The Los Angeles Clippers have failed to meet expectations so far this season. Despite putting together an impressive offseason where the team added notable players like Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson and re-signed DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have struggled with chemistry, rotations, health, consistency and a lack of production from its second-unit among other things.
The bright spot for the Clippers so far this season has been the play of Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, Griffin partially tore his left quadricep tendon in the Clippers’ Christmas day game against the Los Angeles Lakers, which will likely sideline him through the first few weeks of January. On the season, Griffin is averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and five assists per game.
The Clippers were 16-13 entering their game against the Lakers, and were coming off a three-game losing streak. Doc Rivers was struggling to find effective rotations and any sort of consistency from his bench. The loss of Griffin seemed to be a sign that the team’s struggles would continue into the new year, but surprisingly the team has found consistent production from its role players and are now riding a season-high five-game winning streak. In fact, with their win over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers capped off the franchise’s first ever 5-0 road trip.
So how have the Clippers managed to put together their best stretch of the season without arguably their best player?
There is no single explanation, but one major aspect of the Clippers’ recent success has been the stellar play of J.J. Redick, who was on fire during the month of December. As Rowan Kavner of Clippers.com recently pointed out, Redick has hit three or more three-pointers in 10 of his last 11 games and the Clippers are now 8-0 this season when he scores 20 points or more. Additionally, over his last five games, Redick is averaging 19.6 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field and 56.3 percent from beyond the arc (18-of-32). For the season, Redick is second in three-point percentage (48.3 percent) among all players that shoot 1.5 or more three-pointers per game.
Redick dealt with a few injuries earlier in the season, but he seems to be past that now and has found his rhythm.
“I got off to a really slow start last year and then that first month this year, I felt like I was playing well and then I had kind of a three-week stretch where I was out a week, played a week, out a week,” Redick told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. “It was like stop and go, and it sometimes frustrates you as a scorer and a shooter when you get out of rhythm.
“I feel like I’ve played pretty well this whole month. The rhythm is there, for sure.”
Redick has been somewhat of a barometer for the Clippers’ success over the last few seasons. When he is on his game and is scoring effectively within the flow of the team’s offense, the Clippers have been an elite offensive team. When Redick is out with an injury or is in a slump, the Clippers tend to get stagnant. Though Redick can’t make up for the loss of Griffin on his own, his increased production on offense has helped the Clippers get by without their star power forward.
In addition, Paul Pierce has come to life for the Clippers recently. The 38-year-old forward was acquired during the offseason to add a veteran player that could knock down big shots and be a steadying presence for the team. Unfortunately, up until very recently, Pierce had been an utter disappointment for the Clippers.
Entering their game against the Utah Jazz, Pierce was shooting 30.6 percent from the field and 24.7 percent from distance. Yet, as we have seen him do in recent seasons, Pierce turned up his play after Christmas, contributing 20 points, five rebounds and two assists while shooting five-of-seven from beyond the arc in 27 minutes of action in Utah. Pierce has been starting at power forward in recent games for the Clippers, and has been getting better looks within the flow and structure of the starting unit’s offensive sets. Pierce may regress a little when Griffin comes back and he is sent back to the bench, but for now, the Clippers are happy to just know that Pierce can still produce when called upon, which wasn’t a certainty for the first few months of the season.
Another important factor is that Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson have been taken out of the rotation for the most part. In their place, Doc Rivers has inserted Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich. While Stephenson and Smith are the more talented players, both have struggled to find their respective roles with the team and have been unable to produce consistently. Prigioni and Aldrich have surprisingly added more structure to the second-unit’s offense. They have shown great chemistry in the pick-and-roll, which they are using to manufacture easy shots for teammates. Prigioni has been delivering nice passes to Aldrich, who has done a nice job of either attacking the rim or finding shooters behind the three-point line. The best example of this new dynamic came against the Washington Wizards, where Aldrich contributed 13 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals and one block in just under 20 minutes of action.
Simply put, the Clippers are getting nice contributions from their regular rotation players. On nights where Paul and Jordan aren’t at their best, someone like Redick, Pierce or Austin Rivers is stepping up and picking up the slack. Add in the newly found structure with Prigioni and Aldrich in the second-unit, and the Clippers are not only surviving without Griffin, but are in fact thriving. After winning their last five games, the Clippers are now 21-13 and are solidifying their position as the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff race.
Though the Clippers’ recent play has been encouraging, there are still some lingering issues. Luc Mbah a Moute is currently the starting small forward and while he has added some nice defense for the Clippers, his shaky three-point shooting and limited offensive game makes him a stopgap measure more than a long-term solution on the wing. With teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs playing historically well, the Clippers need to find a player that can produce more consistently on offense and spread the court at the small forward position.
Also, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith have, for the most part, fallen out of the Clippers’ rotation. Stephenson and Smith are talented players and finding a way to get meaningful production from both of them could be essential towards challenging the elite teams in the postseason.
Lastly, while the Clippers have played well without Griffin, they will ultimately need him back at 100 percent if they are to compete for anything meaningful this season. Griffin is set to be back within the next few weeks, though the Clippers should be cautious and rest him until he has completely recovered from his injury to avoid any long-term issues.
The Clippers still have some issues to work through, but they should feel good about their recent play. However, they still have a lot of things to figure out before they can hope to compete with teams like the Warriors and Spurs in the postseason.
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