The Clippers finished the preseason undefeated, without a major injury and ranked among the NBA leaders in defensive rating, net rating, rebounding and field goal shooting.
It was as good a start as could be hoped for – and revealed little to the team about who they will be once the regular season begins Wednesday against Denver at Staples Center.
“We’re not getting excited about the results in preseason,” center Marcin Gortat said. “The first 20-30 games will show, will verify, who we are. We still believe that we can surprise a lot of players, a lot of teams but in order for us to do that we’ve got to go out and do it. We can’t just talk about it. I’d rather show you out on the court. I don’t want to stand in front of microphone and camera and tell you how good we’re going to be. I want to show it on the court.”
That isn’t to say the Clippers don’t expect some of what worked to translate to the regular season.
Allowing 86.7 points per 100 possessions, the league's second-lowest mark behind Utah, is in line with internal expectations of developing an elite defense. Similarly there is a belief that the ball movement that produced 27.8 assists per game, the fifth-highest preseason mark, can continue as coach Doc Rivers de-emphasizes the role of a ball-dominating point guard and instead allows anyone who grabs a rebound to push the ball upcourt.
Yet parsing five preseason games for concrete insights is difficult because of the nature of the preseason, where the evaluation of fringe players and goal of keeping starters healthy creates a deeper rotation than will be used come Wednesday’s opener.
Rivers felt the offensive spacing got progressively worse with each game and, outside of guard Lou Williams and forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, doesn’t yet have an answer to a key offseason concern – who can he rely on to get buckets in crunch time?
“The key still will be can we rebound well enough, how do we finish games, can we stop scoring droughts, and defensively, how good will we be?” Rivers said. “If we do all those things well, then we're going to be a great basketball team this year. If we do half of them, then I'm not sure yet because I don't know what that translates into. There are certain things we have to do every night and being a good transition defensive team is one of them.”
The Clippers ranked last in the league by allowing 15.4 fast-break points per game last season and allowed 11.6 during this preseason, which ranks 11th.
Teams have until Monday afternoon to trim rosters to the league-maximum 15 and the Clippers appear comfortable waiting until the deadline. As of Sunday all players were on hand for practice and only Desi Rodriguez (waived Tuesday) and Jamel Artis (waived Saturday, one day after signing) were no longer with the team.
Rivers has called depth one of this team’s greatest assets but is in the process of shortening his rotation.
“You have to but you can’t be scared to widen it on certain nights,” he said. “The whole key for our team is everybody going to be able to accept that because that’s hard.… The right way is you just tell them and you’re honest. I’ve always done that. Some take it well. You don’t want them to take it too well, though. It’s a tough one.”
Tyrone Wallace is one whose opportunities, after averaging 15.2 minutes in the preseason, could shrink unless the Clippers offload one of their nine guards. The 6-foot-5 guard was a beneficiary of the Clippers’ injuries last season as they allowed him to rise from a G-League stopgap into someone the team used during 30 games because his height and reach make him versatile enough to guard three positions.
Wallace made enough of an impression that the Clippers in September matched New Orleans’ offer sheet worth two years and $3 million.
“I definitely like the point guard position, am a point guard, so you know hopefully I can get minutes there,” he said. “But if I'm playing off the ball because I'm bigger, there's not a problem with that, either.”
Another whose regular-season role remains intriguing is 7-foot-3 center Boban Marjanovic, whose dominance in his brief preseason stretches translated to averages of 55.3 points and 30.4 rebounds per 48 minutes.
Those numbers are outrageous yet the Clippers believe it isn’t out of the question to think he can replicate some of that impact during the regular season.
“You got to be really focused on the guy to guard him right because otherwise he’s going to get you 20 [points] and 12 [rebounds] in eight minutes,” Gortat said. “That’s what he did, he showed up every game, he checked in for eight minutes and he got double-double. I mean, Jesus Christ, that’s better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”