When Tyronn Lue coached in Cleveland, he liked to save some schemes and unveil them as a playoff surprise.
He has suggested he'll do the same this season, his first leading the Clippers. Less than half of the offense has been installed, the coach has said. His full defensive hand has yet to be revealed.
Some of that has to do with Lue holding back, yet one of the bigger hurdles his team faced during the season's first half was that their progress was often held back for reasons out of their control. The Clippers are one of only three teams thus far to play every game on their schedule, having avoided postponements from the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but when they've taken the court they've not always been whole. Kawhi Leonard has missed eight of the Clippers' first 38 games, Patrick Beverley 10 and Paul George 11.
The Clippers are 14-5 when that trio, all former members of the league's All-Defensive team, plays together and have scored 118 points per 100 possessions — 13 more than they've allowed.
The combination of Leonard and George has produced an 18-6 record with a team offensive rating of 123 — 17.5 points per 100 possessions more than they allow.
The way Leonard and George played off one another during the first half, "putting the ball in their hands and making the right play, getting into the paint, either scoring the basketball or kicking it out for threes," was ahead of schedule, Lue said.
"I think that's very important going into the playoffs, so they've done a good job of that," Lue said before last week's All-Star break.
The Clippers are admittedly not a finished product — Lue wants his team to hunt defensive mismatches more efficiently on guard-guard pick-and-roll plays and generate more points off of turnovers in transition — but those stretches with Leonard and George, or that duo plus Beverley, have offered glimpses of the Clippers' top-end potential. It's also evidence why, two weeks before the trade deadline, there is largely comfort within the team about the roster as currently constructed.
Of course, should the team choose to make smaller moves at or after the deadline, such as in the buyout market, instead of taking a big swing in a trade, as some believe could be the case, it will heavily trace back to the Clippers' close proximity to the NBA's hard cap and lack of overwhelmingly attractive trade assets.
As the Clippers begin the second half of their schedule Thursday against Golden State, Lue's hopes of adding more wrinkles, and thus pushing his team closer to its full capabilities, hinge on having more stretches with stars available to play — the same core issue that held back last season's team.
Playing short-handed has hurt the Clippers defensively more than offensively. The Clippers can usually backfill with capable shooters. Of the 10 Clippers taking at least 2.8 3-pointers per game, eight are shooting 38% or better.
Finding defenders to compensate for the absences of George, Leonard and Beverley is more difficult. Yet it's just one factor why the Clippers rank 23rd in points per play allowed in the half court, per Cleaning The Glass, and allow the third-most points against pick-and-roll ballhandlers, per Synergy.
When Lue has been most frustrated, it has stemmed less from his team failing to reach its considerable defensive ceiling and more from his team not doing what he considers to be the non-negotiable minimum on that end. Based on possession data, NBA advanced statistics estimate the Clippers should be two points per 100 possessions better defensively than they have been.
It would help to have his three difference-makers available on defense. But no matter who is on the court, Lue expects more in the second half.
"You're not going to be great offensively every night," Lue said after the Clippers allowed 72 points in the paint to Memphis during its last trip before the All-Star break. "But defensively, you've got to take that challenge every night. That's one thing we have to do especially if you want to be a championship team. Those are the challenges you're going to have to take and we have the guys to do it, we have the schemes to do it. We're doing the same defense everybody else in the league is doing it's just they're doing it better. We've got to be better."
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