There’s probably not one word to adequately describe how bad the Clippers shooting has been to start the season. Their 41.3% from the floor is 26th worst in the NBA, and, just one season after leading the league in 3-point efficiency, they are currently 21st in that category, while taking the third-most attempts from deep.
Even in eking out their second win — a 99-94 comeback victory Monday night over the very young and very beatable Thunder, who had not held an opponent under 100 points in 44 straight games — L.A. had to overcome a brutal first half when they sank less than a third of their field goal attempts and just 14.3% of their threes. At one point in the first quarter, the Clippers missed eight straight shots, until Terance Mann scored, and then they missed five more in a row.
Though L.A. defrosted in a big way in the second half, connecting on 12-of-21 threes, the first half was a continuation of a frustrating trend: they are not making open shots.
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According to NBA.com, the Clippers are shooting 6th worst on shots with no defender within six feet (“wide open”) and eighth poorest when someone is within 4-to-6 feet (“open”). Their rankings only slightly improve when it comes to open and wide-open threes.
10-year vet Reggie Jackson — whose confidence following an incredible postseason and a $22 million offseason payday is bordering on Hugh Hefner territory — is taking more shots than ever (16.7) but making them far less efficiently (31.0%). After going 5-for-17 in the Thunder game, Jackson was at a loss to explain his and the team’s shooting woes.
“We’ve been getting good shots all season but, I don’t know. I feel like Halloween has stuck with us,” Jackson said.
Clippers wing Paul George, however, believes some of the trouble may lie with the basketball itself.
Basketballs Need Breaking in, Too
“It’s a different basketball,” said George after the Thunder game, referring to this season’s introduction of a new official NBA game ball produced exclusively by Wilson. Spalding has been the league’s lone supplier of game balls for the last 37 years. “It don’t have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had.”
When the new ball — which has the same dimensions, comprises the same materials and sources from the same leather manufacturer as the Spalding ball — was unveiled to the public in June, Wilson’s general manager of team sports, Kevin Murphy, attributed the switch to the NBA’s desire to expand internationally and said that the league appreciated the company’s vision “to grow the game” globally. Wilson is expected to pay the league between $25 million and $35 million annually, according to SportBusiness.
In late September, after the new balls were used in the NBA combine, Summer League and training camps, Murphy said the company had received no complaints, and was hopeful that any differences from the Spalding balls would dissipate with time. “The biggest thing is to get the balls broken in and get the players comfortable with the ball,” Murphy told the L.A. Times.
Yet three weeks into the new season, comments like George’s are becoming more prevalent. On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix tweeted that Trail Blazers’ guard CJ McCullom, the president of the NBPA, is planning to solicit “feedback” from the players this week about the new ball.
McCollum is bound to get some complaints. As a league, the players are shooting just 44.7% from the field and 34.2% from three, according to Basketball-Reference. It’s a small sample size, of course, and historically-speaking percentages tend to rise as the season progresses, but if those figures were to hold, they would represent the lowest combined field goal percentage since 2003-04 and the lowest rate from behind the arc in 22 years. Average turnovers (15.1) are also higher than they have been in 14 years.
Ironically, George is one of the few Clippers who has shot well so far, averaging 28.3 points on 49.2% from the field and 41.1% from three—all above or right at his career bests. But while George’s numbers have been seemingly unaffected by the new ball, he is not blind to his teammates’ struggles nor to the conspicuous lack of aim around the league.
“You’ll see this year there’s going to be a lot of bad misses — you’ll see a lot of bad misses,” said George. “I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season. Again, not to put any excuses, or blame the basketball, but it is different. It’s no secret, it is a different basketball.”
Superstars like Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and James Harden have all struggled mightily to find their early-season stroke. In the Clippers’ first win of the season, Lillard went 2-for-18 for the Trail Blazers and the six-time All-NBA guard has only exceeded 35.0% from the floor in two of Portland’s seven games.
Not Much to Do but Wait It out
This is not the first time NBA players have struggled to get comfortable with a change to the basketball. In 2006, Spalding introduced a microfiber ball as a replacement for its all-leather model. But there was so much backlash about the new ball’s hard texture — players complained of cuts — that the league reversed course after just two months, returning for good to the leather version.
It seems unlikely that any sort of similar recall will occur this year though, especially since the ball is, for all intents and purposes, the same and given that there are a few other factors perhaps contributing to the overall ugly shooting to start the season.
The league oversaw another short summer in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, and the emergence of the Delta variant made the logistics of the NBA Summer League and training camps more difficult than they would otherwise be. This might seem like a relatively small wrinkle, but professional athletes are generally creatures of habit and anything that throws them off their routine has the chance of producing negative results.
There are also the new rules the league implemented before the season, aimed at lessening fouls on the perimeter, particularly for players who have become skilled at initiating contact on outside shots. Instead of being bailed out on bad shot attempts, like in years past, the new rules are suppressing those kinds of calls, replacing what might have been foul shots with a missed shot attempt.
Of course, that doesn’t explain L.A.’s dreadful performance on open looks. And certainly, the Clippers are still adjusting to life without their All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, who continues to rehab from July ACL surgery. But whether or not their struggles have anything to do with the new ball is somewhat irrelevant, given that all the teams are in the same situation. At this point, according to Jackson, the only thing to really do is keep plugging away and hope that the ball —the new ball — starts dropping like it did last season.
“I can’t explain it,” said Jackson. “We were just in the locker room joking I mean, last year, man, we felt like we damn-near couldn’t miss. We would call timeouts for teams knowing how hot we were going to get to a degree. Now, we’re just sitting there with our fingers crossed hoping one of them drops and then get it going.”