Rivers was right to give him what sometimes seemed like exclusive control of the offense. But the Clippers regularly ranked near the middle of the pack in pace and transition offense frequency, per Synergy. Paul’s ball-dominant ways led the Clippers to average only 43 potential assists per 100 possessions, which ranked 23rd in the league last season, and only 13th in passes per possession, according to data calculated using NBA.com.
They also had one of the league’s top-ranked offenses. Over the past four seasons, the Clippers ranked first in offensive rating twice, and also sixth and fourth. But their output slipped in the playoffs, even before the injury bug struck. “[The loss of Paul] mandates a change of style to probably the style I’m probably more familiar with to begin with. I’ve always been a ball-movement coach,” Rivers said Monday. “I think we should be an early-strike team. I think we should be a very physical team. But again, I think you have to look at your team and see what you really have when you get to camp. … And knowing that you’re going to lose a Chris, you wanted as many ballhandling players on the floor at the same time.”
Doc has prescribed a ball-movement-based brand of basketball that relies on multiple attackers on the floor. Great. That sounds modern. It’d be glorious to see more offense that looked like this:
Ah, isn’t that pretty? The Clippers are reading and reacting and moving the ball side to side, which disorientates the defense. Ball movement is like shaking a snow globe. The problem is it didn’t happen often enough for the Clippers.
But their new additions could fix that. Gallinari, Beverley, and Lou Williams are all advanced pick-and-roll navigators. Teodosic is a technician. Griffin should see an uptick in playmaking duties, too. They might not have Paul, but they are deeper with more ball handlers, just like Rivers wanted.
Gallinari is Exhibit A. After the Italian forward hid from the casual fan in Denver, Gallo will get the shine he deserves under the bright lights of Los Angeles. He is a versatile 6-foot-10 forward who can comfortably run pick-and-rolls, score well in isolations, and handle the ball in transition. Per Synergy, Gallo scored in the 90th percentile or higher in each of the past three seasons. The only other qualifying forwards and wings (i.e., minimum of 500 possessions) to do that were Kevin Durant, J.J. Redick, and Klay Thompson.
With a new-look roster, Gallinari should be empowered to improvise and play freely.
Gallinari is a skilled enough ball handler to use hesitations and crossovers in the open court, or in the pick-and-roll, to get where he wants. He tends to find himself at the rim quite frequently, where he draws fouls at a ludicrously high rate. Over the past two seasons, not even James Harden or Jimmy Butler has a higher free throw rate, per Basketball-Reference. Gallinari is the type of player who can punish smaller defenders or blow by slower bigs. He’s not someone teams can easily switch against.
Rivers said at media day that the team plans to use his versatility. “There’s no such thing as a small forward or a power forward anymore. It’s just a basketball player,” Rivers said. “[Other than Jordan], on our team, I don’t think you can name one guy and say [he can play only one position]. That’s how we’re going to use Gallo. … He’s going to play any position we put him in.” Gallinari will need to adapt to other roles. He has shot 39 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s since 2014-15, per SportVU, so he’ll be able to space the floor when Griffin and Beverley are getting their share of touches.
“With this team, at any given time, we’ll have four or five guys who can put the ball on the floor that can make a play, that can impact the game on both ends of the floor,” Griffin said Monday. “Having that versatility in all of our players, 1 through 5, is gonna be fun.” The cool part is how well their key new additions complement each other offensively. Griffin shot 33.6 percent on a career-high 113 triples. Beverley has knocked down 39.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013-14, per SportVU. If Doc chooses to play small, with Griffin at the 5, Gallinari at the 4, and three guards sharing the floor, he could have five players on the floor who can shoot and pass.
“There will be times in the game where Blake will be the tallest guy on the floor. There will be times he’ll be more the 3 or 4, where you want him to be an aggressive, attacking player,” Rivers said. “He’ll bring the ball up at times. He’ll be one of the guys that we use as a facilitator.” This sounds promising. We’ve seen hints of what Griffin is capable of as a secondary playmaker, and he has an excellent 25.8 assist percentage over the past three seasons to prove it. Pick-and-rolls with Jordan rolling to the rim like this are nice.
So are designed plays with a guard, like Paul or Crawford, slipping a screen, opening the lane for Griffin to pulverize the rim.
But we’ve seen enough of those for years. As effective as they are, it’s a relatively one-dimensional play that doesn’t take full advantage of floor spacing or Griffin’s playmaking skills. It’d be extra nice to see Doc steal a page from the Warriors’ or Cavaliers’ playbook and use Griffin like those teams use Draymond Green and LeBron James, respectively.
Virtually any of the Los Angeles guards could screen for Griffin like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson do for Green, or like Kyrie Irving did for LeBron. Putting Blake into a high pick-and-roll would stress a defense, especially when he’s sharing the floor with three or four teammates who can follow up by shooting off the catch or by making plays off the bounce, like Beverley does.
Beverley is an X factor for the Clippers, as it’ll be his first time taking on a more prominent role as a playmaker. Last season in Houston, Beverley played only 754 minutes without James Harden on the floor, but that sample could hint at what to expect this season. While playing without Harden, Beverley averaged 12.2 points, 8.8 assists, and 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, per stats.NBA.com. His scoring efficiency dipped, as you’d expect without Harden, but his 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio would be a welcome development in Los Angeles this season.
The Clippers guards can be who they want to be this season. Paul was so incredible that he almost always had to have the ball. Anything else wouldn’t have made sense. But Beverley could be on the brink of reaching a new level of his career. Williams has been one of the NBA’s most reliable pick-and-roll scorers for almost a decade. Austin Rivers has developed into a far more reliable guard. Then there’s the passing master, Milos.
If the Clippers want to call back to their days with Paul, all Doc Rivers needs to do is plug Teodosic into the game. That’s when we’ll see magic happen. “The way that he sees his teammates on the floor, honestly, I’ve seen few point guards that can play that way,” Gallinari said. Beverley echoed Gallinari’s sentiments: “He’s one of the best passers in the world. In the open gyms we’ve had, he’s shown he makes plays that nobody else makes.”
Los Angeles is flooded with point-guard depth and lacks wings, which means we could see a lot of three-guard lineups this season. Or, in an ideal world, Doc will master rotations and stagger lineups. He could structure his rotations to have at least two competent playmakers on the floor at all times.
There are two massive problems, though. The first is defense. Teodosic might be able to make magical passes like CP3, but he’s on the other end of the spectrum as a defender. Williams is a defensive negative, too. Beverley and/or Rivers will need to be on the floor at nearly all times, but neither of them has the bulk to defend larger wings on a nightly basis. Unless second-rounder Sindarius Thornwell develops rapidly and Doc trusts his rookie, the Clippers don’t have a single player who projects into a lockdown wing role. Sam Dekker and Wesley Johnson aren’t getting it done. Neither Gallinari nor Griffin is a great defender, though they can contain opponents. Aside from Beverley, Jordan, and Rivers, the Clippers don't have any plus defenders.
“The guys that came over, we had a lot of dog in us,” Beverley said. “In order for us to win games, we have to play extremely hard every night. And with that comes a lot of Grit ’n’ Grind. It won’t be a pretty win every night. A lot of nights you have to grind it out, and that’s our mind-set.” The Clippers will need to sustain that mind-set. Effort can cover for fundamental flaws. But over the course of a full season, and especially in the playoffs, they can be too much to overcome. For the most part, Los Angeles will need to beat teams with its offense.
But there’s another problem: The best ability is availability, and L.A.’s core threats haven’t been available in recent years. Griffin, Gallinari, and Beverley have missed a combined 206 of 738 possible games (i.e., 28 percent) over the past three seasons. That’d be like missing 23 games per season. A 280-character tweet wouldn’t come close to fitting Griffin’s and Gallinari’s long lists of injuries. Given how loaded the Western Conference is, a few injuries could end up keeping Lob City out of the playoffs altogether.
The Clippers hope it doesn’t get to that point, but it’s not like that issue will go away. They just locked up Griffin on a five-year max contract extension, a monumental but worthwhile risk. Gallinari is signed through the 2019-20 season for over $20 million annually. Beverley will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019, and, if he makes significant progress, it’s easy to foresee him receiving a deal in the $20 million range. Looking ahead to 2018-19, the Clippers could end up with over $70 million of their cap dedicated to three players that haven’t proved to be durable. That doesn’t seem like the best formula for sustainable success, does it?
But maybe this is exactly what the Clippers needed. Doc was always reluctant to take risks. He signed players he coached in Boston. He didn’t tweak the system. He didn’t experiment enough with staggering minutes for Paul and Griffin. Paul’s departure, along with West’s hire and Frank’s promotion, raised the team’s risk profile. It’s conceivable that Doc will fail to install a modern offense, and, even if he does install one, maybe the team can’t defend or persevere through injury woes. But it’s also possible the team will stay healthy, and each player will enhance one another in ways that didn’t seem possible before. Variance could be what the Clippers needed.