What we know and don't know about the L.A. Clippers at the All-Star break
We've finally reached the official halfway point of the NBA season, and things are going predictably well for the L.A. Clippers. No, they aren't the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, and they've lost a few more games than we expected to this point. But all things considered, the Clippers look the part of a title contender.
That doesn't mean the Clippers are without flaws, though.
There are still a lot of questions that this team needs to answer down the final stretch of the season, and there are a few things worth worrying about.
We'll dive into some of those later in this article, but for now, let's take a look at the things we know about this team.
Know: Kawhi Leonard has lived up to the hype
When the L.A. Clippers managed to steal Kawhi Leonard away from the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers last summer, the expectation was that the franchise had signed one of the best — if not the best — players in basketball.
At this point, it seems safe to say that Leonard has lived up to the hype.
Leonard is enjoying a career season in Los Angeles, averaging 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 32.5 minutes per game. He's shooting the three-ball better than he has in each of the last two seasons, converting nearly 90 percent of his attempts at the free-throw line. And most importantly, he looks healthy.
L.A.'s load management plan is already paying dividends. Sure, he's already missed 13 games, but that additional rest has allowed him to do some flat-out absurd things in the last month or so.
Since January 10, Leonard is scoring 31.0 points per contest and has reached the 30-point mark in 10 of his last 14 games. He recorded the first triple-double of his career during that stretch as well, a 33-10-10 effort in a road win over the Miami Heat.
The big surprise with Leonard has been his development as a facilitator. Before this season, the star forward had a career average of 2.4 assists per game. That number has increased to 5.3 in 2019-2020, and he's only getting better.
Leonard has also made it a point to get certain players involved early in games. Ivica Zubac has been one of his favorite targets, and the duo is extremely efficient because of it. Leonard has logged more minutes with the seven-footer than any other player on the team, and the two are outscoring opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions together.
The Clippers only have three more back-to-backs this season, so Leonard could really find his groove down the stretch as long as he stays healthy.
Know: Ivica Zubac has to play more
On that note, let's talk a bit more about Big Zu. L.A.'s 22-year-old center — a number that still surprises Doc Rivers — has been one of the team's best role players all season long.
Zubac has been highly efficient when he's on the floor, averaging 8.0 points, 7.0 rebounds (2.5 of which are offensive) and 1.0 block in 17.8 minutes per game. He's notched six double-doubles this season as well, despite logging 25+ minutes in a game just once.
On top of that, Zu has looked much more comfortable in L.A.'s offense than he did immediately after he was traded from the Lakers. Some of his early struggles were due to injury, but he wasn't always patient, either. Zubac would rush shots around the rim, putting offensive rebounds back up in a hurry, and would put himself in a difficult position to score by getting too far under the basket.
Not only does Zu take his time now, but he's improved his positioning as well. Leonard's passing helps, but Zubac consistently gets to his spots with ease and has found success against some of the league's best bigs.
Zubac also happens to be the Clippers' best defensive big by a significant margin. He's a much better defensive rebounder than Montrezl Harrell, and his size makes him a much better matchup against the likes of Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert.
Harrell is the better and more versatile player offensively, but against teams with size, Zubac needs to be the one closing games for L.A. The Clippers have lost numerous games in the paint this season, and Harrell just isn't the rim protector that the team wants him to be.
Know: Lou Williams' and Montrezl Harrell's limitations
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are still the best bench duo in the league, and it isn't close. But that margin has shrunk a bit since last season, and it has to do with their defense.
Save for Thursday night's game against the Boston Celtics, Williams appears to have completely given up on playing defense this year. The 33-year-old guard has struggled with individual matchups and, unsurprisingly, has found himself being targeted by opposing teams' best players.
One of Williams' worst habits is intentionally fouling to stop a fast break, even when the Clippers would have numbers or at least be comparable on that end. These usually happen immediately after he commits a turnover.
Williams has physical limitations — he's the smallest guy on the roster — but a stronger defensive effort is all we're asking for here.
On the other hand, Harrell's issues have nothing to do with effort. He's still one of the league's hardest-working players, and that doesn't stop on defense. That said, when it comes to anything other than blocking shots, it's best not to rely on Harrell to get a stop.
At 6'7", Harrell is vastly undersized for the center position. Longer bigs haven't had any issue taking advantage of that, either. At some point, the Clippers will need to decide if his offensive ability is worth leaving him on the floor to defend guys like Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis, especially once the postseason begins.
Know: They need help
As-is, the L.A. Clippers are far from a finished product.
The trade deadline helped to fix a few key issues. As good as Moe Harkless was on defense, his offensive limitations put the Clippers in a tough spot. Ultimately, his inability to hit the three-ball — even when wide-open — was his fatal flaw. Marcus Morris solves that problem.
But there are still a few areas that need to be addressed before the Clippers head into the postseason.
For starters, getting another ball-handler is key. Patrick Beverley is the only "true" point guard on the roster, and when he's hurt, Landry Shamet or Lou Williams is forced into the starting rotation. And while those two have proved capable, Shamet simply isn't the facilitator that Beverley is, and moving Williams from the bench severely downgrades the second unit.
There aren't a lot of great options available right now, but Detroit's Reggie Jackson is rumored to be a buyout candidate, and he makes sense for this roster. The Clippers need to hope he doesn't finish the season with the Pistons.
And while I'm less inclined to agree that the Clippers need another big, it wouldn't hurt to bring in an additional seven-footer.
There will be times — especially in the postseason — where Zubac will be in foul trouble and Harrell will be asked to defend a center that's way out of his league. For situations like that, I'm all-in on the idea.
Tristan Thompson would have been a solid option, but the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't expected to buy him out. In that case, the Clippers will need to dig a little deeper to find their guy.
Know: Home-court advantage is crucial
Home-court advantage is important for any team hoping to make a deep run in the playoffs, but the Clippers need it more than arguably any other Western Conference contender.
L.A. is 22-5 at home this season — the best record in the conference — and just 15-13 on the road. Against teams like the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, home-court advantage could realistically decide the series.
Securing the West's second seed (or first, if the Lakers take an unlikely tumble) will be crucial if the Clippers intend to make it to the NBA Finals. Otherwise, it'll be even more of an uphill battle.
Don't know: Closing lineup
At this point, only two players seem to be locked into the L.A. Clippers' closing lineup: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It could be argued that Marcus Morris is in that group as well, but we haven't seen enough of that trio to say for sure. The other three positions are toss-ups, and it may just come down to whichever team the Clippers are playing against on a given night.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell make sense against smaller, defensive-minded teams. When healthy, Patrick Beverley is probably the best answer at point guard.
But Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac have made compelling arguments to be included as well, and that begins to complicate things.
Shamet is the best floor-spacer on the roster. His ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc as quickly as he does is something that teams will struggle to counter. And with players like Leonard, George and Morris on the floor, you can't afford to double Shamet.
That said, Shamet isn't the facilitator that Beverley and Williams are. The last thing you want to happen down the stretch is for the ball to get sticky, so someone will need to keep it moving.
Zubac should be considered on account of the stability he brings to a lineup. Having a rim protector and lob-finisher on the floor at all times gives the Clippers fewer things to worry about, and Zubac has proven to be a solid option on both ends of the floor.
Zubac has hardly played any fourth-quarter minutes all season though, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. But if Harrell gets out-worked on defense and struggles to score against bigger centers, Zubac will look like the better option.
Having an abundance of options to play in the waning minutes of a game isn't necessarily a bad problem to have, but this is something the Clippers will want to get figured out sooner than later.
Don't know: Paul George's health
Paul George went back to the locker room during the second quarter of Thursday's game in Boston, and it wasn't long after that he was ruled out for the remainder of the contest due to a left hamstring strain.
This is the same injury that kept George out for nine games in January, and it may be part of the reason why he's been inconsistent since his return. After all, he was still on a minutes restriction for those first few games this month.
The only positive here is the timing — the Clippers don't play again until February 22, so George will get more than a week to recover.
That said, the Clippers should be cautious with his return. George could risk re-injury if he's rushed back to the floor, which could jeopardize his health going into the postseason.
Leonard and George have only played 572 minutes together this season, though — less than half of what Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams have logged. Their on-court chemistry will be key to the Clippers' title run, so L.A. can't wait too long to get him back.
Don't know: Marcus Morris' integration
Marcus Morris' fit with the L.A. Clippers isn't seamless, but as the best player available at the trade deadline, the franchise had to make its move.
For the most part, Morris has looked like a fine addition to the roster. He's made big plays when needed, and the cultural fit is perfect. It's also a bit unfair to judge him this early, given the Clippers haven't had their full roster available since trading for him.
But some issues will need to be fixed if the Clippers are going to get the most out of Morris.
As the first option in New York, Morris was used to being the go-to guy. In clutch time, he was the one taking the most important shots and playing aggressively down the stretch.
In L.A., he's going to need to be more passive. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George by his side, Morris is the Clippers' third option at best. It's not easy to adjust to that kind of change, and it's going to take some time for it to happen.
We've already seen Morris force some attempts early in possessions, which happened a few times in the Clippers' loss to the Celtics. It's probably nothing to worry about right now, and Morris should fit in better with the team once L.A. gets some practice in, but correcting behaviors like that will be key.
Don't know: Can this team win the NBA Finals?
The L.A. Clippers were favored to win the title at the beginning of the season, and as such, the expectations for this team are extraordinarily high. That's why some fans are unimpressed with a 37-18 record at the All-Star break, and why others feel like the Clippers have been something of a disappointment this year.
Of course, context is important. The Clippers have had their full roster available for just three games so far this season, so an overall lack of continuity has been a big issue. Turn that three into a 13, and L.A. would certainly be in a better position right now.
That lack of continuity has created an absence of rhythm for this team. Even with their various winning streaks and moments of dominance, it's extremely difficult, even at this point, to say who the Clippers are.
The second half of the season should determine that. L.A. has one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA, so staying atop the West probably won't be a concern.
It'll be during this period that we find out who the leader of this team is, what kind of power it has going into the postseason, and if winning a championship is a goal that needs to wait until next year to be met.