The LA Clippers can out-Rocket the Houston Rockets

LA Clippers Kawhi Leonard (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LA Clippers Kawhi Leonard (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The LA Clippers get their first crack at the revamped Houston Rockets tonight. They have the cast to use Houston’s strategy at an even higher level.

The LA Clippers get their first shot at the Houston Rockets post-trade deadline tonight in Houston. The Rockets now sport a lineup featuring no players taller than 6’8″. The new permanent small-ball team has been extremely successful with their experiment, toppling teams like the Los Angeles Lakers who stay big versus them. The LA Clippers might be one of the few teams in the NBA equipped to fight fire with fire.

Head coach Doc Rivers has already toyed with the idea of playing small ball after the Clippers acquired Marcus Morris at the trade deadline. That hasn’t come to fruition yet, save three minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers. Tonight’s matchup versus Houston affords him that opportunity.

Doc actually has a couple of options to run small. First, let’s define what “small” actually is. Montrezl Harrell stands only 6’8″ but is a center in every other sense of the word. He is capable of switching onto some smaller players and staying in front, so he is still a viable option in a small ball setting.

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What is more likely though, given the context of Doc’s comments, is that the team opts to use either Morris or JaMychal Green at the 5. Unlike Harrell, both players give the Clippers a five-out offensive set. By spreading the floor, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, or Lou Williams can attack the paint at will with no rim protector floating near the rim. The three lead the team in the number of drives per game already so giving them more space can only help.

Even if the defense collapses, LA has a bevy of knockdown shooters at their disposal. Take a look at these field goal percentages for catch and shoot plays (First number is overall field goal percentage. The second number in parentheses is three-point percentage):

  • Lou Williams: 44.1% (42.5%)
  • Paul George: 41.3% (41.4%)
  • Landry Shamet: 41.3% (40.7%)
  • Kawhi Leonard: 39.8% (39.2%)
  • Patrick Beverley: 38.4% (38.4%)
  • JaMychal Green: 37% (36.8%)
  • Marcus Morris: 36.4% (30.0%)

The team ranks 11th in catch and shoot field goal percentage and 9th in catch and shoot three-point percentage. It’s not eye-popping but given that teams will be so focused on the ball handler in these five-out situations, it’s more than serviceable.

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The Clippers also have the advantage of being a big small-ball team. Yes, that’s contradicting but given that Paul George at 6’8″ would be the shooting guard, it makes sense. The odd man out in any lineup would be the point guard, either Lou Williams or Patrick Beverley depending on need, but the other four players all stand 6’7″ or taller.

There’s also the matter of defense. For Houston specifically, no one player will shut down James Harden nor Russell Westbrook. That’s just unrealistic. What is realistic though is expecting the Clippers to throw wave after wave of defender at the duo.

With the Clippers’ brand of small ball, they are extremely switchable 1-5. If Beverley, George, and Leonard are all on the court together, there will be no reprieve for the Rockets’ ball-handlers. It will take multiple screens to get Harden a matchup he can exploit and even then, neither Green nor Morris are exactly slouches on the defensive end.

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Tonight is the night for Doc Rivers to experiment. The Rockets are just two games back in the Western Conference standings and a second-round matchup seems like a real possibility. The team should use this game as a litmus test for their small-ball lineup before they start to deploy it more and more this season. The Rockets gave them the blueprint. Now, the Clippers can improve upon it.