The Los Angeles Clippers Are Quietly Building a Contender

Despite losing every player from their most successful era of basketball, the Clippers never bottomed out and, instead, have quietly built a team primed to contend in the near future.

The Los Angeles Clippers are currently 13-6, tied for first in the Western Conference after a month of basketball. This wasn’t supposed to be the case. The Clippers were supposed to tank last year after trading away Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. They finished 42-40. In the offseason, Vegas oddsmakers set the Clips over/under at 35.5 wins, a total they are almost 33 percent of the way to matching one month into the season. 

The Clippers got here, quite simply, by making good moves. The Blake Griffin-trade brought back a surprisingly good return, with the Clippers landing Tobias Harris, Boban Marjonovic and Avery Bradley. Harris has played at an All-Star level, while Marjonovic has been a solid contributor in limited minutes. The Clippers have several good-to-above-average players, but make no mistake, this team’s potential ultimately rests with Tobias Harris. After acquiring Harris in late January, the Clippers went 17-15 the rest of the season, and that’s without two key players in Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari even suiting up during that stretch.

So far this season, Harris has been great for Los Angeles. He’s averaging 20.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists on .513/.418/.808 shooting. He also has a player efficiency rating (PER) north of 18, box plus/minus (BPM) of 2.6 and is a positive, both on offense and defense, with a 1.58 player-impact plus/minus (PIPM). Harris currently has an O-PIPM of 1.28 and a D-PIPM of 0.30; his PIPM is good enough for 56th in the NBA and has added 1.34 wins in just 16 games. 

Harris’ play hasn’t gone unnoticed from the coaching staff either. Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers spoke to Newsweek about how important Harris has been to the team’s success.

“He’s been great,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s been terrific. He’s doing more than scoring. That’s what we wanted him to do. We needed Tobias to come back and do more things for us. Be a better rebounder. He’s done that,” he said. “What I’m the most happiest [about is] he’s really been a great playmaker. He had five assists [in the previous] game. He’s doing it every night. That’s something he hasn’t done before and he’s doing it. So it’s been really good for us.”

Undoubtedly, Harris has been a star, but he also has plenty of help and depth surrounding him in Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams. After being limited to just 21 games last season, Gallinari has stepped up so far this season. He’s right behind Harris in scoring at 19.6 points per game, to go with 5.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists. Gallinari also ranks right behind Harris in PIPM, boasting the 72nd best mark in the league at 0.95. He has also been lethal from three, shooting 46.3 percent from behind the arc. 

Lou Williams has struggled with his efficiency, but he’s still adding in 18.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. The only concern is that efficiency. Fortunately, his 45.1 eFG% is sure to improve. That 45.1 eFG% would be his lowest mark since the 2008-09 season, indicating this just may be an early season fluke.

While that “big three” has led the Clippers to their 13-6 mark, you can’t talk about Los Angeles’ success without mentioning the stellar play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Montrezl Harrell. 

Let’s start with Gilgeous-Alexander. The first-year guard has been a revelation for the Clippers. While his numbers don’t jump off the page (9.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists), his defense has been stellar. Through 16 games, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has a DBPM of 1.3, while also posting a D-PIPM of 0.22, which ranks 13th among all rookies.

Harrell, on the other hand, has been playing out of his mind this season. On the season, Montrezl Harrell has put up averages of 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.8 blocks on 68 percent shooting. While the numbers might not pop off the page, his advanced stats certainly do. His BPM currently sits at 7.6, he’s got 1.9 win shares, a 26.2 PER and the 20th-ranked PIPM in the league at 3.31 -- a jump of 1.38 from last season. Prior to the season, Harrell put out a tweet that simply said “MIP” with an hourglass emoji. It’s clear he came into the season looking to add some hardware to his trophy case and he’s certainly living up to his pre-season goal. He’s been a machine this year, and just like every other player mentioned so far, he’s going to have to be an instrumental part of this team if the Clippers hope to become a legitimate contender.

Speaking of becoming a legitimate contender, the Clippers happen to have enough cap space for two max contracts this offseason. It’s safe to assume Tobias Harris will eat up one of those if he keeps his play up, leaving one max-contract slot for the team to add another star from a free agent class figures to be loaded. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, and Khris Middleton are set to become free agents in 2019. Adding one of those top-five could push Los Angeles to title-contender status. 

This isn’t to say the Clippers will sign a big-name free agent, but the allure of playing in Los Angeles and, perhaps more importantly, cap space are there. The overarching theme here, however, is that the Clippers have managed to stay competitive despite transitioning from their most successful era in franchise history. In fact, not one player from the 2013-15 Clippers, who won a combined 113 games over two seasons, is still with the team today. Every player from that era of Clippers basketball has left the team, and yet the Clippers haven’t bottomed out. They were supposed to be bad last year, but they weren’t. They were supposed to be bad this year, but they aren't. It’s not a stretch to assume the Clippers can easily get back to winning 50+ games a season with the right moves in free agency this offseason. 

The Clippers have quietly been a good basketball team and have built a solid foundation for future success. There won’t be anything quiet about the “other Los Angeles team” if things go according to plan in the summer of 2019

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