This week most NBA teams will pass the one-quarter mark of their schedule, a milepost when, according to a persistent NBA belief, teams begin to reveal what they are and how they play.
The Clippers hit the 20-game mark Wednesday with a 10-10 record after spending the previous month under .500. Yet it’s harder to apply the league’s long-held adage to them than perhaps any other because evaluating the Clippers requires acknowledging the three distinct versions of the team already seen in this young season.
There was the version before the trade for James Harden.
The disastrous honeymoon period with Harden that began Nov. 6, and endured through five consecutive losses, after the former league MVP joined a lineup that attempted to shoehorn all four of the roster’s future Hall of Famers into its starters.
And the latest iteration over the last 10 games, in which they are 7-3 since a change to the starting lineup. Russell Westbrook was moved to the bench and coach Tyronn Lue’s rotations began to set.
“We haven’t been consistent yet to say what we are as a team,” said wing Paul George, who has averaged 23.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.4 turnovers per game. “We are figuring out ways to win. It’s not always pretty for a full 48 minutes, but we have found some success in finishing games. I think that’s the silver lining for the team that’s learning how to win.”
That learning process has taken weeks, but what has proved real thus far is that their stars are remarkably durable, with George and Kawhi Leonard each playing all 20 games after one or both finished each of the last three seasons injured.
Reserve Norman Powell, regularly a slow starter offensively, is off to the most promising offensive start to his career while making 45% of his three-pointers and becoming a trusted member of closing lineups.
Within the team, there is confidence the brutal first two weeks of November hasn’t disqualified them from reaching a top off-season priority of claiming a top-three playoff seed in the Western Conference. Teams that stood second through 10th in the standings as of Thursday all had between seven and 10 losses.
“You see really good teams still struggling, so it’s just people want to say something because I got here and [am] an easy target,” said Harden, who after one month as a Clipper is averaging 16 points, 6.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 41% from three. “But for us, we’re finding each other, we’re figuring each other out.”
The Clippers rank 15th in offensive rating and sixth defensively, with a net rating — the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions — ranking sixth. There is often a gulf between their performances at home, where they are 7-3 with a plus-7.7 net rating, and the road, where they are 3-7 and have allowed 12 points more per 100 possessions.
If their culmination is too far away to discern — largely because a roster renovation at the trade deadline has been an annual tradition — the Clippers certainly hope to look more like the team of their last 10 games.
In that two-week span that has turned around their season, a juncture marked by Westbrook’s move to the bench and Terance Mann’s return to the starters, their offensive rating remains firmly in the NBA’s statistical middle. They have produced the NBA’s top defensive rating, however, as opponents have missed above-the-break three-pointers at one of the league’s highest rates.
“We still want to come in and be a defensive team first, even though we got a lot of talent offensively,” Leonard said.
The exclamation point was holding former MVP Nikola Jokic to nine-of-32 shooting Wednesday in a 15-point comeback victory over Denver, ending an eight-game losing streak to the Nuggets.
Lue said although he expects the Clippers to still remain strong defensively, “I think offensively is where we’re going to trend upward.”
To George, that looks like continuing their recent improvements of limiting turnovers — they rank among the five best teams at limiting turnovers in their last 10 games — while reducing their offensive stagnation.
That’s easier said than done for a team running a league-leading 11.7 possessions of isolation per game. That is three more isolation possessions per game from last season, in what has been a reflection of Lue’s efforts to tailor the offense around Harden’s experience as a self-described offensive “system” unto himself.
“I think that’s the growth for us because, again, we have so many great offensive weapons that we can’t let teams off the hook by standing around and letting them load up on each individual,” George said. “I think that’s the next phase.”
The last two games have seen other notable adjustments. Lue has changed Harden’s substitution pattern to bring him back, after a short rest, at the start of the second quarter as part of a lineup of mostly reserves.
That is a dramatic shift from Harden’s last decade, when it became habit to find his footing by playing the majority of the opening quarter. Lue believes the change has made Harden more aggressive in orchestrating the offense after repeatedly deferring to Leonard and George during his first several games as a Clipper.
The shift also intended to reduce overlap between Harden’s and Westbrook’s minutes. The team had been outscored by 15 points per 100 possessions when the duo of former MVPs shared the floor and, of the 18 Clippers duos who had played at least 150 minutes together this season, the Harden-Westbrook combination had fared the worst, outscored by 58 points in 175 minutes.
The win Wednesday was the first the two never shared the court, and Lue called it the team’s “plan” to keep them separated late in games.
It paid off against the Nuggets, as Westbrook jump-started a fourth-quarter rally with five points and a key block in five minutes before ceding the role of closer to Harden, who scored seven points over the final seven minutes.
The rally against Denver, and a 22-point comeback Saturday against Golden State, improved their record to 4-8 in games in which they within five points in the final five minutes.
In 40 such “clutch” minutes they are shooting 34%, fourth-worst in the league, and have been outscored by 14 points. The recent victories also showed progress that countered some early trends, however, most noticeably Leonard making all six of his “clutch” shots combined against the Warriors and Nuggets after he started the season with a dreadful percentage late in close games.
“I’ve been saying even when we lost six in a row, I feel good about this team,” Lue said. “I like where we’re at. I like how we’re trending and we’re only going to get better. And so [beating Denver] was really a big step in the right direction.”