Red-Hot Clippers Surprisingly on Pace to Break League Record

Kawhi Leonard

Getty Kawhi Leonard takes aim from three

The Los Angeles Clippers, who, in 51 years, have as many NBA titles as the common house cat, are accustomed to playing second fiddle to their crosstown rival Lakers, who have 17 (titles, not cats).

So while, historically speaking, the orchestral order is correct for the two L.A. teams, until recently the Clippers could plausibly claim equal footing with their California brethren to the north — the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors.

Sure, the Kings went to the Western Conference finals in 2001, and yes, the Warriors won a championship when Ford was president, plus a couple of others while they were still in Philadelphia (’47 and ’56). But otherwise, the Clippers, Kings and Warriors had been equally inept when it came to taking home hardware.

That all changed starting in 2015 when Steph Curry became arguably the greatest shooter of all time, Klay Thompson became his able sidekick, and Kevin Durant, an undefendable scoring god more often than not, eventually became a Warrior. Golden State won three NBA titles in four years, set a record for most wins in a season (73 in ’16), and indisputably forced the Clippers down to the back half of the Cali pack.

But here come the Clippers in 2021. Sporting the fifth-best record in the league (37-18) and a bevy of playoff-tested veterans, L.A. is not only winning more than the injury-depleted Warriors (25-28), they are outperforming those formerly dominant Golden State teams in the one category for which they were best known: three-point shooting.

Go Long or Go Home

On 34.5 attempts per game, the Clippers are shooting 42.1% from three. That percentage is by far tops in the league this season (Milwaukee is second at 39.3%) and exactly five points higher than their 37.1% in 2019-20.

But most astoundingly, through 55 games, for teams averaging 30 attempts or more, the Clippers have the highest three-point percentage in the history of the NBA. That’s right, the history of the NBA.

By comparison, the 73-win Warriors of 2015-16 shot 41.6% on 31.6 attempts, and the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns shot 41.2%, but the Suns only hoisted 21.6 attempts.

Of course, 55 games does not make a season and there are plenty of NBA analysts who believe there’s no way the Clippers can sustain their long-range accuracy, especially in the playoffs. The naysayers include FS1’s Nick Wright, who had this to say after the Clippers shot 55.9% on 34 three-point attempts en route to demolishing Milwaukee 129-105 on March 29:

There’s two ways to look at it. One way is, this is the best offense in basketball, the defense has come around of late, and because of that, this is a far more dangerous team than they were last year. The other way to look at is, do we really think that Reggie Jackson is going to shoot 44% from three in the playoffs? Do you really think Marcus Morris is going shoot better than Steph Curry ever has in a playoff run in the playoffs? I don’t.

Naturally, Wright has a point. Jackson is a career 34.5% shooter from behind the arc, and no one expects Morris to outshoot Steph Curry in the playoffs. Furthermore, out of the 11 Clippers who have played most this season, only one (Serge Ibaka) is not shooting above his career three-point percentage. Most data scientists would insist that kind of aberration is bound to face a correction.

But confidence is a real thing in professional sports. With only 17 games remaining and with the league’s second-easiest schedule from now till the playoffs, there’s reason to believe the Clippers will end the season as the best high-volume three-point team ever, entering the playoffs with enough confidence to keep it going.

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Not a sure bet by any stretch, but 55 games is not exactly a small data set, especially in the context of a season with more back-to-backs (aka more tired legs) than usual.

Good Looks Come From Spacing

Sunday’s 131-124 win over the Detroit Pistons was the Clippers’ latest display of long-range sharpshooting. Though “only” attempting 26 triples, L.A. made 15 of them (55.7%). Nic Batum went 4-for-4 from behind the arc, raising his season percentage to 42.5%, well above his career 36.1%. And Morris, who scored 33 overall, dropped in 6-of-8 from long distance, driving his season percentage to almost a full 10 points above his career baseline (46.9% vs 37.6%).

Asked afterward if he was surprised by L.A.’s historically great shooting, 11-year veteran Paul George, who is sporting a career-best 43.8% from three this season, pointed to the team’s overall comfort level and head coach Ty Lue’s offensive scheme:

It’s kind of what I expected from this group. We’ve got a lot of guys who shoot the ball well, shoot it at a high clip. A lot of guys are comfortable making tough shots, I think that’s really what it comes down to. No one on this team is shy to shoot it […] they’re very comfortable shooting tough shots and contested shots. We’re getting a majority of them with great looks, but then we’ve got to step up and make big shots. I think we’ve been deadly at that, too. (Ty) Lue has given us a plan to space the floor, we’ve got space to attack if someone overhelps, overcommits, [and] we’re making the right plays and we’re giving guys good looks.

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