After holding off the the Pelicans in overtime on Sunday, the Los Angeles Clippers have won nine straight, the last eight of which have come without Blake Griffin. Over that eight-game stretch, the Clippers scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions on 59.1 percent true shooting after scoring only 103.6 points per 100 on 53.6 percent true shooting (all via NBA.com) up to the Christmas Day game in which Griffin was injured. This development has caused some rumblings about whether the Los Angeles offense simply runs better without the all-star power forward and thus if the team should consider trading him for a mix of players who might offer more shooting, defense and depth.
This is almost certainly premature.
Before his injury, Griffin’s play had him on the edges of MVP discussion, with his combination of high volume, efficient scoring (23.2 points per game on 55.2 percent true shooting) and excellent passing (his five assists per game and 12.4 percent playmaking usage second to only Draymond Green among big men), so it certainly was not Griffin’s production that was holding the Clippers back.
Of course it is possible that the offensive sets and patterns the Clippers were running, which allowed Griffin to put up those numbers, were depressing the team’s overall offense. There are a number of other, more likely, explanations which must be considered before jumping to the conclusion that Griffin, or more exactly Coach Doc Rivers’s deployment of Griffin was the problem.
Over the eight-game winning streak, the Clippers have played, in order, Utah, Washington, Charlotte, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, Charlotte again, and New Orleans again. Those six teams currently sit 18th, 19th, 28th, 24th, 25th and 14th in defensive rating this season. The Jazz was without its two key defensive players in Rudy Gobert (arguably the best rim protector in the league) and Derrick Favors. Those teams have a combined record of 81-144 through Sunday with none of them at even .500 and only Utah presently occupying a playoff spot in either conference.
In other words, these aren’t the teams the Clips should be measuring themselves against. It is, of course, a positive sign that Los Angeles is putting up big numbers against those teams. Beating up on weaker teams is not an area of past struggle for Los Angeles. In 2014-15, the Clippers had a 113.5 offensive rating against teams which didn’t make the playoffs (as compared wth 107.3 against playoff teams).
Plus, the Clippers, as a team, were shooting slightly below league average in three-point percentage (34.2 percent) with Griffin playing. Since that time, they’ve been scorching the nets hitting just less than 39 percent:
Further, it is not at all unusual for offense to improve across the league as the season goes on. Why this should be isn’t yet completely understood, but it is a phenomenon clearly observed over several seasons. In other words, many of the Clippers shooters are simply shooting better, which was to be expected, in a way that likely has little to do with Griffin’s presence or absence.
Los Angeles’s bench play has also been a weak point. The struggles of Doc Rivers the general manager to supply Doc Rivers the coach with enough quality players to fill out an eight- or nine-man rotation have been well-chronicled. Some of the early experiments this season, such as lineups featuring four ball-dominant players in Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, were total failures. Per NBAWOWY.com the above quartet have managed only 94.7 points per 100.
However, since Griffin went down, the Clippers have 110 per 100 (thru Saturday) even with Paul sitting. Coincidentally (or not) Pablo Prigioni has played every minute Paul has not during that time, providing the stability needed for solid offensive execution. In fact, the new centerpiece of the second unit has been a spread pick-and-roll attack featuring Prigioni, and Cole Aldrich with Rivers, Crawford and Wes Johnson arrayed around the arc. After finishing only five pick-and-rolls, total, through Christmas (according to Synergy Sports data), Aldrich has completed over four such plays per game, averaging nearly a point. While that is a slightly below-average mark, getting anything of note from the bench can’t help but improve the overall performance of the team.
While the schedule will get tougher and the shooting will inevitably cool off, this last development could conceivably sustain. If it does, the combination of better bench play and the return of Griffin’s all-star ability might give the Clippers a fighting chance against the Western powerhouses in San Antonio and Golden State.
In addition to contributing to Fancy Stats, Seth Partnow is the managing editor of The Nylon Calculus, a basketball analytics website. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife and daughter. Follow Seth on twitter@SethPartnow.