I remember talking to Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts a couple years ago about the NBA's growing fascination with volume passing, which is to say the number of passes a team is making per game. The dynastic Golden State Warriors made it cool, whipping the ball around 300-plus times for 30-some assists a night, but Stotts found the notion that all passes, and perhaps more importantly, passers, are created equal to be deceiving.
Is an extra pass to a worse shooter a good thing? Don't some of the best shots come early in the clock? Didn't those old Warriors teams have some of the smartest passers and best shooters in history? Sure, they can move the ball all over the place and it's still going to end up in the hands of an all-time sniper. The Blazers don't want Damian Lillard to pass up a shot on an isolation so three more passes can be made for a Rodney Hood contested jumper later in the clock.
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Reasonable minds can disagree as to how this sort of thinking has maximized, or perhaps stunted, the Blazers over the years. Still, Stotts' point remains astute: With passing, quality, if you're searching for a middle ground, is always better than quantity. Which is a roundabout way of getting to the Los Angeles Clippers, who have been one of the most purposeful passing teams in the league as part of an offensive makeover appreciated mostly in subtleties.
Entering Tuesday, the Clippers rank 18th in passes per game and 17th in assists. If you want to get technical, Ty Lue's Clippers are making 14 more passes per game this season than the team made under Doc Rivers in 2019-20 (285 to 271), which is adding up to less than one more assist each night (24.3 to 23.7).
It doesn't seem like a big difference. In fact, the Clippers have a slightly lower assist-to-pass ratio than they did last season. And yet, they're an entirely different passing team. It's been the hallmark of Lue's early tenure, staying on Kawhi Leonard to parlay the attention he draws in the paint into kick-out 3s for the Clippers' bevy of shooters. Paul George is operating with a similar mindset. They are both averaging career highs in assists, and together they are assisting on over 48 percent of the Clippers' made baskets, up from 46 percent last season.
While the Clippers' total passes might not be significantly up, their situational passes are. They are always going to have a lot of low-pass possessions given the brilliance of Leonard, George and Lou Williams as individual creators, but the instinct to move the ball at the right time has been sharpened. If you double Kawhi or George and get caught in a game of rotating, the Clippers are going to hot potato that ball to a shooter before you can blink.
And it's not hard to find a shooter. The Clippers are shooting a preposterous 42.4 percent from 3 as a team, per Cleaning the Glass, by far the top mark in the league. New addition Nicolas Batum (46 percent from 3) and George (48 percent) have been smoking-hot all season. Serge Ibaka is shooting 38 percent from deep, a number even more deadly than it sounds given his ability to stretch the floor as a pick-and-pop five man, an element the Clippers lacked last season.
Meanwhile, Luke Kennard is shooting 42 percent from 3. Leonard is at 38 percent. Patrick Beverley is 42 percent. Marcus Morris 46 percent. Lou Williams 39 percent. When you have individual scorers like Leonard and George who are going to command double teams, you just can't keep up with all those shooters as long as the offense is willing to move the ball.
Entering Tuesday, the Clippers are the No. 2 offense in the league at 119.5 points per 100 possessions, up from 114.2 last season, per CTG. They are creating 65 points per game on assists, up from 61 last season. And their formula is postseason gold: Individual creators, shooting everywhere, and a stretch-five in Ibaka who allows them to clear the lane on offense without compromising rim protection on defense.
Speaking of defense, the Clippers have climbed into the top five with a 107.7 rating, and they're even better than that number suggests through the lens of postseason viability. They have multiple elite perimeter defenders and a boatload of switchable pieces. They rebound. Their defensive shot profile is solid. They prioritize paint protection and force you to shoot a lot of above-the-break 3s with a big-dropping scheme. A drop scheme can become problematic in the playoffs depending on the matchup, but Lue has consistently shown himself to be a willing and capable adjuster.
In a potential postseason matchup with the Lakers, the Clippers don't have a defender who can give Anthony Davis consistent problems, but who does? Lou Williams is going to get spotlighted if he's in the late-game playoff lineups. Kennard, and maybe Reggie Jackson, gives Lue options in that regard, and Beverley's eventual return will cover a lot of that, too. There have been light rumors that the Clips might look to trade Williams, or perhaps Ivica Zubac, which would be for defensive purposes. We'll see if anything happens on that front.
Either way, the Clippers are for real. They've lost three of four but George and Beverley are out and they were right there with the Nets and Celtics in two of those losses. It should go without saying that the Clippers are a top-tier title threat, but considering how much fun everyone had laughing at their 3-1 playoff collapse vs. Denver in the bubble, it feels like we need a periodic reminder about this team.
Leonard should be in the top five of everyone's MVP board, and George is having an incredible season. We'll hope this bone edema (toe) that has George out right now won't linger too long, and assuming that's the case, this team is locked and loaded for a legit championship run.