Altering how your basketball team plays and operates is never easy. But doing it after losing three of the most vital cogs in your offensive machine? It seems like a process that would undermine even the best of teams, only because that’s too much of a turnover and change in philosophy. For the Los Angeles Clippers, it could have been a death blow. Instead, it’s turned into a saving grace.
When the Clippers lost Chris Paul to pseudo free agency1, it signaled that the team was entering a new era. A few days later, the Clippers traded Jamal Crawford to Atlanta in a three-way deal to get Danilo Gallinari. A couple days after that, J.J. Redick signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. And, just like that, three of the team’s top five scorers from the 2016-17 season were gone.
After all the smoke had cleared, only five players remained from the 2016-17 incarnation of the Los Angeles Clippers. They were Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Brice Johnson. The first three were the only players to end up in the top ten on the team in scoring. In having that much roster turnover, the Clippers found themselves trying to find a new way to play, and find that way they have. With the additions of Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Danilo Gallinari, and Milos Teodosic, as well as various rookies throughout the year, whether that be second round picks or G-Leaguers, they have changed their style.
Due to the departure of several players that loved to live in the mid-range — namely Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and Jamal Crawford — the Clippers had to find a way to reinvent themselves. Part of the reason sending Paul to the Rockets was actually a good thing is because Houston general manager Daryl Morey had long been a proponent of cutting out mid-range shots from his team’s arsenal. That only helped the Clippers since the players they got back weren’t taking those not-as-efficient shots.
Further to that point, a guy like Jamal Crawford has attempted 38.8 percent of his overall shots from this season with the Minnesota Timberwolves in one very specific location. You guessed it, the mid-range. That might not seem like a big deal, but consider the fact that Lou Williams is the guy who essentially replaced him on the Clippers. For Williams, it’s 16.3 percent. That’s a dramatic difference.
The Clippers have tried to replace Chris Paul’s overall production with Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. All three guys have been injured at various points throughout the season, and for Beverley it’s looking like he won’t play at all the rest of the year. This season, though, even in Morey’s system, Paul is taking 19.6 percent of his total shots from the mid-range area. Compare that to Beverley and Teodosic combined: 17.3 percent.
Perhaps the biggest change has been internally, though. Austin Rivers had an 8.3 Mid-Range FGA% during the 2016-17 season, but that’s dipped down to 5.9 percent this season. And then there’s Blake Griffin. The physical power forward essentially revamped his arsenal to fit Chris Paul’s game, which was understandable, but even he’s changed approach this season without the domineering point guard at the helm. Last season, Griffin’s FGA% from the mid-range was 33.5 percent. This season? 13.1 percent.
A lot of this is illustrated in the chart below, which covers the franchise’s last ten seasons of shot data and how it’s been distributed from an attempt standpoint.
The dramatic shift in shot philosophy is staggering, especially over just one season. Some of this is due to injury for the Clippers, and there really is no denying that. One thing that could hurt the Clippers — and it sounds weird to even say it like that because he can be good when he’s on his game — is the return of Danilo Gallinari in the coming weeks. Last season, Gallinari had a Mid-Range FGA% of 27.7 percent. It was 28.1 percent two seasons ago. He’s at 23.7 percent in limited action this season. So, when he returns, the team rate will go up.
Either way, the data bears out a staggering change for the team. One might read it and say that Paul, Redick, and Crawford were holding the Clippers back, but that’s also not the case. When players leave, you have to make a cultural shift sometimes. This was one of those times for Doc Rivers and company. It also doesn’t hurt that a couple of the players2 that were held over from the previous year have reduced their inefficiency while the new guys have helped on that front, as well.
Based on the table up above, the most prominent problem when it comes to mid-range shots on the Los Angeles Clippers for this season is none other than Lou Williams, but he still only takes 16.3 percent of all of his total shots from that area. After him, it’s Wesley Johnson. In Johnson’s case, he’s seen Mid-Range FGA% go up from 23.0 percent last season to 31.7 percent this year. The good news, at least somewhat, is that Johnson is shooting 40.0 percent from mid-range this season, but it’s still not worth it for him to take that shot.
On the year, Johnson has averaged 0.80 points per shot from the mid-range as compared to 0.97 on threes. When adjusting for corner threes, it’s 1.16 points per shot from three for Wesley Johnson in 2017-18. He should probably tone back his mid-range shot rate, as well, but it’s hard for a player that late into his career to change. When it comes to Jawun Evans, a second round rookie, it’s a bigger problem, but it’s one that makes sense.
After all, Evans is a rookie that took a lot of mid-range shots in college. Last season at Oklahoma State, Evans took 155 two-point jumpers. He only made 58 of them, which is 37.4 percent (or 0.75 points per shot). Evans took 95 three-point attempts last season and made 37.9 percent, which put him at 1.14 points per shot. This season, Evans is at 0.60 points per shot from the mid-range and 0.81 on threes. It would behoove him to take more threes and eschew the long twos, but he’s also a 21-year old rookie that’s learning how to play in an entirely different league and system. Those kinks can be worked out.
One of the other guys to look at is Milos Teodosic. The 30-year old Serbian rookie has definitely taken far more threes than mid-range shots, but the reason his Mid-Range FGA% is so high is that he doesn’t actually shoot around the rim. Teodosic has only taken 10 field goal attempts all season inside the paint. Teodosic is averaging 0.89 points per shot from the mid-range and 1.07 from three.
The interesting thing is that Jawun Evans is the only non-big to have a higher Mid-Range FGA% than Three-Point FGA% this season. When it came to last season, both Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford had a higher MRFGA% than TPFGA%, and it was quite evident from just watching the team whenever they took the court. Last season, there were four different players on the Clippers who attempted at least 298 mid-range shots — J.J. Redick, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Jamal Crawford. This year? There are no players on pace for more than 220, and only one on pace for more than 150.
There’s no telling how long this change in philosophy will last for the Clippers since Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers should be back sometime in the next couple weeks. One helps with this shot distribution, but the other doesn’t. Blake Griffin’s evolution as a three-point shooter from last season to this season — thus expanding his range from long twos to actual threes, which are far better and smarter shots — is a vital component of this team’s success.
Lou Williams is on pace to actually outpace Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul inside the paint, in terms of total shots, by himself this season. Last season, the two guards who are no longer in Los Angeles attempted a grand total of 383 shots inside the paint. Williams has already attempted 281. The change has happened, and it’s been driven by every new player that’s arrived on the team and by some players who were carryovers.
If the Clippers want to continue to keep pace with the teams around them in the standings and eventually make the playoffs, getting healthy would certainly help, but the biggest thing will be for them to continue along this path of efficiency. As of right now, Los Angeles ranks 4th in the NBA in lowest FGA% in the mid-range. The only three teams that attempt mid-range shots at a lower rate this season are the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, and Denver Nuggets — Brooklyn and Denver aren’t by much, though.
No matter what the perception of Doc Rivers happens to be, there’s no denying the fact that he has reshaped and remolded the 2017-18 Clippers into a vastly different image than what the 2016-17 Clippers were. Last year’s team attempted to out-talent opponents. This year’s will try to outwork and outsmart. The latter is a lot more conducive to success, at least this season, than the former. There are 38 games remaining in the Clippers’ season. The next 38 will decide a lot. At the rate they’re going, the change in thinking will be a big reason they’re in it until the very end.
1.) This is exactly what it was, if we’re keeping it real. I mean, if Chris Paul could have just signed outright with the Houston Rockets instead of having to have the Clippers trade him there, he would have done it. There’s no debating that fact. Sure, it looks like a trade, which is because that’s what it was, but Paul was leaving the Clippers either way and the only possible way he gets to Houston is if they trade him there. So, yes, he did do the Clippers a major favor by agreeing to a trade, but if he could have left and signed in Houston outright, he would have. He would have left the Clippers with nothing if he had the chance to. And that’s not a bad thing. It would have been his right. ↩
2.) As noted before, the change that Blake Griffin made in his game to stop taking so many mid-range shots and start taking more threes has been one of the better changes he’s made in his career. Last season, Griffin made 42.5 percent of his mid-range shots. He’s hit 33.3 percent of his threes this season, but consider it like this: Griffin is averaging 0.99 points per three-point attempt this season as opposed to 0.85 points per mid-range shot last season. In essence, Griffin is being more efficient this season than last season despite making a lower percentage from a better area. ↩