The Thing Is… The Clippers Are Locking Down

If you went on Twitter and asked, “who’s the best team in Los Angeles?” at the beginning of the season, you’d have been laughed at. Obviously, it was the Lakers. They have Dwight Howard. They have Steve Nash. They have Kobe “BEAN” Bryant. Sitting here in mid-November, they still do have those guys. Except that they have just now reached .500 and have already fired their head coach. Meanwhile, the Clippers – the perpetual “little brothers” in town – are sitting pretty at 7-2 and it’s pretty damn hard to look at those first nine games and come away thinking that they aren’t the best team in Hollywood.

But this article isn’t just “narrative narrative Clippers >>> Lakers best team in LA page viewz.” Instead, I want to look at why and how the Clippers have surpassed the Lakers, at least for the time being.

The obvious answer is Chris Paul. He’s the floor general (as well as essentially the head coach). His brilliance is somehow understated even though he’s been the best point guard in the league for some time now. On the young season, he has 92 assists to just 18 turnovers, leading the way as the Clippers have raced to the 5th best offensive efficiency in the NBA. He’s fourth in PER and near the top of the leaderboard in all of those other fun stats. He’s the best, basically. But Paul was on the Clippers last year. And the Clippers had an elite offense last year.

You may be eager to point to Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe’s insane production off the bench and the enormous improvements from DeAndre Jordan as the reason that the Clippers look so much better overall this year. And you’d be at least somewhat right. But you’d also be wrong. All of those things help, but they aren’t enough to launch the Clippers past the Lakers and into serious contender status.

Instead, the difference is on the other side of the ball. Small sample size caveats aside, the Clippers have gone from the 18th ranked defense to the 3rd ranked defense overnight. So if you’ve been paying attention, that means the Clippers are statistically a better defensive team than they are an offensive team , as of today. When your team has Chris Paul leading your offense and that offense isn’t even the team’s biggest strength to this point, that’s a big problem for everybody else.

This is not to say that the unfathomably deep bench doesn’t deserve credit –it most certainly does. It’s just not in the way that most people think. The bench basically comes into the game and absolutely locks it down. To give you an idea of how ridiculous the Clippers’ bench has been on defense, take a look at Blake Griffin’s on/off splits from last year compared to this year (this ought to give you a decent idea, being that we assume that Blake is typically playing with the starters).

Clippers defensive rating 2011-12
With Blake Griffin: 102.2 points per 100 possessions
Without Blake Griffin: 105.0 points per 100 possessions

Clippers defensive rating 2012-13
With Blake Griffin: 98.4 points per 100 possessions
Without Blake Griffin: 92.4 points per 100 possessions

As you can see, not only has the starting unit improved defensively (and give some credit to Blake, he’s not a total sieve anymore), but also the bench unit has improved by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions from last year to this year. Last season, the most commonly used 2-man combination of non-starters was Mo Williams and Reggie Evans, who are both no longer with the team. That combination produced a defensive rating of 105.2 points per 100 possessions. In 2012-13, the most commonly used 2-man combination of non-starters is Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. That unit has produced a defensive rating of 89.2 points per 100 possessions thus far.

What’s the point of all this; other than to say, “Holy crap the Clippers are good”? While that point is valid, it’s more about a fundamental shift in why they are so good. Last season the team seemed to rely on Chris Paul and the offense to just blow past teams with their Lob City and flopping floppitude. This year, they’re grinding teams into the ground AND letting Chris Paul and the offense blow past teams. Save for two fluky shooting performances from Cleveland and Golden State, the Clippers have been dominant. Their resume includes relatively comfortable wins against Memphis, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and Chicago. And that’s just the first few weeks of the season.

The Lakers are going to be in the spotlight in LA and certainly have the talent to become worthy of that spotlight. But as of right now, they’ve got a long way to go to catch up with their “little brothers.”

(Now watch the Spurs hang 120 on the Clippers tonight just to make me look stupid.)

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com