The Los Angeles Clippers? That scrappy underdog unit led by Lou Williams, Pat Beverley and Danilo Gallinari? That Clipper team?
Yes, that Clipper team.
While most casual basketball fans may associate Doc Rivers’ team with scrappy veterans that overachieved this season, there is a lot more to this collection of players than that overachieving Phoenix Suns team under Jeff Hornacek a few years back. Like that Phoenix team led by a never-ending supply of pretty solid point guards, it was strange to see them thrive. You look at their win-loss record with the same raised eyebrow one makes when one finds the President of the United States made some notes for a speech in the Rose Garden -- something seems off. But that Phoenix team was weird, which is exactly what a team lead by Lou, Beverley and Gallinari in 2019 had to be -- weird. Sometimes, weird teams win a lot of games -- shoutout to the 2019 Best Team In Baseball As Of This Writing Minnesota Twins! -- and that is OK.
But there is more meat on this Los Angeles Clipper bone. (What is the ship-equivalent of a human bone? Asking for a friend who is much better at ship-to-human analogies.) There was the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a do-it-all guard who may not go Full Rondo with his jumper. There was the Tobias Harris deal that landed the Clippers the long, range-y guard Landry Shamet. There was even the arrival of Montrezl Harrell as the perfect pick-and-roll big in today’s NBA. Similar to the Atlanta Hawks, the Clippers have three young pieces -- two guards, one big -- that are all kinds of intriguing. But while everybody is talking about the Atlanta’s young core led by Trae Young, nobody is talking about a big who could win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, a guard who bested Trae in ESPN’s RPM, and another guard who bested Kevin Huerter in ESPN’s RPM.
So why isn’t this Clipper 3 garnering the same sort of hype the Hawk 3 is? Well, Trae Young can shoot and pass the basketball quite well, if you did not already know. Out of the six players discussed in this piece, it is fair to assign the former Oklahoma Sooner as the young gun with the highest upside. He doesn’t have Luka Doncic upside, to be sure, and, look, if the Hawks could have taken a player like Luka in last year’s NBA Draft, they obviously would have because that was the obvious move. But Trae is going to score a lot points and make a lot of assists and appear in a number of All-Star games and Three-Point Contests. Trae Young will always be fun but who knows if he will always better than SGA?
SGA, like Young, had to work his way into the starting lineup in Los Angeles to usurp the sitting, veteran guard in from of them. For SGA, it took three weeks before he was handed the keys on what would be a playoff team in the West. Unlike Young, SGA has a 7-foot wingspan, and has the look and feel of a guard who will one day at excel at guarding all five positions. While Trae will be target on pick-and-rolls over and over again in the playoffs to the point where even Hawk fans will wonder if he is even playable in critical moments, that same late-game uncertainty doesn’t exist for the former Kentucky guard because his jumper is just good enough to keep defenses honest. For all the concern over SGA’s jumper, the rookie did shoot above league-average from deep at 36 percent. As a rookie.
But then you read what great coaches and great players see with SGA and it becomes clear this kid absolutely deserves the same sort of Future Star Guard hype that has already been bestowed on Young.
From Steve Kerr in Complex:
“He’s a really good player,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “For a rookie, to come in and attack with the confidence the way he did, that shows you what he’s about. I thought he was great. He really hurt us, especially in that first half and I thought we did a better job on him in the second half. He’s got a great future.”
To start all but nine games on a team that won 48 games and made the playoffs in a deeper conference has to mean something.
Garnering this kind of praise from Kevin Durant, also from Complex, has to mean more: “I seen Shai come out and wanted to impose his will in the game early,” Durant said. “He played with no fear tonight and that’s what kept them in the game most of the game.”
Are we sure Jimmy Butler figures to utter similar words about Trae Young in a first-round series in the 2020 Eastern Conference Playoffs?
I have my doubts.
But then you look at Landry Shamet. An overlooked piece in the Tobias Harris trade that spent the first half of the NBA season under the tutelage of the player he grew up idolizing -- JJ Redick. Shamet was another Clipper rookie who was a net-positive for a 48-win team -- +5.6 per 100 possessions -- and, you know, shot 45 percent from 3 with the Clippers.
And then you look at how he functioned next to SGA, the guard he figures to play next to for a long time in Los Angeles, and The Ringer’s Paulo Uggetti found that this duo is going to be just fine writing:
“The rookie backcourt of Shamet and Gilgeous-Alexander has now started 27 games together, and, during the regular season, the Clippers had a plus-4.1 net rating when they were both on the floor—SGA’s most effective combination with any teammate he played next to for at least 60 minutes.”
On the flip side, the Young and Huerter combination ushered in a less-than-inspiring -3.4 on the floor together per 100 possessions. Sure, this was a bad team so there were negative two-man lineups galore, but with Young posting one of the worst Defensive RPM’s ever, Huerter almost has to become an All-NBA worthy defender to make that combo work long-term. Those same backcourt worries don’t persist in Los Angeles. That has to matter.
And then you have the So Damn Fun Center Montrezl Harrell, who may very well be four years older than offensive-rebounding machine John Collins, but found a niche with less long-term concern. There is no doubt that Harrell is a five, but what is Collins? Can you really survive with Collins and another big on the floor in the playoffs? If Collins can’t move and defend fives at some point, can he really be considered a core piece or is he really just another Jerami Grant in Oklahoma City?
Like Collins, Harrell isn’t a great defender. Unlike Collins, Harrell doesn’t gobble up offensive rebounds like Hermione Granger gobble up books. But we know who he is. We know he is one of the most efficient bigs in the league who is always going to bring the mother-f*cking...you know the rest. We also know he is a hard-worker who tweeted out “MIP” prior to the 2018-19 season.
This little nugget from Clips Nation doesn’t hurt, either:
“Through six games, Trez leads the Clippers in: blocks per game, block percentage, player efficiency rating, defensive box plus/minus, box plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes, and defensive win shares. He is only allowing opponents to shoot 40.8 percent from the field when he is guarding them, and has a defensive rebounding percentage of 24.6 percent, third best on the team.”
But Collins shoots corner 3s, and Collins started nabbing some awesome chase-down blocks, and Collins is several years younger. This battle could go either way, really, but if the choice is Jerami Grant or Maybe Clint Capela, you lean toward the latter every time, right?
This is what makes these two teams so interesting. While certain sports radio hosts in Atlanta call for Durant to consider the Hawks and all of their cap space and tantalizing young pieces this summer, the Clippers have all that and more. They have the veterans who were bamboozled at how they were supposed to defend such a brilliant isolation scorer, they have the young backcourt who figure to gel perfectly with a superstar wing who will command the majority of the attention, and they have the big who can be just the spark they need win the shots aren’t falling.
Yes, the Hawks’ three is intriguing, especially offensively, but to ignore what the Clippers have in SGA, Shamet and Harrell is patently absurd. If you’re Durant or Kawhi Leonard which of those young three pieces would you go to bet on to go to battle with you come playoff time? Something tells me the answer lies in Los Angeles.