Of all the surprises over the first couple months of this NBA season, looking up to see the Los Angeles Clippers just a game off the top spot in the Western Conference might just headline the list.
The Clippers are an enigma.
After Austin Rivers and DeAndre Jordan departed this summer, they were left without a single remaining member of the 2013-14 team that won the most games in franchise history. Yet this group has already done something Lob City never did: sit atop the Western Conference 20-plus games into a season.
Ostensibly, this is a far less talented team than the one who took Los Angeles by storm in the Lakers' absence. They certainly lack the top-end talent of their predecessors, but these Clippers have found a recipe for success through depth, effort and intangibles that statistics have a very tough time sussing out.
Despite having just one 20-point scorer in Tobias Harris, the Clippers have the league's sixth-best offensive rating of 111.5. Having a healthy Danilo Gallinari as a second option has been key, but maybe the biggest factor has been the Lou Williams-led bench who score a league-best 52.0 points per game.
As a team, they're 24th in assists and don't have a single player averaging more than 4.5 per game. They rely heavily on individual shot creation, and that's where having Gallinari, Williams and Harris - the newly named Western Conference Player of the Month - has made the biggest difference.
Their most pleasant surprise, though, has been the rapid development of rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The 20-year-old rookie has shown the poise and fluidity of a veteran and is playing the fifth-most minutes on the team. His numbers haven't been incredible, but he's earned the trust of Doc Rivers and has had several moments of pure brilliance that indicate it's just a matter of time before he becomes one of the better point guards in the league.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets creative on the break! #NBARooks#ClipperNation 31 | #PureMagic 25- NBA (@NBA) November 2, 2018
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With that said, the level to which this team is succeeding offensively is still incredibly perplexing.
The Clippers are shooting 37.5 percent from three - fourth-best in the league - but take the fourth-fewest attempts. They have some great shooters, but the only rotation players who take more than 40 percent of their shots from three are Mike Scott, Patrick Beverley and Gallinari.
You'd expect that a team with such high ORtg and so few threes attempted would attack the rim a ton; and they do - attempting the eighth-most shots in the restricted area - but they are the 27th-best team at converting those looks at just 60.0 percent.
In such an analytically-driven league, a team who is good at shooting threes but doesn't take them and attacks the rim a lot but doesn't convert them is a complete mystery. The Clippers seem to buck every trend the league has latched on to, but have still found success by being very good at the little things.
They commit the tenth-fewest turnovers at 14.3 per game, a number that's pretty impressive given the workload of Gilgeous-Alexander. They are also on pace to attempt more free throws than any team since 2014-15 - 29.6 per game - and are converting them at a very solid 80.6 percent.
Given how surprising their success has been and their lack of true stars, it's natural to anticipate an offensive regression at some point. Surprisingly, outside of their 3-point shooting, most of their numbers not only seem sustainable but could arguably improve.
Right now they're attempting the most shots with "very tight" defending in the league. They're also attempting the fewest "wide open" shots in the league.
This is a fascinating stat that could be spun in a number of ways.
Either this team just can't create open looks and is doomed to suffer a regression on those shots eventually - which is probably true to an extent - or they've actually been unlucky to start the season and are likely to get easier looks over the next couple months as the opposing defence falls back to average.
While both sides have some validity, I tend to think the latter holds more truth. This team doesn't have the ball movement or floor-spacing to create tons of open looks, but it's extremely unlikely it ends the season at the bottom in both categories.
Despite having what appears to be a lofty offensive rating, it seems the Clippers have just as many offensive stats that should progress to the mean as those that should regress.
On defence, they've played roughly to expectation so far, but yet again they have some confounding stats leading to that output. Last season they were the league's 19th-best defence with a DRtg of 109.2. That number has improved to 108.1 this season, good for 14th.
Yet, even with an average overall defence, they have the second-best defensive eFG% in the league at 49.6 percent. The last 10 teams to lead the league in defensive eFG% have had, at worst, a top-four defensive rating.
Part of the reason the Clippers have fallen short is that they are last in both turnovers forced and - maybe most baffling of all - steals. This is a team after all with Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley and Gilgeous-Alexander, who projects as a great defender. While it's very likely their defensive eFG% will fall over the next couple months, I'd be shocked if their turnovers forced doesn't rise and counteract some of those extra made shots.
In the grand scheme of things, it's incredibly difficult to make sense of this Clipper team. They have some overall numbers of a shadow Western Conference Finals contender and others of a lottery team; and with just five losses separating the 14-seeded Rockets and the top of the West, both outcomes are still firmly in play.
With all that said, having a top-six offence and the third-fewest losses in the league a couple weeks before Christmas is an incredible achievement. Doc Rivers is one of the early favourites for Coach of the Year and this team has found a wonderful combination of youth, experience and players in a contract year.
Whether they can translate that into the playoff success this franchise is starving for will become more clear over the next couple months, but it's time we take notice of what the Clippers are building in Los Angeles.
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