It’s a time of much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Los Angeles — and not just because Kobe Bryant is returning to the court soon.
The Los Angeles Clippers were expected by many to be at or near the top of the Western Conference standings. After the import of Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, this looked to be a championship-caliber team. They were already a top-10 outfit on both offense and defense last year; surely the additions of those three, and the upgrades that they represented, would be enough to at least sustain such lofty rankings, if not surpass them.
Yeah, not so much, especially on the defensive end. The Clippers are 2nd in offensive rating through the first eighth of the season, but their defense has been atrocious. They’re surrendering the second most points per 100 possessions of any team in the league at 106.8; only the Detroit Pistons, another team whose roster underwent a facelift, have been worse.
It’s easy to point to the new faces in Los Angeles as being the problem. The thinking goes that with the Clippers adjusting to a new defensive scheme and getting their new wings acclimated to playing with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, a period of growing pains is to be expected. And on the surface, it certainly makes sense; as the Houston Rockets have demonstrated, adding new pieces can take its toll on a team, particularly on the defensive end.
But I’m not entirely sure that adjustments to new blood are truly behind Los Angeles’s defensive woes, especially after diving deeper into the numbers.* The real culprit in Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be change and the necessary adaptations that come along for the ride; it’s the bench.
*WARNING, WARNING: Small sample size caveats are in full effect with the upcoming data. Much must be taken with a grain of salt this early in the season. Defensive rating since 2005 has been one of the metrics most vulnerable to regression as a season plays on — which is good news for a Clippers team that would expect such regression to improve their defensive standing — and citing lineup data this early is rife with its own issues. None of what’s to come is to say that this is who the Clippers are; instead, this is who they’ve been, and it’s offered as an explanation as to why their defense to this point has put up such awful cumulative numbers.
The first thing that pops out when investigating the problems with Los Angeles’s defense is the vast discrepancy between the numbers posted by the starters and the bench. The Clippers’ most commonly used lineup — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — has been rather respectable against other teams’ most prolific five-man units. The Los Angeles starters have posted a 100.9 defensive rating, which would be good for the 12th best defensive mark in the league. That’s a bit of a step back from their 8th-ranked defense last year, but it’s a small enough difference that one could chalk it up to the aforementioned learning curve. And it’s almost six full points per 100 possessions than their aggregate total of 106.8.
Instead, the real culprit in the Clippers’ struggles is their bench, all the way from the point guard to the center. As any Los Angeles fan or analyst will gladly yell at you if given the chance, the bench has been abhorrent in both their effort and execution on the defensive end. Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins overrotate, hedge too far on the pick and roll (when they actually notice that a screen is coming, anyway) and find themselves constantly out of position. Darren Collison is game to at least try on a team’s initial action, but once he finds himself out of position, he too often seems to surrender the possession to the opposition as if he’s already preparing to initiate the offense in the other direction. This possession against the Thunder is especially damning for all involved:
That’s not a particularly easy finish by Hasheem Thabeet (of all people), but ignore the result for a second. The process is entirely flawed. Mullens does a fair job of showing against the pick and roll initially, but his momentum carries him out to the Clippers halfcourt logo and a full two steps past Jeremy Lamb at the top of the set. Meanwhile, Collison goes under the screen and ends up near the free throw line, giving Lamb an extended view of the chaos happening behind the play. With Mullens so far out of position, DeAndre Jordan — who’s been unfairly maligned for his defensive play to this point — is left with the unenviable task of trying to defend a rolling Nick Collison coming down the lane and Thabeet stashing himself on the baseline. Jordan makes the right play, in my opinion, by crashing onto Collison, but there’s no rotation behind him to pick up Thabeet. From there, it’s an easy pass by Lamb to Thabeet for the look at the rim.
But even lineups with a mix of starters and bench players have struggled at times, and a glance at the advanced statistics for Los Angeles’s most used lineups denotes a pretty striking trend:
No one would consider Redick a lockdown defender by any means, but his time in Orlando under coach Stan Van Gundy was well spent. Redick is a fantastic system defender, almost always in the right place at the right time and making the proper rotation when necessary. As a shooter himself, he has an ever-developing sense of when to help in the paint off of a shooter in the corner and when to stay attached to his mark, depending on whether said opponent is a threat from beyond the arc. And his commitment to proper schematic positioning is an absolute boon for the Clippers bigs; one of the biggest criticisms against Jordan is that he overhelps when the ball finds its way into the paint, hunting for blocked shots at the expense of preventing a dump-off pass to the man he had been guarding. That tendency — which Jordan has addressed over the past two seasons, though not yet completely — is exacerbated by wing defenders who are out of position or caught flatfooted. The most egregious offender on the wing has been Dudley, who looks out of sorts when he’s not playing with the starting five.
Dudley makes a couple of mistakes in this play that open the floodgates on a defensive breakdown for the Clippers. He bites on the pumpfake and takes himself out of position to properly defend the drive by Corey Brewer, and as a result, Griffin has to step over to cut off Brewer’s look at the rim. Once again, Jordan is stuck trying to defend two players at once, and Kevin Love ends up open under the basket. Los Angeles does a good job of getting back into position to at least contest Love’s look at the rim, but a player of Love’s size and skill can’t be afforded the opportunity to gather himself under the basket for a layup.
These two clips also give some context to one of the more egregious numbers related to the Clippers’ defense. Jordan is allowing opposing players to shoot 63% on attempts at the rim when he’s defending, defined as “the defender being within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot.” That’s a mark surpassed almost exclusively by wings and guards; of bigs who have played at least 20 minutes per game in at least 8 games, only Kenneth Faried has been worse at defending the rim. Yet that number obscures the fact that all too often, Jordan’s defense at the rim amounts to him being in the general vicinity of a field goal attempt, yet not actually engaged in defending the shooter. Be it from overhelping when he should have stayed on his man or from being pulled out of position by poor team-wide rotations and help defense, Jordan often finds himself on the periphery of a layup or dunk — just quick and athletic enough to put himself back in the frame of reference, but too far removed to do much about it.
So the good news for the Clippers is that the bad news isn’t as bad as it seems. Their most used lineups are playing well together, particularly with Redick’s ability to be in position on the wing, which makes Jordan and Griffin’s task that much easier on the inside. But there’s still a lot for Los Angeles to clean up here, regardless of the lineup on the floor. They should continue to adjust to both Doc Rivers’s system and the tendencies of their teammates, which will go a long way, particularly for Griffin and Jordan, who are both able and improving defenders who remain rather inconsistent at times and are done no favors by their wings when Redick sits.
Unfortunately, there’s little expectation for improvement from their bench, which is chock-full of poor defenders who won’t see the necessary time together to become a cohesive unit. The horrific defense by the bench will almost certainly continue for Los Angeles. But that’s not to necessarily say that Los Angeles on the whole is an awful defensive team. They have their strengths and their weaknesses, like most teams in the league. And, again, we’re dealing with incredibly small sample sizes here. This isn’t who the Clippers are, necessarily. It’s who they’ve been. As the season progresses, the starters might regress toward the bench, or vice-versa. For now, they’ll have to fight against the current whenever the reserves check in and give back the lead generated by the starters. It’s certainly a regular season problem, as Los Angeles fights for as many wins as it can to secure home court advantage for the playoffs; I’m not at all denying the problematic nature of their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lineups.
Regardless, though, the real question for the Clippers is whether or not they can overcome the failings of their rotations when the postseason rolls around. All they can hope is that when the playoffs do draw near, the shorter rotations will allow the defensive failings of the bench to be swept under the rug.
Statistical support courtesy of nba.com/stats