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The Clippers’ Stars Are Carrying Them. Will Their Bench Bring Them Down?

With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George leading the way, the Los Angeles Clippers are one of the NBA’s most star-powered teams — and one of just a handful that can claim a legitimate chance to win the championship. Both Leonard and George are off to great starts so far this year, with each averaging over 24 points per game — something only 14 pairs of teammates have done in a full season since the ABA merger — to go with their usual mix of stellar shooting, playmaking and defense. Along with an unexpectedly outstanding start to the season by forward Nicolas Batum, the Clippers boast three of the 10 most valuable players in the NBA in the early going, according to our RAPTOR wins above replacement metric.

If L.A. is going to overcome its history of playoff disappointment, it will be because of Leonard and George, with Batum, Pat Beverley and Serge Ibaka playing key roles next to them. But so far this year, that’s essentially all the Clippers have had going for them. With its top players on the court, Los Angeles has looked largely unbeatable. Without them, though, they’ve largely struggled. The result has been one of the most top-heavy teams in the NBA so far this season, for better and for worse.

We can see this in the on-versus-off splits for Los Angeles’s starters and bench this year. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Clippers are outscoring opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions with starters on the court, which ranks fourth behind three other star-powered clubs: the L.A. Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets.1 But with their reserves on the court, opponents are outscoring the Clippers by 0.9 points per 100, which ranks 18th. That gap between starters and bench — 8.5 points per 100 — is tied for the second-largest differential of any team, trailing only the extremely top-heavy Nets.

L.A.’s starters are world-class. Its bench though …

Biggest gap in efficiency differential with a team’s starters and bench on the court, 2020-21 NBA season

+/- per 100 poss.
Team w/ Starters w/ Bench Gap
Brooklyn Nets +8.4 -2.3 +10.7
Los Angeles Clippers +7.6 -0.9 +8.5
Portland Trail Blazers +3.9 -4.6 +8.5
Los Angeles Lakers +9.8 +2.4 +7.4
Atlanta Hawks +3.4 -2.5 +5.9
Milwaukee Bucks +8.6 +3.6 +5.0
Oklahoma City Thunder -2.8 -6.2 +3.4
Denver Nuggets +2.8 +0.5 +2.3
New York Knicks -0.9 -3.0 +2.1
Sacramento Kings -4.6 -6.4 +1.8

Through games of Jan. 17.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

Los Angeles may be kind of used to this by now. Of the seven teams that had a gap larger than 8.5 points per 100 in a full season from 19972 through 2020, two of them were Clipper teams — in 2015 (10.3) and 2017 (8.6). Of course, both of those teams were of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan era of L.A. basketball, not the current Leonard-George core. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It makes sense that this incarnation would be in the same conversation when you look at the numbers for who has — and hasn’t — been starting for the Clips this season. Each member of their most frequent starting lineup — Beverley (+0.8), Leonard (+10.5), George (+7.5), Batum (+7.0) and Ibaka (+0.4) — boasts an above-average RAPTOR rating, making Los Angeles one of only three teams (along with, again, the Lakers and Bucks) that can say that. And unlike Milwaukee or the other L.A. team, which also carry three positive bench players3 apiece, none of the Clippers’ reserves rates positively by RAPTOR. Because of this split, Los Angeles’s most common starters have created 96.5 percent of the team’s total (non-negative) value, easily the most of any team in the league this year.

The Clippers are the NBA’s most top-heavy team

Largest share of all (non-negative) wins above replacement from a team’s most common starting lineup, 2020-21 season

Non-negative WAR from …
Team Starters Bench Total Starters %
Los Angeles Clippers 8.2 0.3 8.5 96.5%
Portland Trail Blazers 5.3 0.5 5.8 91.4
Atlanta Hawks 5.2 0.5 5.7 91.2
Sacramento Kings 2.8 0.7 3.5 80.0
Milwaukee Bucks 6.8 2.3 9.1 74.7
Indiana Pacers 4.7 1.6 6.3 74.6
Utah Jazz 6.1 2.6 8.7 70.1
Cleveland Cavaliers 2.7 1.2 3.9 69.2
New York Knicks 3.1 1.4 4.5 68.9
Denver Nuggets 4.6 2.1 6.7 68.7
Orlando Magic 2.9 1.4 4.3 67.4
Los Angeles Lakers 6.9 3.4 10.3 67.0
Philadelphia 76ers 4.5 2.3 6.8 66.2
Dallas Mavericks 3.9 2.0 5.9 66.1
Miami Heat 2.3 1.3 3.6 63.9
Charlotte Hornets 3.5 2.0 5.5 63.3
Brooklyn Nets 4.7 3.1 7.8 60.3
Houston Rockets 2.4 1.6 4.0 60.0
Oklahoma City Thunder 2.7 1.9 4.6 58.7
Detroit Pistons 2.3 1.7 4.0 57.5
New Orleans Pelicans 2.3 1.8 4.1 56.1
Golden State Warriors 2.1 1.7 3.8 55.3
Boston Celtics 3.2 2.8 6.0 53.3
Toronto Raptors 2.9 2.6 5.5 52.7
Washington Wizards 2.3 2.3 4.6 50.0
Phoenix Suns 2.6 3.2 5.8 44.8
Minnesota Timberwolves 1.1 1.4 2.5 44.0
Memphis Grizzlies 1.6 2.6 4.2 38.1
San Antonio Spurs 1.7 3.9 5.6 30.4
Chicago Bulls 1.1 3.3 4.4 25.0

Through games of Jan. 17.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Does this actually matter, though? Is it really a problem if the likes of Lou Williams (-2.1 RAPTOR), Reggie Jackson (-1.8), Luke Kennard (-4.3), Marcus Morris (-4.0) and Ivica Zubac (-3.5) have been various degrees of horrible in the eyes of the numbers?

Such a lack of depth is not necessarily ideal for L.A.’s regular-season prospects. Although the Clippers rank third in efficiency differential as they are, we estimate that their margin would improve by a massive 4.7 points per 100 possessions if they had even a league-average bench4 — which would allow them to surpass the Lakers as the No. 1 team in the NBA. Over an entire 72-game season, that gap of 4.7 points per 100 possessions would project to be worth about 7.9 wins, or the difference between a 51-win pace and 59 wins per 72.

Of course, it’s unlikely all will be quite so terrible over the rest of the schedule. Jackson, Morris and Zubac were each above average last regular season, and Williams and Kennard were at least better in 2020 than they’ve been so far in 2021. (The same goes for Terance Mann and Patrick Patterson, as you dig deeper into the Clippers’ bench corps.) Simply by playing to their established performance levels in a larger sample of games, L.A.’s reserves should get better as the season goes on.

And even if they remain among the worst bench units in the NBA, depth tends to take on less importance in the playoffs as rotations tighten and star power comes to the fore. That’s good news for the Clippers, who can stack up the headline duo of Leonard and George — and their other leading role players — against just about any other starting five in the league.

But this is a bizarre pandemic season in which the top-to-bottom state of a team may end up being far more significant than usual. (The league has already used 6 percent more players than it had at the same stage of last season.) And if so, the Clippers’ reserves still have plenty of questions to answer about their ability to hold down the fort when the team’s biggest names aren’t on the court.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of Jan. 17.

  2. The earliest season for which NBA.com has starter/bench splits.

  3. Logging a minimum of 10 minutes per game.

  4. The average bench has an overall RAPTOR of -3.7, while the Clippers’ bench has a RAPTOR of -14.5.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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