Dazzled by stars

Anxiety makes poor strategy for the Clippers


Early in the fourth quarter that ended the Clippers’ title hopes, Jeff Van Gundy declared that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have “got to make it happen.” There are many players on the Clippers’ roster. This was a coach’s assertion that it would be a tactical error for the ball to find the Clippers’ less famous players like Marcus Morris Sr., Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, or Patrick Beverley (or Ivica Zubac, who was plastered to the bench anyway).

This kind of thinking echoes how the Clippers were constructed. To secure Kawhi, they traded away seven-to-nine valuable or potentially valuable players for Paul George. This is one of the NBA’s most dramatic, all-in bets on famous players above all else. Those seven-to-nine traded players were mostly first-round draft picks … a lot of seventh and 14th picks don’t even make the league, some become mere role players, maybe none will be a star. Their collective value is hard to measure. So teams gamble that if they get the stars—whatever it takes—those stars will solve all of their problems in very measurable ways.

Evidently everyone involved—Doc Rivers, Kawhi, PG—agreed with Van Gundy. George was determined. He missed two shots in the quarter’s first minutes, and then missed again with eight minutes, 4:12, and 2:48 left. Kawhi missed at 10:43, 9:28, 7:28, 4:59, and 4:20 left.

Meanwhile, the Clippers’ fourth quarter points scored:

  • 6 Montrezl Harrell

  • 4 JaMychal Green

  • 3 Lou Williams

  • 2 Patrick Beverley

That’s 15 points on 12 shots from the non-stars, zero points on 10 shots from stars. This was an outlier, oddball quarter—an unlucky collection of star misses. (Doc Rivers spent part of it in the hands-on-knees position of a vomiter.) Maybe it would never happen this way again. But the way Denver was sending defenders at Kawhi, his looks were perilous. He has been nursing chronic injuries for years. (A friend watching this series noted his “check engine light has been on for a while.”)

Somewhere in there on the broadcast Mark Jackson told us Kawhi Leonard needed to “elevate his game.” But of course, people don’t get to choose if their shots go in or not. They only get to choose if they shoot them, and Kawhi and George—knowing what would be said about him if they didn’t—fired away. 

Harrell and Green dunked seemingly every pass they caught.

We have been misled
This obsession that stars must do the shooting is harmful. When Harrell is around the rim unguarded, he should get the ball without hesitation or anxiety (just as Daniel Theis has been a major late-game scorer for the Celtics). If it happens enough, the defense changes, then it’s star time again. 

It’s inarguable that you need stars to contend, because it takes a star to eff up the defense. The star should then read that defense and find high quality opportunities. Often this will mean not being the one to shoot, like Michael Jordan shoveling a game-winning pass to Bill Wennington, because unguarded at the rim, Wennington had the advantage.

Strategy is putting people in position to succeed. Execution is making it happen.

It’s weird to have coaches, whose jobs are in strategy, betting blindly on execution. But that’s the star panic. 

Early in the fourth quarter the Nuggets scored seven straight, building the lead that would win the series, with their star, Jokic, on the bench. Jokic has often been exhausted and ineffective at the end of games when he has played long minutes. In my mind, even if the Clippers came roaring back, the Nuggets would be favorites simply because their best player and focal point would be the only fresh player on the floor. Rest, as David Thorpe says, is a weapon. Then things stalled. Both teams had terrible-looking offense. Van Gundy had another anxiety attack, saying he would call a timeout, with a double-digit lead, to get Jokic in the game. Then—amazingly—the Nuggets did just that! Jokic, the star, came in and missed his next four shots. It would be almost four minutes before Jokic or the Nuggets’ offense did anything useful again.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets won, essentially, by keeping the kinds of picks the Clippers traded away for Paul George. Jamal Murray was seventh. Michael Porter Jr. was 14th. Nikola Jokic was 41st. Monte Morris was 51st. They also drafted so-so and bad players over that period too, but all in all, they valued young prospects long-term, got them the ball, and they blossomed.

David Thorpe on June 12:

There isn’t enough time to develop a culture or strategy that can be executed well enough to take down The King and the incredible Anthony Davis. LeBron came to L.A. to play with the best teammate he’d ever have. Davis is his Scottie Pippen. Absent the pandemic I would still favor the Clippers or possibly the Bucks. But this summer favors the team with the best players, and that’s the Lakers.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop!