Early Favorites: Evaluating the Los Angeles Clippers

Through games of November 3, the Los Angeles Clippers, the early favorites to win the Western Conference, stand third behind the Lakers and Timberwolves at 5-2.

This is all the more impressive since Paul George, one half of “The 213” combination (both Los Angeles’ area code and their uniform numbers) with Kawhi Leonard, has yet to appear in a game this season due to injury.

This is a team that hasn’t even reached its final form and is still tearing up a Western Conference with ten of its 15 teams at or above .500 as Monday morning dawned this week (the East has just seven such teams.)

Of course, not even in a small sample does a team get to a 59-23 pace without its reasons, so let’s take a little hop into the stats and see if some broad patterns have truly begun to emerge and what may lie ahead when PG13 comes back.

Offense Wins Games…

The Clippers stand second in the NBA in Offensive Rating at 112.1, a fact that should come as no surprise considering the extended minutes we’ve seen out of Lou Williams (30.7 minutes per game) and Montrezl Harrell (28.0) so far.

Both guys are their own flavor of bucket-getter, from Trezz’s impressive low post presence (19.3 points per game on 73.6 percent from the field, 84.8 percent from inside three feet, and 59.1 percent between three and ten feet) to Williams’ inefficient but relentless scoring (20.3 PPG on 41.6 percent shooting and 32.3 from long range.)

Throw in Leonard’s high-usage superman act (29.3 points per game, 47.4 percent shooting, 35.5 percent long-range for a .572 TS%) and you see why this team gets buckets in bunches and can run their opponents off the floor, something that will only intensify when George comes back and LouWill and Trezz can do their voodoo off the bench.

…but Defense Wins…

Well, not championships if the Clips are going to post a mediocre 16th-best Defensive Rating, but that’s without a First Team All-Defensive in the past in the form of George.

They’re treading water even though Kawhi has already missed a game due to load management and Williams and Harrell are infamous for their inability to defend anywhere near as well as they score.

Harrell at least has posted a minus-0.6 DBPM anchoring the second unit, but Williams has been putrid (minus-3.7) and Landry Shamet isn’t exactly Patrick Beverley out there (Shamet: minus-2.6, Beverley: plus-1.8.)

The Clippers seem to be trying a sort of hybrid defensive scheme where if they have two or three guys who can shut down the other team’s best offensive threat, they’re willing to give a little in matchups against the other guys on the floor.

So far, without PG13, it’s been good for about league average. With him, it should be top-10 level.

We could be watching the evolution of NBA defensive game planning and a shift in the arms race to supporting scorers against weak defensive teams, but that’s a story for larger than a seven-game sample size.

Win Big, Lose…Big?

What’s perhaps more alarming is how feast-or-famine these Clippers are. Their two losses came by a combined 22 points (8 to the Suns, 14 to the Jazz), but four of their five wins, including an opening-night caning of the Lakers that is the LeBron Show’s sole loss so far, have been by double digits.

And it bears repeating. This is without Paul George.

So What Does This All Mean?

What it means is that having Williams and Harrell as the second- and third-leading scorers, having Kawhi be Kawhi, and eventually counting on not just the return of Paul George but upon Landry Shamet breaking a truly cover-your-eyes (36.2 percent FG, 31.7 3PT) shooting slump to start the season seems to be working so far if the goal is to win over 55 and possibly even 60 games while taking the Western Conference and home-court in the playoffs.

Everything we thought would be good about the Clippers so far, for the most part, has been. And we haven’t yet seen their ceiling.

The Clippers are 5-2, and leaving aside the Lakers (who are an injury or two away from G-League status), the Timberwolves (I refuse to believe in a 4-1 start on a team with Andrew Wiggins on it), and the red-hot Suns (an intriguing story but one I want more data on before I stick my neck out), Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft Basketball looks like the West frontrunner we all expected them to be.

And man, when PG13 comes back…