It’s not a shock that the Toronto Raptors are leading the Eastern Conference. After all, they added Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the nucleus of a 59-win team. But the Los Angeles Clippers — whose most decorated summertime additions were veteran center Marcin Gortat and journeyman forward Luc Mbah a Moute — sitting atop the West at 13–6 after a 104–100 Sunday win over the very good Portland Trail Blazers? That seems surprising. Maybe it shouldn’t, though.
In an NBA moving at a breakneck pace, there’s value in having a full complement of players who can keep up. Teams have always needed players who can run, dribble, pass, shoot, and defend. But to win in the spaced-out, sped-up, post-positional-revolution edition of professional basketball, you need enough of those players to be able to cover a 48-minute period, 82 times a year without suffering any major drop-offs. With the exception of the Raptors, Doc Rivers’s Clippers might be the deepest team in the NBA.
It’s easy to explain why teams that employ stars like Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant stay near the top of the standings. Since the days of George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers, transcendent talents have tended to determine which teams win the NBA championship. But fans who have watched their favorite teams struggle whenever their top stars hit the bench — how the Grizzlies’ point differential craters when Marc Gasol and Mike Conley sit, how bereft the Pelicans often look without Anthony Davis, how the Hornets offense dies in Kemba Walker–less time — know that you need more than that to win. It’s obviously wonderful to have great players, but at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s really nice to not have to give minutes to bad ones. The Clippers don’t really have any of those, and it’s helping.
After a half-dozen seasons spent pursuing a title with top-heavy rosters led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers now take the court without a bona fide superstar, but with significantly more viable players than they had during the Lob City era, when they perpetually seemed a piece or two short. Acquired in the Blake Griffin trade, Tobias Harris has continued his slow-and-steady growth into one of the sport’s best forwards. Just 26 years old, the eighth-year veteran has become an efficient creator and finisher with range, touch, and muscle, averaging 21.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting and a 42.7 percent mark from 3-point range, all career highs.
Signed in the summer of 2017 to pair in the frontcourt with Griffin, Danilo Gallinari has proved a perfect partner for Harris. Finally healthy after years of injury woes, the Italian shooter has returned to the efficient inside-out form he flashed in Denver, and reminded us just how good he was before he started breaking down.
Gallinari is shooting a blistering 45.8 percent from deep, and he’s also using his herky-jerky game to lure defenders into plenty of fouls; among Clippers rotation players, only hack-magnet big men Montrezl Harrell and Boban Marjanovic have a higher free throw rate than Gallinari, who has gotten 97 freebies this season and made all but five of them. His ability to attack mismatches against smaller defenders, knock down jumpers over the bigs he’s drawn out into deep water, and hold up defensively against quicker opponents off the bounce was instrumental in the Sunday win over the Blazers, when he scored seven of his 17 points in the final frame:
Danilo Gallinari was simply incredible down the stretch this evening for the Clippers, and the fact he's been healthy is a big part of the reason they've been so good. Gallinari is averaging 18.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on a 60.6 TS% this season. pic.twitter.com/77EDZDfkaz— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) November 26, 2018
While Harris and Gallinari have led the charge for the starting unit, it’s been the depth and quality of the bench that has separated the Clippers thus far. No team gets more scoring from its second unit than the Clips, with reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams (17.8 points, 4.4 assists, 2.5 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per game) and Harrell, a front-runner for this year’s award (15.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks in 25.6 minutes per), leading the way. The Clippers go two deep at every position with legit players who are capable of doing damage inside (hello, Boban) and out (hey there, Mike Scott), which allows Rivers to mix and match his lineups. (Honestly, they’re even deeper than that. A handful of Clips who have yet to crack 100 total minutes on the season — Serbian passing wizard Milos Teodosic, solid second-year wing Tyrone Wallace, veteran swingman Mbah a Moute, and young guards Sindarius Thornwell and rookie Jerome Robinson — might be fighting for rotation minutes on other squads.)
Harris, Gallinari, and Williams give them the firepower they need to go bucket-for-bucket with any team in the league; L.A. ranks sixth in the NBA in points scored per possession, per NBA.com, and fifth in half-court offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. The trick, though, is that everybody can make decisions and can come through when it counts. That the Clippers have been this good offensively while Williams shoots 38.7 percent from the floor and while guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley have been virtual nonfactors on that end offers hope that what they’ve shown is not only sustainable, but could even stand to improve.
The Clippers aren’t an elite defensive team, ranking 11th in points allowed per possession. But they do a great job of preventing opponents from taking the highest-value shots on the court (only the Nets allow fewer corner 3-pointers per game) and of getting a hand up on everything else (only the Bucks contest more 2-pointers a night), resulting in the lowest opponents’ effective field goal percentage in the league. The disruptive Harrell and the guard trio of Beverley, Bradley, and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — a slithery facilitator who has been fantastic in his first year — give the Clippers the length, activity, and snarl to stand up to opposing scorers. L.A.’s shuffled-up starting lineup of Harris, Gallinari, and Gortat along the front line, with Gilgeous-Alexander and Bradley in the backcourt, has looked dynamite in the early going, outscoring opponents by 35 points in 58 shared minutes while allowing a microscopic 88.3 points per 100 possessions, an elite defensive efficiency mark. And despite having played a rough opening slate — one of the NBA’s three toughest so far, according to multiple strength-of-schedule metrics — only four teams have a better net rating in “clutch” situations than the Clips.
Add it all up, and none of this feels like a mirage. The Clippers don’t look like most of the elite teams we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, and they don’t look like the star-studded contender they hope to be someday very soon, but they look solid, sensible, and very real. They’re not flawless, but you have to work overtime to find the imperfections, and by the time you’ve got them, Doc’s just gone to his bench to find something else that works. So far, just about all of it is working. The result is an awfully entertaining and potent bridge to whatever comes next in Los Angeles.