If the 2019-20 season returns at the end of this hiatus, we may head straight to playoff basketball. And given the strangeness of this season, playoff basketball may be determined by matchups more than ever.
Matchups obviously aren't just about who's guarding whom at the start of a possession. Especially in the playoffs, the offense will try to dictate matchups themselves, setting screens to pit their most potent scorer against the opponent's most vulnerable defender.
At the same time, if every other offensive player isn't a threat to score, the defense can ignore the one that isn't, and put more focus on defending the ones that are. Every team in the league has at least one player in its rotation that, come playoff time, will be ignored on offense (like the Thunder's Luguentz Dort) or targeted on defense (like the Celtics' Kemba Walker). Some have multiple.
If you're a guard or wing who can't shoot, you're probably a liability on offense come playoff time. On the other end of the floor, targeting a particular defender can be as simple as forcing a big man to move his feet on the perimeter or a small guard to defend in the post.
The LA Clippers have two of the best two-way players in the world. Neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George should be ignored on offense nor targeted on defense. And the Clippers could be the most complete team in the league, with minimal liabilities on either end of the floor.
There are a few interesting questions regarding the Clippers, though. And maybe the most interesting is whether Lou Williams should be on the floor down the stretch of a close game.
Williams leads the Clippers with 46 clutch field goal attempts and his effective field goal percentage on those shots (56.5%) ranks 14th among 64 players who have attempted at least 35. Over the last three seasons, Williams is 8-for-13 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime. That includes three buckets in four tries this season (all four attempts came in the month of November).
Two of Williams' three last-minute, go-ahead buckets were catch-and-shoot attempts (in transition) that could have come from somebody else playing alongside George and Leonard, though both were 2-for-1 situations that Williams is particularly fond of. The Clippers have seven of the 76 players who have shot 39% or better on at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season. The Utah Jazz (six) are the only other team with more than four.
But the other two buckets shown above - Williams' go-ahead jumper against Portland (somebody tell Hassan Whiteside to put his hands up) and Montrezl Harrell's tip-in off Williams' miss vs. Memphis - were results of Williams' ability to create a shot off the dribble. And though the ball will primarily be in the hands of Leonard and George down the stretch of close games, it can only help to have more guys on the floor who can do something with the ball. Williams is among the craftiest scorers in the league (this 2-for-1 scoop around Kyle Kuzma was delicious) and can take advantage of bigs in the pick-and-roll (examples one, two and three from the second of two classic Celtics-Clippers games).
Number to know: The tip-in in Memphis was Harrell's first (and only) career bucket to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The Harrell Connection
Williams' playmaking doesn't just get Harrell tip-ins. He has 127 assists to Harrell, the third most from one player to a single teammate this season. The Clippers get 111.9 minutes per game and 44% of their points from reserves. Those are both the highest rates in the league, and Williams (fifth in total points off the bench, second in total assists off the bench) and Harrell (second in total points off the bench, third in total rebounds off the bench) are obviously the biggest parts of that equation. They don't start, but they finish.
Here are the six Williams-to-Harrell, pick-and-roll connections against the Lakers this season:
That last one, where LeBron James hedged the first screen (from JaMychal Green) and Williams blew by him with a crossover, was particularly tasty.
Number to know: Harrell has scored 1.31 points per possession as a roll man, the third best mark among 28 players who have averaged at least 2.5 roll man possessions per game.
Williams will also give Harrell some screen assists. If Williams' man is top-locking him to prevent a dribble-handoff, Williams will just drive him into Harrell's defender, clearing the way for a Harrell drive to the cup:
2 straight possessions of the Pelicans top-locking Williams & him using it as a double-screen for Harrell to drive to the cup. pic.twitter.com/aatxV80kmK— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) January 18, 2020
Harrell is almost guaranteed to be on the floor down the stretch of close games. His 102 clutch minutes played lead the Clippers. Starting center Ivica Zubac has played only two clutch minutes all season and only 5% of Zubac's regulation minutes have come in the fourth quarter. That's the lowest rate among 285 players who have played at least 750 minutes in regulation. (Call it the Carlos Boozer Award.)
So Williams can handle the ball, make big shots, and has great chemistry with the Clippers' big man that will be on the floor with the game on the line. So why is his own place in the Clippers' late-game lineups even a question?
First, his true shooting percentage (which measures scoring efficiency) of 54.6% is his lowest mark of the last eight seasons and ranks last among the nine Clippers who have taken at least 300 shots this season. And primarily, there's another end of the floor in which opponents can take advantage of the three-time Sixth Man of the Year.
A common way offenses try to take advantage of smaller defenders is getting them switched onto a post player or roll man. This happens with Williams and the Clippers' other small guards, but their teammates are very good at rescuing the little guys from those situations (called a "scram" switch).
Play 1. Harrell switches a Danilo Gallinari ball screen for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Gallinari takes Reggie Jackson down to the right block. But Leonard meets him there, having switched off of Nerlens Noel. Marcus Morris rotates down to Noel and Jackson retreats to match up with Terrance Ferguson. Gilgeous-Alexander ends up settling for an ugly, step-back 3-pointer over Harrell.
Number to know: The Clippers rank second in opponent 3-point percentage (34.1%).
Play 2. Williams starts the possession defending Ferguson, but is quickly guarding Gallinari after two screens for Gilgeous-Alexander. Harrell sees the mismatch right away and leaves Noel on the weak side to bail out his pick-and-roll partner. Again, Morris rotates to Noel and Williams scrambles to match up with Ferguson. Alas, Harrell gets caught on a rip-through move from Gallinari.
Number to know: Opponent effective field goal percentage is the only one of the defensive four factors in which the Clippers rank in the top 10. They rank in the bottom 10 in both opponent free throw rate (27.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field, 21st) and opponent turnover percentage (13.8 per 100 possessions, 21st).
Play 3. Morris fights through a Ferguson pin-down screen for Gallinari, but the Thunder get the switch on Ferguson/Gallinari pick-and-roll out of the corner. Again, Harrell identifies it quickly and crosses the paint to replace Williams. This time, Morris isn't in position to rotate to Noel, who dives to the rim to take advantage of his mismatch with Williams. But Jackson sees that coming and immediately doubles Noel. Leonard rotates to cover Dennis Schroder in the left corner, Williams recovers out to Leonard's man (Chris Paul) and the ball ends up in the hands of a 30% 3-point shooter (Dort isn't the only Thunder player that defenses will ignore in the playoffs).
Number to know: The Clippers have seen the league's second biggest drop in the percentage of their opponents' shots that have come from the restricted area, from 34.4% (seventh highest opponent rate) last season to 30.0% (seventh lowest) this season.
Play 4. Small guard and wings can also have issues guarding a big on the move. Here, LeBron James sets a ball-screen for Avery Bradley and seals Patrick Beverley, who has no hope in defending James' roll to the rim. Leonard helps off the baseline, leaving Anthony Davis under the basket.
Number to know: Among the 25 Clipper two-man combinations that have played at least 500 minutes, the defense has been at its best (100.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) with Beverley and Harrell on the floor together (517 minutes) and at its worst (108.2 allowed per 100) with Williams and Landry Shamet on the floor together (754 minutes).
Play 5. When James sets another strong ball screen, Williams is able to get between him and his roll to the rim. So James does the Dirk Nowitzki thing, establishing position at the nail (middle of the free throw line). But when Rajon Rondo (the Lakers' primary "ignore him" candidate) picks up his dribble, George sags off and deflects the entry pass.
Number to know: The Clippers have been the league's second most improved defensive team, having allowed 106.6 points per 100 possessions (fifth), 3.8 fewer than they allowed last season (110.4, 19th).
With Williams, Beverley, Jackson and Shamet, the Clippers have four guards that opposing bigs (and big wings) can push around. After the All-Star break, they consistently used a five-man bench unit that had Williams, Jackson and Shamet playing together. The overall numbers were good, but when that unit was on the floor late in the first quarter against the Lakers, Jackson got caught guarding James, a situation that led to a Kuzma layup.
Lou vs. LeBron
The Clippers were 7-1 after the All-Star break when they had both Leonard and George in the lineup. The one loss was that game against the Lakers on March 8, the second half of the weekend in which the Lakers beat both the best team in the East (Milwaukee) and the next best team in the West (the Clips).
The Clippers cut a 12-point deficit down to six with a little more than five minutes to go, but that was as close they got, because they couldn't get enough stops when the Lakers targeted Williams in the pick-and-roll on every possession down the stretch.
(Keep an eye on Williams' reactions after plays 2 and 3.)
Play 1. Williams is guarding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who sets a high-ball screen for James. Williams hedges the screen, but doesn't stop the ball-handler, allowing James to get a step on Leonard. Of course, Leonard is so strong, he rips the ball out of James' hands anyway.
Play 2. The Lakers run the same action as on the previous possession, but Williams stops James' momentum. So Caldwell-Pope comes back for a second screen going in the other direction. Williams again stops James, but then has to recover back to Caldwell-Pope's flare to the right wing. Caldwell-Pope gets him leaning with a quick pump fake and drives by.
Number to know: In their first-round series against the Warriors last year, the Clippers allowed 130.9 points per 100 possessions with Williams and Harrell on the floor together. That was the highest on-court mark among 253 two-man combinations that played at least 100 postseason minutes.
Play 3. After a timeout, Williams is guarding Danny Green. He switches onto Avery Bradley, who eventually sets another ball screen for James. Williams' hard hedge again has him late in recovering to his man and Bradley drains an open 3-pointer from the left wing.
Number to know: The Clippers have seen the league's second biggest jump in the percentage of their opponents' shots that have come from 3-point range, from 33.1% (fifth lowest rate) last season to 39.0% (ninth highest rate) this season.
Play 4. Williams is again guarding Green, but switches onto Caldwell-Pope, who sets the ball screen on James. This time, on Caldwell-Pope's flare to the left wing, George is in position to help and Anthony Davis doesn't make him pay (with a cut to the basket) for turning his back on his own man (foreshadowing). Williams' hedge allows Leonard to recover back to James, Harrell helps on James' drive, and George rotates down to contest Bradley's corner 3-pointer (after a pretty ridiculous pass from James).
Number to know: The Clippers rank third defensively (107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions in 22 games) against the league's top 10 offenses.
Play 5. Again, Williams is guarding Green, who sets the ball screen for James himself. He holds Leonard in the screen, forcing Williams to switch onto James, who licks his chops as he backs out for the iso. The Lakers clear the strong side of the floor, but both Harrell and Leonard stay in position to help. That's what they do when James bullies Williams into the paint, but Davis sneaks behind George on the baseline and James feeds his big man.
Number to know: Williams has defended 42 isolation possessions, tied for fourth most on the Clippers, according to Synergy play-type tracking. The 0.91 points per possession he's allowed on isolations is right at the league-average mark.
Play 6. Williams is guarding Green again, but when Green goes to set the ball screen, Williams signals for George to switch onto the screener. George then switches the James/Green screen, but gets called for a foul on James' drive.
Number to know: The Clippers have outscored their opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions in 760 minutes with Leonard and George on the floor together and by 11.2 points per 100 possessions in 883 minutes with Leonard on the floor without George, but by just 2.2 points per 100 possessions in 462 minutes with George on the floor without Leonard.
Williams can sometimes look helpless in trying to stop James and recover back to his own man. But, as is the case when he's taken into to the post, it's on his teammates to have his back, zone up, communicate and see the issues before they arise. Still, that was the Clippers' last game of note before the season was suspended, and those last five minutes had to give them pause in regard to their default late-game lineup.
On the Clippers' possession after Play 6 above, Morris drew a foul and went to the line. Clippers coach Doc Rivers used that opportunity to replace Williams with Beverley for the next defensive possession. The Clippers will obviously make offense/defense substitutions when they can, but they won't always have those opportunities and a possession with four minutes to go could be just as important as a last-minute possession after a timeout.
Choices To Make
The February additions of Morris and Jackson give the Clippers more lineup options than they had earlier in the season, when they closed games with both Beverley and Williams on the floor. Morris is another versatile forward who can, in theory, defend both guards and bigs, though he got burned by James (examples one, two and three) in the pick-and-roll in that March game, too.
Last season, the Clippers were much better offensively with Williams on the floor (113.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than they were with him off the floor (106.9). At times, he absolutely carried them offensively.
This season, his importance to the offense is diminished by the presence of the Clippers' two new stars. And it could be diminished even more in the playoffs if Rivers staggers the minutes of George and Leonard so that one of the two is on the floor at all times.
Of course, if Williams isn't on the floor on a big defensive possession, the opponent will target somebody else. Maybe it's Morris or Harrell with a quick guard or Beverley with a big wing. When it comes to defending LeBron James, there's Kawhi Leonard and there's everybody else.
Every team has these choices to make. The Clippers are good enough that their choices could be the most consequential.
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