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Around the NBA: Return of the Brow and the Paper Tiger Clippers

It’s time to talk about the supposed “Battle of L.A.”.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

So far, we’ve managed to avoid discussing big market teams that don’t deserve the attention they get.

That changes this week.

Even though both L.A. teams have been dysfunctional for most of the season, their recent performances make it impossible to continue ignoring them.

Let’s start with the Lakeshow.

AD is back (fingers crossed)!

After the Lakers’ 2020 bubble championship, it seemed like AD was ready to become the next great big man in the franchise's history.

Surprisingly, the complete opposite happened.

Over the past two years, he only appeared in 76 total games (although the seasons were shortened) while putting up his worst numbers since his rookie and sophomore campaigns.

The beginning of this year looked eerily similar, but it seems like someone injected him with Super Soldier Serum in mid-November. Just look at the numbers he’s put up prior to exiting Tuesday’s game due to an illness:

Impressively, the Lakers have gone 8-4 in their last 12 games after starting the year 2-10, which isn’t a coincidence given AD’s recent play.

So, what changed? Some people say that he’s adjusted his shot selection, but I personally think that narrative is overblown. Sure, he’s only taken 11 threes in the past 9 games, but that’s not a far cry from the 16 he took in the first 11 games of the season. In fact, his shooting locations haven’t been altered drastically:

Percentage of shots taken by location

First 11 games: 55% at the rim, 38% in the mid-range, 8% from three.

Last 9 games: 52% at the rim, 42% in the mid-range, 6% from three.

As you can see, AD’s playstyle has stayed the same, but what has changed is his aggression and the way he’s getting to his spots. In the first clip below, he chooses to blow by his defender instead of settling for a three, and the second clip is even more encouraging since he doesn’t hesitate to attack Lopez (one of the best shot-blockers in the league) in order to make a higher percentage shot.

Given his added aggression, it shouldn’t be surprising that AD’s shot attempts and percentages have both seen a massive spike. Over his last nine games, he’s hitting 10.2 free throws on 11.4 attempts while shooting 52% on mid-rangers, a significant uptick from the 4.4 makes (on 5.7 FT attempts) and 35% on mid-rangers he shot in the first 11 matches of the season.

While those numbers aren’t sustainable, the most important thing is that AD finally looks healthy again. The biggest knock on him has always been his lack of availability, and even when he does play, it oftentimes appears like he’s being too timid to prevent injuries.

With AD playing at his peak again, the Lakers now don’t need to rely on LeBron as much anymore. L.A. actually has a +5.0 net rating with AD on the floor and LeBron off, which is a major development considering they were -3.9 in those same minutes last season.

If AD can stay relatively healthy (which is a BIG if) for the remainder of the season, then the Lakers have a realistic shot at ending the season around .500 and being a play-in team, which is something that seemed unfathomable just a few weeks ago.

The Clippers are still contenders... on paper

Ah, the good old Clippers. Extremely fearsome, if NBA teams were only evaluated on paper.

So far, L.A. has the 5th best defensive rating (111.0), a number that should be sustainable: they ended last season with a top-10 defense and are currently 7th in opponent location effective field goal percentage (54.2%) and 4th in opponent actual eFG% (52.5%).

What is concerning, though, is their inability to score. Despite their elite D, the Clippers have a -2.4 net rating (25th league-wide), which is largely due to their abysmal 28th-ranked offense (108.6 offensive rating).

To make matters worse, there aren’t any signs of a potential turnaround. L.A. was marginally better last year with a 110.5 offensive rating (24th league-wide), and their attack is predicated mostly around mid-rangers without much ball movement.

Consider this: the Clippers are 24th in passes per game (273.4) and 5th in isolation frequency (8.6%) but are only scoring 0.82 points per possession on those plays (26th league-wide). They’re above average in percentage of attempts from three (34.9%, 12th) but less than a third of their shots come at the rim (31.5%, 22nd), resulting in them being 25th in location eFG% (53.8%).

Ironically, L.A. is actually 16th in actual eFG% despite shooting a lower percentage (53.7%), but that shouldn’t be taken as consolation. Remember, the premise of L.A.’s mid-range heavy offense is centered around the absurd shot-making of Kawhi and PG, which doesn't work when those guys hardly share the floor together.

Even after missing the entirety of last season, Kawhi has only suited up in 7 of the team’s 26 games for a total of 170 minutes played. His raw counting stats are definitely lackluster (11.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 40/17/84 shooting splits), but what’s more concerning are the type of shots that he’s missing.

So far, he’s attempted 44 total shots with his closest defender standing four or more feet away (4-6 feet away is classified as “open,” and 6+ feet away is “wide open”) but has only made 14 of those attempts (31.8%). This suggests that Kawhi’s struggles go far beyond just rust and that his general feel for the game hasn’t returned yet.

Fortunately, the Klaw seems to be trending in the right direction, as he played his best game of the season against Charlotte on Monday night by showing off his classic mid-range arsenal while hitting the game-winner too.

The bigger question is whether Kawhi can get back to his old self by playoff time. Even if he does, will his body hold up for an entire postseason run? Given his history, the odds seem stacked against it, which is why the Clippers need to become a more versatile offensive team. Rather than continuing to operate in the mid-range and relying on an isolation-heavy system, L.A. should instead run a motion-oriented attack that focuses more on shots around the rim.

So, should we write the Clippers off? I don’t think so... yet. Remember, this is Kawhi we’re talking about — would anyone be surprised if he woke up tomorrow feeling like a T-800 again? Probably not, but L.A. definitely can’t expect it to happen.

This week, make sure to check out a new article from The Professor’s Corner on Devin Vassell’s pick-and-roll game! Professor Pittsley brought the fire as usual.

As always, thanks for reading!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.