The NBA has rarely had a season progress this quickly, with games happening every other day and seemingly no time to breathe. The 2011-12 lockout shortened season is the only recent stretch that’s relatable, where teams had to battle through a scrunched schedule and deal with the “three games in three nights” absurdity.
In any normal season, where the pace isn’t as rapid and teams have adequate days off, there is time for viewers to reflect on historical feats. There is simply more time to contextualize and appreciate what each team is doing, or how impressive a player is looking compared to legends who came before him.
With the Los Angeles Clippers already having 54 games in the rearview, which feels absolutely ridiculous to say because of how quickly it’s flying by, there hasn’t been a lot of time to digest exactly what they have accomplished under new head coach Ty Lue.
In fact, it’s been rather quiet. Contrary to last season, where every little thing the Clippers did was either magnified in a negative light or glorified with national coverage, their offensive production is strangely flying under the radar.
After 54 games, the Clippers not only lead the NBA in halfcourt offensive rating (104.4 points per 100 possessions), but they own the league’s second-best net rating (plus-6.7). Fittingly, they are behind only the Utah Jazz, who are chewing up opponents and spitting them out despite being overlooked in the “title favorites” hierarchy.
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But, as of this moment, the Clippers and Jazz would be my top two choices (in that order) to escape the Western Conference and reach the Finals.
They are storming through the league offensively in similar manners, riding the scorching hot shooting of their perimeter threats and breaking down defenses to create the most optimal shots in basketball.
The Clippers, specifically, are on track to snap NBA records with sharpshooting accuracy from three-point range.
In 54 games, the Clippers have shot 41.8% from beyond the arc, which leads the current league. The volume has floated around the average mark for the season, as they are hoisting 34.6 threes per game. On a per-100 possession basis, it’s 35.4 outside looks, which ranks 14th in the league.
With excellent shot selection comes tremendous results. The Clippers find themselves atop the league in 3-point percentage because of how diligent the offensive process has been under Lue, in addition to the front office executing their vision of surrounding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with elite spot-up threats.
Even with a 117.3 offensive rating and a healthy mixture of paint attacks to keep the defense on its toes each possession, L.A. should still be looking to shoot more from long-range. While already in historical territory, the team has internally emphasized launching more – as long as they are good, clean shots.
Following a statement win over the Phoenix Suns this week, Lue mentioned the coaching staff’s priority to get George more outside shots, whether that’s from him creating on his own or being set up by teammates.
George, who leads the team with 157 threes in his 48 games played, is not shying away from his desire to shoot. Although he rightfully wanted more pick-and-roll usage this season, he realizes his skills as a sniper are too valuable.
“I love it,” George said in response to the Clippers shooting more threes. “I’ve been shooting the three ball well, especially off-the-dribble. So I will be more aggressive, to look to score and take more threes, look for more opportunities to get threes. The gift about this team, as Rondo stated, is that we have so many guys who shoot it well. The floor is always spaced, and we have a lot of space to operate. So, I’m definitely with the ‘more threes’ campaign.”
If the season ended today, the Clippers would technically finish with the second-most efficient 3-point season in NBA history. However, with added context, it’s not hard to understand why they are putting up the greatest shooting season in the NBA’s 75-year lifespan.
Looking at the top 10 seasons by 3-point percentage, you’ll see four of those 10 are italicized. That’s because those particular seasons were played with a shortened perimeter:
- 1996-97 Hornets – 42.8% on 16.9 attempts
- 2020-21 Clippers – 41.8% on 34.6 attempts
- 2015-16 Warriors – 41.6% on 31.6 attempts
- 2009-10 Suns – 41.2% on 21.6 attempts
- 1995-96 Bullets – 40.7% on 14.8 attempts
- 2000-01 Spurs – 40.7% on 13.3 attempts
- 1989-90 Cavaliers – 40.7% on 10.4 attempts
- 1995-96 Pistons – 40.4% on 16.5 attempts
- 1995-96 Bulls – 40.3% on 16.6 attempts
- 2012-13 Warriors – 40.3% on 19.9 attempts
From the 1994-95 season to the end of 1996-97, the NBA shortened the 3-point line to 22 feet. Since 1997, it has been 23 feet, 9 inches away from the basket.
The Charlotte Hornets, spearheaded by Glen Rice and Dell Curry’s 333 combined triples, statistically had the NBA’s best perimeter efficiency ever.
However, as we all know, it was a completely different league in 1997. That was 25 years ago, when 16.9 attempts per game was considered high. For context, those Hornets shot 1,382 threes across their 82-game season. It only took this year’s Clippers 40 games to surpass that mark, and they are now sitting at 1,869 total attempts with 18 games remaining.
As you can see on the list above, the only team in the top 10 of all-time 3-point efficiency to get remotely close to these Clippers in volume was the 2015-16 Warriors.
Yes, those Warriors.
It may not have been the impossible-to-beat and scary-as-hell version of Golden State with Kevin Durant, but it was the 73-9 Warriors. You know, the team guided by the two greatest shooters to ever walk the Earth, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Right now, the Clippers are roughly 66% through the schedule length those Warriors had to endure. And so far, their offensive metrics not only stack up well – they exceed Golden State’s team-wide efficiency, at least in terms of shooting.
It almost feels disingenuous to include the extremely low-volume teams in these all-time shooting comparisons, considering teams only took, on average, 21.2% of their overall shots from long-range in 1996-97.
This season? The outside frequency is up to 39.3% of overall shots, league-wide.
Therefore, let’s eliminate any team that took fewer than 20 threes per game.
Looking through NBA history, there have been 20 different groups to average at least 20 perimeter attempts per game. Ranked by efficiency, it’s no surprise to see the 2021 Clippers and 2016 Warriors standing atop the mountain:
Only three teams in the table above have eclipsed 40% or better from deep. Notice how significantly lower the volume of the third team, the 2009-10 Suns, was compared to the Clippers and Warriors. That was the final year of Steve Nash’s title opportunities in Phoenix, with him leading the Suns to the West Finals. They attempted 10 fewer threes per game than Golden State did six years later.
This year’s Jazz are currently averaging the third-highest volume from 3-point range in NBA history. In terms of attempts, they are behind only the two most-recent versions of the Harden-led Rockets … and those teams didn’t come close to Utah’s efficiency.
So, for as outrageously efficient as the Clippers have been, there is also an argument to suggest Utah’s shooting success is even more impressive. The Jazz are 2.8 percentage points behind the Clippers this season, but they are attempting 8.4 more outside shots on a nightly basis.
There is also the current Brooklyn Nets, a star-studded unit inching closer to the 40% mark overall on slightly higher volume than the Clippers.
Ultimately, it will be intriguing to see if Lue’s calling for more threes – and the addition of Rajon Rondo to help facilitate that movement – will drop the Clippers below their all-time mark.
Typically, greater volume will lead to slightly worse numbers. It’s just how math works.
However, with the Clippers’ shooting rotation looking like THIS, it’s hard to imagine that would be the case:
*ATB = Above-the-Break threes
They have five players shooting 40% or better on above-the-break threes (from the top of the key or the wings) on at least 80 total attempts. Drop the threshold to 37% and they have eight players.
From the corners, the Clippers have eight players shooting at least 40% (min. 30 total shots). Six of those eight players are shooting better than 45% on corner threes, which is flat-out unheard of.
In fact, among the 80 players in the NBA that have attempted 50-plus corner threes, Paul George (61.3%) and Marcus Morris (55.3%) rank first and second. They are both ahead of the Australian legend, Joe Ingles, who is shooting 54.9% from the corners.
When Rondo was asked what the biggest surprise, to him, would be about the Clippers since joining the team, he pointed out the shooting expertise and versatility.
“How good of a shooting team we are, and also just our defensive presence,” Rondo said. “Being able to switch one through five, our personnel gives a lot of teams problems. Since I’ve been here and watching the team play, it’s very encouraging. Like I said, we have big plans.”
Zooming in closer to the Clippers’ pursuit of every shooting record in the book, it was legitimately jarring to see the gap between LA and everyone else since 2015-16 in “spot-up” opportunities. Currently, the Clippers are generating 1.24 points per spot-up possession, which is almost lapping the field over the last six years:
It’s worth pointing out the NBA.com tracking service only goes back to the 2015-16 season. Could there have been teams in the past to generate similar spot-up numbers as the Clippers and Jazz this season? It’s doubtful, but possible. As previously stated, the sheer increase in 3-point volume over the last decade is more meaningful than a team from the 1990s or 2000s that may have shot as efficiently on (much) lower numbers.
The Clippers have a 63.2% effective field goal percentage on spot-up possessions – a figure that doesn’t seem real. They are taking 7.2 more spot-up jumpers than the 2015-16 Warriors, a unit that specialized in creating wide-open looks off Curry and Draymond Green pick-and-roll action. When the defense would trap Curry and let Green roam free, he would either lob it to someone in the dunker’s spot or hit a teammate in the corners for the cleanest look imaginable.
Not only do the Clippers create more of those chances, but they are making defenses pay an even greater price for leaving shooters, shooting 7.1 percentage points better (in eFG%) than Golden State did on spot-ups.
As I laid out early in the season, the entire philosophy for the Clippers this season has been the “paint and spray” approach. When Lue took over for Doc Rivers, the greatest benefit he wanted to bring to the team was a modern offensive style. His encouragement of George and Leonard to attack the rim and force multiple rotations, as well as his reinforcement to the role players to “let it fly” has completely unlocked their outside shooting.
Only 24.5% of the Clippers’ 3-point attempts have come off-the-dribble, despite them leading the NBA in conversion rate on those more difficult looks (38.6%). That is largely due to George’s supreme ability to nail pull-up threes. For George, 131 of his 299 total attempts have come off-the-dribble. He’s 44.3% effective on those shots, while ever other Clipper is combining to shoot 36.4% on pull-up threes. So, they can thank him for the boost in that department.
Since only a quarter of the Clippers’ outside shots are coming off-the-dribble, that means almost 75% are coming on catch-and-shoot chances – one of the highest proportions in the league.
Under Ty Lue, the Clippers are taking the right kind of threes. And they are getting plenty of them every night. This was the case before the trade for Rondo, which is why it was always puzzling to hear anything about them needing a different floor general.
As a team, just how effective have they been in catch-and-shoot scenarios this season?
Digging through tracking data available since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Clippers’ 42.9% splash rate in catch-and-shoot threes is currently the best. It’s slightly ahead of – you guessed it – the greatest regular season team we’ve ever seen:
If you sort the table by eFG% on catch-and-shoots, which is a way to prioritize higher volume, you will see the Clippers and Nets sitting first and second, respectively.
L.A. and Brooklyn are also currently sporting two of the top three seasons in True Shooting Percentage among all teams in history:
- 2020-21 Nets – 60.9%
- 2017-18 Warriors – 60.3%
- 2020-21 Clippers – 60.2%
- 2016-17 Warriors – 59.7%
- 2020-21 Suns – 59.6%
- 2018-19 Warriors – 59.6%
We are living in the golden era of shooting, floor spacing, and unbelievable individual shot creation. So, there is no coincidence two of the top championship contenders this season find themselves ahead of the all-time pack.
With the Clippers looking to maintain this level of offensive potency for another 18 games (and every playoff series that will follow), it’s important to understand just how much stronger they are this year compared to last.
To some degree, they are being “slept on” – as the kids would call it these days – in regards to their ability to win the West. With the only real comparison to L.A.’s shooting and offensive production being the 2016 Warriors, a team that won the West and was within seconds of becoming back-to-back champs, there is no denying the Clippers have the firepower.
Will they fizzle out in the playoffs again, with the identity of a jumpshot-reliant team that’s susceptible to deadly cold streaks?
Nobody knows. But that is partly why they addressed their biggest need after the All-Star break and started tweaking their tendencies. The Clippers are driving to the rim more than they were in the opening months of the season, and the idea behind Rondo’s activity in the postseason is to help them maintain this balance when things go awry, or when they take a punch and find themselves in a hole.
This version of the Clippers is smarter, more decisive, and more explosive offensively than last year’s. In all three of those categories, it’s actually not even close. They are better suited for a deep run with this group.
While they won’t be resembling a flamethrower for the entire playoffs without hiccups, this historic shooting display should instill fear in a lot of opponents.