NBA Storylines

NBA Storylines: Clippers find success with starters and small-ball

Breaking down how LA's different lineups have fared since James Harden came aboard.

The Clippers have been a stronger team since Terance Mann (14) joined LA’s star trio in the starting lineup.

After an incredible run from early December to early February in which they won 26 of 31 games, the LA Clippers have cooled off a bit. They’ve lost four of their last seven, with all four losses having come by double digits (to other teams in the top eight of the Western Conference) and all three wins having come by just five or six points.

As a result, the Clippers rank in the bottom 10 on both ends of the floor over the last three weeks and have slipped into fourth place in the West. They’re not in immediate danger of falling lower than that, but they would surely like to get back on track when they host the Lakers on Wednesday (10 ET, ESPN).

The Clippers are led by a big three, but they have depth beyond Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, with a former Kia MVP (Russell Westbrook) and a Kia Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Norman Powell) coming off the bench. And with a lot of size and talent, they have a lot of versatility.

Here’s a look at the Clips’ different lineups, what’s worked and what hasn’t …

1. A starting five that works

Westbrook started the first 10 games of the season, but after the Clippers lost their first five with Harden, they made a change, moving Westbrook to the bench and Terance Mann into the starting lineup. That got the Clips on their way, and their two most-used lineups — the four perimeter starters with either Ivica Zubac or Mason Plumlee at center — have combined to outscore opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions in 555 total minutes.

  • The plus-12.6 per 100 for the regular starters (Zubac lineup) ranks seventh among 28 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes.
  • The group ranks ninth offensively and 11th defensively among those 28 lineups.
  • It’s averaged just 96.0 possessions per 48 minutes, the slowest pace among the 28 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes.
  • George (who is listed as out for the Lakers game on Thursday) and Leonard have each missed a game over this 3-4 stretch, and the starting lineup has really struggled offensively in the last five it’s played together, scoring just a point per possession in 67 total minutes.
  • The starters have averaged 14.3 minutes per game, a mark that ranks 11th among lineups that have played in at least 10 games together. That’s 5.8 fewer minutes than Denver’s starters.

2. Bench minutes could be better

One reason why the Nuggets’ starters play so many minutes together is that their bench is not very good, ranking 26th in regard to aggregate point differential per 100 possessions with reserves on the floor. Of course, the Clippers’ bench only ranks 21st in that regard.

The Clippers’ big three all have big on-off differentials, with Harden having the biggest. Since he joined them, the Clippers have been 16.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (plus-8.6) than they’ve been with him off the floor (minus-8.3).

Not surprisingly, the Clippers are better with more stars in the game. But they’ve still been very good with only one of the three on the bench…

  • In 776 minutes with two of the three on the floor (since Harden joined the team), they’ve outscored their opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions.
  • In 603 minutes with only one of the three on the floor (since Harden joined the team), they’ve been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions.

3. Success with small-ball

That Harden, Leonard and George have played the most clutch minutes for the Clippers (since Harden joined the team) is even less of a surprise. Fourth and fifth on the list are Powell and Mann.

Since Harden’s Nov. 6 debut, the Clippers have played only 66 clutch minutes, fifth fewest in the league. And they’ve had one of their three centers – Zubac, Plumlee or Daniel Theis – on the floor for only 35 (53%) of those minutes.

So they’ve often closed with Leonard at the five, and it’s worked. Since Nov. 6, the Clippers have the league’s third-best record (16-9) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes and its best point differential per 100 clutch possessions (plus-32.1).

Overall, the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions in 109 total minutes with Harden, George and Leonard on the floor without any of the three centers, P.J. Tucker or Moussa Diabate (and with some combination of Mann, Powell, Westbrook and Amir Coffey). And the offense has been ridiculously good (129.6 scored per 100) in those minutes.

4. How the Southern California lineup has played

Westbrook has played 165 minutes alongside the other three stars (Leonard, George, Harden) born in the L.A. area.

The Clippers have been outscored by 10 points in those 165 minutes, but that breaks down to a minus-27 in 100 minutes with a big (one of the three centers or Tucker) also on the floor and a plus-17 in those 65 minutes with no big on the floor.

The difference is all about offense:

  • With the three stars, Westbrook and a big on the floor, the Clips have scored less than a point per possession.
  • With the three stars, Westbrook and no big on the floor (with Mann, Powell or Coffey as the fifth guy), the Clips have scored more than 130 points per 100 possessions.

With Westbrook having shot 19-for-51 (37.3%) from mid-range and 27.2% from 3-point range (third-worst among 225 players with at least 100 attempts), it’s not hard to understand why playing him alongside a non-shooting center doesn’t work offensively. Mann (6-for-18 from mid-range, 32.2% from deep) hasn’t been much better from outside the paint but has made up for it on the defensive end of the floor.

The Clippers know what works. It all depends on the health of their stars, and there will be no easy outs in the Western Conference. But the potential is there for a deep playoff run and, maybe, the franchise’s first championship.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

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