LOS ANGELES — Sixty-four games into the season is far too late to have an identity crisis.
But an identity crisis — or, more accurately, a lack of consistent identity — defines these Clippers. What we said about them during October’s preseason is just as true with the calendar flipping to March: They have the talent to contend if they can just stay healthy and figure out how to play together.
This team has had no story arc, just the same continued questions with no good answers. Roster changes — including bringing in Russell Westbrook, who now starts at the point — have only added to the recent on-court issues as guys figure out how to play with more new lineups and rotations.
It shows with the Clippers are 0-3 since the All-Star break — “It’s stressing me,” Westbrook said after the Clippers’ latest loss — with a critical playoff-positioning showdown against the Warriors coming Thursday.
Westbrook has not been the problem. Not only is he averaging 16 points and 9.3 assists a game since arriving, but he has also been efficient (64 true shooting percentage) and has largely played within the role coach Tyronn Lue as asked.
“In a lot of ways, this is like a perfectly crafted roster for him,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “You know, they have put a lot of spread lineups out there, they run to cover the three-point line in transition and really open up early attacks that he’s elite at… It’s a pretty seamless transition for me.”
“He’s been great,” Lue said. “You know, I think defensively been really good, and rebounds the basketball, getting into the paint and making the right play. Like I said he’s limited some of those early mid-range twos, and getting Kawhi, PG and those guys open 3s by getting into the paint.
However, Westbrook’s style and particularly his pace — something Lue wants — changes how the Clippers play at their core, and that adjustment is leading to mistakes.
The Clippers had 25 turnovers Tuesday in a loss to the Timberwolves, and in their three games with Westbrook have turned the ball over on 18.3% of their possessions (for context, the Jazz turn the ball over the most of any team this season at 15.3% of their possessions, and the Clippers averaged 10.9 turnovers a game when Terance Mann ran the point for 20 games at a slower pace).
“When you want to be a good offensive team you just can’t turn the ball over that many times, it just it’s too hard to recover,” Lue said. “I don’t care if you have Michael Jordan, Shaq, everybody on the floor, you turn the ball over 25 times it’s hard to win the game. We just gotta get guys used to playing with one another.”
The lack of chemistry shows in other ways. Tuesday, with just more than a minute to go and the Clippers down five, they needed a quick bucket but the half-court set developed slowly and became clear out for Westbrook, not action to get the ball to Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, or set them up in isolation (their strength).
“Those are situations where we had to get better,” Lue said. “You know, those are the areas we got to you know, be smart and make sure we were getting a good shot and who we want to get the basketball to…
“That’s on me too, because we haven’t had a chance to work late game [situations] with the team we have right now. But we should understand, we should be smarter about who we want to get the ball to and how we want to do it.”
Then there are the defensive issues. Lue talked about late rotations, the low man not getting to Rudy Gobert fast enough at points Tuesday, and just a defense where guys were not on a string.
“We’re still not where we need to be defensively,” George said. “Like our help-side defense, our shrinking the floor, our one-on-one defense, our transition defense, like we’re really not playing well defensively.”
What the Clippers need now is the one thing they don’t have — time. At 33-31, the Clippers sit just half a game out of the play-in, and their next six games are Warriors, Kings, Grizzlies, Raptors, Knicks, and then the Warriors again. The Clippers have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league.
“We just got to just continue to drill it,” George said of fixing the defense. “Continue to drill it with new guys here, new rotations, new personnel. We just got to drill it once we get it, you know, we’ll get back to what we were doing before the break.”
Can they do it fast enough is the question.