Clippers are real, one way or another

The Clippers are 10-5, in a strong position in the ultra-deep West a month into the season. This represents a leap from last year, when L.A.’s second sons were shockingly competent, finishing above .500 but just outside the tough playoff bracket. The Clippers didn’t make any major roster changes in the interim, but got a healthy Patrick Beverley into action and added Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the NBA Draft.

Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the fruits of the Blake Griffin trade, has been a good rookie, even sliding into the starting lineup as Avery Bradley (who also came over in the Griffin deal recovers from an ankle injury. The Clippers are 5-1 since Gilgeous-Alexander became a starter, joining the ur-defender Beverley in a tough, defense-first backcourt.

That perimeter defense has really helped carry the Clippers to where they are: the team’s shooting defense (measured using opponents’ effective field goal percentage) ranks No. 1 overall. The Clippers’ other defensive four factors — defensive rebounding, foul rate and turnover creation — are somewhere between middling and abysmal. (L.A. is the worst in the league at creating turnovers, odd given their defensive talent but part of the game plan.) The Clippers just don’t let opponents get good shots. The defense overall sits at No. 15.

The offense has been shockingly good. L.A. ranks No. 4 in offense on the strength of a top-10 effective field goal percentage and the No. 3 free throw rate in the NBA. Credit sixth man of the decade Lou Williams, Tobias Harris (another Griffin trade pickup), and Danilo Gallinari. Lou is edging close to 20 points per game on 26 minutes a night. Harris has been really efficient from the floor (55% on twos, 41% on threes) and Gallo has been hitting threes (46%) and getting to the line (5.4 makes per game), leading both to high efficiency numbers.

There’s one major contributor to both ends we haven’t mentioned yet: the electric Montrezl Harrell. He backs up veteran Marcin Gortat and is the rare reserve big man with a huge, consistent impact on the team. He plays active defense (leads the team in steal rate, second in block rate) and makes just about everything he takes. Per basketball-reference.com, Harrell’s average shot distance is 2 feet and 8 inches from the basket. His True Shooting percentage (a shooting efficiency measure incorporating the added value of threes and free throws) is .699, No. 4 among the NBA’s regulars. Because he’s always bullying around the rim, he draws lots of fouls. That helps put Gallinari and Williams at the line due to the bonus the Clippers so often find themselves in. (This is an underrated benefit of having big men who draw fouls, even if they don’t shoot a particularly high percentage from the line.) Harrell’s only real weakness (other than a range that doesn’t extend beyond the lane) is rebounding.

No one can know what Harrell can be — he’s a bit of a cypher. Typically, reserves who put up extraordinary per-minute rates of scoring at high efficiency do translate when given bigger roles. But Harrell’s size (6’8) and range restrictions put that into question. Can he ever be more than a DeJuan Blair, Kenneth Faried type?

The Clippers themselves face a similar question: are they real? Can they be more than a fringe playoff team with this core?

That doesn’t actually matter, because this Clippers team — as entertaining and effective as it is — is only a bridge to the next Clippers team.

L.A. has a rather clear deck going into 2019 free agency, which should be another incredible session. Only Williams, Gallinari, Harrell, Gilgeous-Alexander, and fellow rookie Jerome Robinson are on the books in 2019-10. (Bradley has a deal of which only $2 million is guaranteed, and the Clippers have until July 3 to make a decision on it, per Basketball Insiders.) L.A. could clear up to $63 million in cap space without making a trade. That’s two maximum contract slots.

If all goes according to plan, it could shake out as Kawhi Leonard, Harris on a new deal and the right supplemental pieces around them (including Beverley, one would hope). Clippers franchise owner Steve Ballmer wants a championship-level team, and acquiring superstars is the time-tested top way to compete for titles. So you know the Clippers will try to be in the mix.

That the Clippers are entertaining and downright good in the interim is a bonus. It helps a little, to be able to prove to Kawhi, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, or whoever that there’s a chance to win if they pick the Clips. But in the end, the desires and whims of the best basketball players on Earth will decide whether L.A. will be real in the future. This is just a prelude.

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