The All-Star break poses a chance to pause, reflect, and catch our breath as we look ahead to the second half of the 2019 NBA season.
There’s plenty of storylines to focus on, but none more pressing than the battle raging in LA between the Clippers and Lakers. Now at the midway point, the Clippers hold the upper hand at 32-27, while the Lakers look to fight back from a 28-29 hole after a disappointing, and injury filled, start to their new era.
Prior to the season these two sides were expected to finish at opposite ends of the Western Conference standings. The Clippers looked headed towards a mini-rebuild, projected for a second-straight 10th place finish and a 36-46 record. The Lakers, well the inclusion of LeBron meant a trip to the Finals, right? Projected to finish 45-36, it’s safe to say those expectations were a little ambitious.
So who’s been the true Tinseltown winner so far this season?
Let’s take a look as these two tango towards the finish.
Shooting & Scoring
Who would’ve thought the Clippers would rank among the NBA’s Top 10 scoring sides by the halfway point? Doc Rivers’ team ranks seventh in points-per-game and sixth in true-shooting percentage, largely thanks to the contributions of Tobias Harris before he was traded to the Sixers. Whether or not the Clips can replicate his near 50% field-goal percentage is the question – but the team has to feel confident knowing Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are averaging over 18.0 points a game.
It was no surprise to watch the Lakers sputter without LeBron James for more than a month. Minus ‘The King’, the Lakers ranked 27th in overall offensive rating, four spots worse than LeBron’s long lost Cavs. Since his return, the Lakers have turned it up a notch, kinda. They find themselves back inside the Top 20 in points-per-game this month, but there is reason for optimism. Los Angeles still rank seventh in field-goal percentage and second in points in the paint, they just need to tidy up their shots from three-point range to really raise the roof.
For now, it’s hard not to give the edge to the Clippers, though. The Lakers’ little brother is the best fourth quarter side in the league averaging 29.0 points in the final term. The Lakers, meanwhile, rank fifth in the league in turnover percentage.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
Nobody really expected a great deal of defence from either of these sides, did they? Both the Clippers and the Lakers rank inside the Top 10 in points allowed to opposing teams, while both have struggled mightily to stop shots from inside the arc and beyond the three-point line.
For all the praise surrounding the Clippers’ fourth-quarter offensive efforts, they’ve let themselves down a little by allowing the 10th most points in the final frame. The Lakers aren’t much better coming in at No. 7, but there is one area that separates the two sides: personal fouls.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley is averaging 3.44 personal fouls per-game, the eighth most in the league.
It mightn’t seem as important as shutting down perimeter shooters or stopping points in the paint, an area both sides rank among the league’s worst, by the way. But considering two of the league’s top two teams from each Conference (the Warriors and Raptors) rank inside the Top 5 in free-throw percentage, fouls can literally make or break your season.
For the Clippers, they’ve been horrible when it comes to sloppy defending, ranking third in personal fouls committed this season. Not surprisingly, teams are making them pay for an average of 5.4 points a game, while the Lakers haven’t fared much better with the seventh-highest opponent free-throw percentage.
Winner: Dead Heat
This is a bit of a catch-22 as far as the Clippers are concerned. The engine of this team is the bench, averaging the third-most minutes per-game and the most points in the league (52.7). Following the trade of Tobias Harris, it’s forced return piece Landry Shamet and former Memphis Grizzly Garrett Temple to step up on the bench, which has so far worked out just fine.
The Clips played Shamet in the five against Phoenix this week, resulting in a measly eight-point effort. That’s probably not the move going forward as the rookie adjusts to a whole new set of plays, but the good news is two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is on track for a career-best season. Williams is averaging close to 20-points a game off the bench as his minutes vary anywhere between 22 to 33. Now we wait and see if a starting five led by rookie Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Gallinari can lead the way.
As for the Lakers, their bench can relax knowing LeBron (sorta) appears back to full health. Coach Luke Walton depends on subs very little compared to Rivers, evident in the fact the Lakers were willing to pull off a rare trade with the Clippers involving Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley in return for Mike Muscala.
Walton does have a lot on his plate if he wishes to reduce the burden on LeBron, though. Last week’s four-point loss to the Hawks, a game that saw LeBron play 43-minutes and put up just 28-points, showed how in need this team is of some serious reserves – especially considering Rajon Rondo’s hot and cold performances.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
Fun note: the Lakers were the last team to deal for a star at the deadline and make the finals – Pau Gasol in 2007/08. While LeBron wasn’t traded from Cleveland, that shows just how hard it is to transform a B-grade roster into a championship caliber team in less than 12-months.
There’s no doubt the Pelicans have turned up the heat on LA after rejecting their trade offer of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma in exchange for Anthony Davis. That means the Lakers will have to get creative if they wish to match the Celtics this offseason – Boston prepares to throw the likes of Jayson Tatum and a plethora of draft picks New Orleans’ way.
A record breaking fifty-seven players were traded before the deadline, including former Pistons forward Reggie Bullock.
The Lakers did emerge as slight winners following the deadline, though. It wasn’t as exciting as adding a Top 5 player, but they’ve successfully surrounded LeBron with some sharp-shooters for the second half. Muscala is a career 46% shooter from the field, while the Lakers’ other acquisition, Reggie Bullock, averaged 21.1 points-per-game during his time with the Pistons this year. Both players will be crucial pieces if LA are to make any impact in the playoffs, now it’s up to Walton to figure out a way to implement into the rotation.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
The Road Ahead
- Clippers Key Games: @ Nuggets (Feb. 24), @ Jazz (Feb. 27), @ Kings (Mar. 1), @ Lakers (Mar. 4), vs. Thunder (Mar. 8), vs. Celtics (Mar. 11), vs. Blazers (Mar. 12), @ Bucks (Mar. 28)
- Lakers Key Games: vs. Bucks (Mar. 1), vs. Clippers (Mar. 4), vs. Nuggets (Mar. 6), vs. Celtics (Mar. 9), @ Raptors (Mar. 14), @ Bucks (Mar. 19), vs. Kings (Mar. 24), @ Jazz (Mar. 27)
Did you know the Clippers are one of the three teams in the West to have a winning record at home and on the road? That’s almost unfathomable for a team that lost Blake Griffin midway through last season, and unlike some of these fluky records we see from time to time, the Clips have actually beaten some rather okay sides. They own wins over the Hornets, Spurs, Kings and Celtics so far in 2019, but as you can see above, strength of schedule isn’t exactly in their favour.
You can probably say the same for the Lakers, who earned wins over the Mavericks and Thunder without LeBron last month. Since returning LA have defeated the Celtics in Boston and also lost to the Hawks, but the good news is they play eight of their 16-games in March at Staples, including what could turn out to be a crucial tiebreaker against the Clippers on the 4th.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
You can’t argue with the standings: the Clippers have exceeded expectations, and the Lakers, albeit due to LeBron’s injury, have fallen short.
The Clippers have been an offensive treat, but if there’s one thing they need to clean up, it’s rebounds. They rank in the bottom half of the league in boards, and in particular, have been dominated by the games top defensive big men.
For the Lakers, there’s a lot more to fine tune, but when you have the NBA’s best player, there’s certainly no reason to panic. With the fourth-lowest three-point percentage, the Lakers desperately need to find a way to hit from downtown, but their fourth-quarter drop off in points is of equal concern.
By the All-Star break last year the Clippers found themselves 29-26, remaining steady to finish 42-40 and miss the playoffs. Right now Basketball Reference has the Clips listed as an 80% chance to make the playoffs finishing with a 45-37 record, while the Lakers look likely to fall to the 10th seed at 40-42.
So can the Clippers keep pace? And is LeBron emotionally invested in this season?
They say you’re only as good as your last game, or in this case, the first half of the season. Suddenly, the playoffs, let alone a championship, looks a lot further away for the Lakers. Maybe they just don’t want to admit it.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers