The Clippers have no superstar, and in that they have been set free. Their pecking order is organic and constantly evolving. Three different Clippers (Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari) are scoring better than 19 points a game this season, a distinction matched only by Golden State. Most curious, though, is the fact that when you isolate any one of those three scorers, the team has technically performed better without them. Depth is the great equalizer. In the absence of singular talent, the Clippers have made do with broad capability.
Any contrast with the Lakers is both convenient and irresistible. One team in L.A. has LeBron James, a mishmash of former champions, and a host of blue-chip prospects. The other, oddly enough, has all the signatures of a superstar-led team without the actual superstar. While the Lakers have struggled with their spacing, the Clippers have run one of the most productive half-court offenses in the league. It’s the Clippers who have put teams away in the fourth quarter, while the Lakers seem to play every night to the wire. Despite the fact that no player on the Clippers roster has ever made an All-Star or All-NBA team, they lead the league in free throw rate by wits alone. This could all change in time, though at the heart of the Clips’ early success is a promising sort of teambuilding alchemy.
Ten games can only tell us so much, but the broader trends in play with the Clipper offense have been going strong for a year. The departure of Chris Paul forced a change, and the eventual trading of Blake Griffin affirmed it. This offense, for very practical reasons, made egalitarianism a tactic. Doc Rivers elevated Harris and Williams, in part because he elevated everyone; two-way players and G-League call-ups weren’t just cracking the rotation, but put in positions to make meaningful decisions. Fast forward to this season and many of those same opportunities have gone to even better players returning from injury. Gallinari, Avery Bradley, and Patrick Beverley barely played last season. Now all three are starting and near the top of the team in minutes, all without undermining the sharing ethic that made the Clippers such a pleasant surprise last season.
World-class shot creation is irrepressible. Opponents can fashion elaborate schemes to make things difficult for James Harden, but on some level they still require a defender to actually stay in front of him. A defensive mastermind could draw up the ideal way to slow down Kevin Durant, yet no game plan can fully account for the fact that he can turn and shoot over the top of his opponent whenever he likes. The Clippers have no such mechanism at their disposal. After six years of Paul’s meticulous micromanagement, they now lean on a cast of guards who were never their team’s first choice to organize the offense. The only notably high-level passer on the roster is the third-string point guard: Miloš Teodosić, who may be the closest thing the Clippers have to a household name, assuming that polling extends to households in Moscow and Belgrade.
Any attempt by Beverley, Williams, or rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to run the show like an auteur would fall flat. Featuring Harris or Gallinari too overtly would only highlight their limitations. So rather than try to be something they’re not, the Clippers collaborate. Their first option is often set up to fail. Surely Harris would love nothing more than to drive past a defender for a dunk, but his more realistic function is just to bend the defense: to attract enough attention as to set up a teammate:
Decisions are made quickly. If a shot is there, it’s taken. The best Clipper lineups tend to have four players capable of knocking down jumpers, and perhaps five who can drive to attack a closeout. A strong endorsement of the proceedings: Even the most eager scorers are giving up the ball. That first drive might not have produced a clean look, but the next one—with the benefit of attacking a tilted defense—could. Considering how many of the core Clippers have missed significant time or stepped into new roles over the past year, the flow of their offense is remarkably intuitive. There aren’t yet hardened principles of movement, per se, but an experienced team can fake them well enough if given easily identifiable outlets. Miscues that might send another team flying off the rails instead wind up as part of the Clipper’s process:
The relevant metric isn’t how many players touch the ball, but how many are empowered to make a meaningful play. Some of the league’s best teams have fixtures in their rotation that have to be bailed out when a possession doesn’t quite develop as planned. What keeps the Clippers going is that the Clippers, to a man, keep going. If enough competent plays are made in sequence, momentum—rather than raw talent—becomes an engine.
This is how the Clippers make inroads. There are limits to what this character of offense can accomplish, in the grand scheme of things, but those concerns are miles and miles away. What matters now is a winning start to follow a winning season, underlined by the seventh-best net rating in the league. Some benefit of the doubt has been earned, if only because the Clippers have forged an identity in finding a way.