Following a slow start to this season, the Los Angeles Clippers have had an incredible turnaround.
Immediately after acquiring star guard James Harden, the Clippers lost seven of 10 games, leading to some questions about Harden's fit and whether the team could right the ship.
However, since Harden’s infamous “give us 10 games and we’ll figure it out” statement, the Clippers have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. They have the best record in the NBA since Dec. 1, and they have won 15 of their last 18 games and 20 of their last 26.
Los Angeles has the fourth-best record in the Western Conference (23-13), while boasting the NBA's seventh-best offense (scoring 116 points per 100 possessions) and ninth-best defense (allowing 110.4 points per 100 possessions).
The Clippers have been rolling as of late, and here are several reasons for their recent success.
Kawhi Leonard is healthy again and having an MVP-caliber season
The Clippers’ undisputed best player is currently having his healthiest season in years, playing 31-of-35 possible games. Leonard is currently shooting a career-best 52% from the field and is the biggest reason for Los Angeles' surge. The Clippers have registered 12-straight wins with Leonard in the lineup, and he ranks 10th in the league in scoring over that stretch. Leonard's numbers – 28.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists – are impressive, and he recently became the first player in NBA history to shoot 60% from the field, 50% from three-point range and 90% from the free-throw line over a 13-game span – an astounding demonstration of his dominance and efficiency this season.
Paul George is playing as a second ‘Batman’ rather than being a ‘Robin’
Rather than being Robin to Leonard’s Batman, Paul George has proven he’s more than just a second fiddle this season. The 6-foot-9 forward has a solid All-Star case so far, averaging 23.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.4 threes and 1.6 steals, while shooting 45.8% from the field, 40.8% from three-point range and 92.4% from the free-throw line. George has taken it upon himself to carry more of the offensive load thus far even when Leonard is playing, scoring at least 20 points in nine-straight outings. This aggressive approach has done wonders for the Clippers.
James Harden is playing efficiently and making sacrifices
With the Clippers, James Harden isn't in a primary-scorer role. Although his resume speaks for itself, the 10-time All-Star and three-time scoring champ has deferred the scoring duties to Leonard and George. Instead, Harden’s main job is to distribute the ball and keep the offense running, which makes scoring a secondary goal at this stage of his career. Also, he's constantly finding center Ivica Zubac for lob opportunities and even Norman Powell off catch-and-shoot actions.
This has led to one of Harden's most efficient seasons, as he's shooting a career-best 42% from three and a True Shooting percentage of 65%. Harden has been at his best when he's playing alongside the Clippers’ All-Star forwards, as the three-man lineup of Harden, Leonard and George has a net efficiency rating of plus-17.8 and has outscored opponents by 143 points.
Furthermore, the trio ranks first among the NBA's three-man lineups in several different categories including net rating (25.6), offensive rating (131.7), defensive rating (106), three-point percentage (43%), True Shooting percentage (65%) and turnovers (10.6).
Tyronn Lue finally playing bigs and shying away from center-less lineups
But perhaps the biggest difference between this year’s Clippers and previous versions of the team might be Tyronn Lue finally playing his centers and using them to their full extent. His usual obsession with small-ball lineups — with wings at the 4 and 5 spots — has been non-existent this season, particularly since the team moved Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris as part of the trade that netted Harden.
In previous seasons, Lue would close out games with Batum at the 5, or even at times playing George or Leonard there (which was kind of outrageous). Now, he utilizes his centers much better. On offense, Harden uses Zubac as a roller and rim threat for lobs, with Zubac catching and finishing easy buckets. Also, Russell Westbrook has good chemistry with backup center Daniel Theis in the second unit. Defensively, the Clippers no longer have a size disadvantage that leads to offensive rebounds by opposing players, as Zubac and incoming Mason Plumlee command minutes and bring physicality.
Using bigs has certainly changed the way Los Angeles plays. Everything seems to be going right for the Clippers, who will try to continue their strong play and contend for a championship.