The L.A. Clippers are 7-4 heading into their showdown Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center, and would be the No. 6 seed if the Western Conference playoffs got underway today. But this is a team with far more than just playoff aspirations, as they’re supposed to be a legitimate threat to dethrone the Miami Heat at the top of the league. (Perhaps they should worry about winning their own conference first, but whatever.)
7-4 is a fine record for a team with a new coach trying to integrate several new pieces on the floor. With solid wins over fellow contenders like the Warriors, Thunder, Rockets (twice) and, yes, the Wolves, it’s not like the Clippers have been beating patsies every night thus far. But there is a major flaw that needs to be fixed.
As of today, L.A. is ranked dead-last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, with a nice 106.4 number. Defensive efficiency is the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. The Indiana Pacers currently lead the league in this area, allowing a paltry 90.6 points per 100 possessions, which is absolutely suffocating.
Fortunately, the Clippers own a gaudy offensive efficiency of 109, which is second to only Miami. Considering the object of the game is to outscore your opponent, having an Off Eff of 109 and a Def Eff of 106.4 means you’re probably still going to be able to win a fair share of games. But as the cliche states, a good defense typically beats a good offense. If offense alone won championships, Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni would be Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. But it doesn’t, so they aren’t.
The four teams that currently lead the league in Def Eff are Indiana, San Antonio, Chicago and the transformed Golden State Warriors. All four were seen as potential title contenders prior to the season, and all but Chicago (due to injuries and their atrocious offense) look the part so far this season.
Which teams are keeping company with the Clippers at the bottom of the Def Eff leaderboard? How about the Pistons (4-6), Jazz (1-11), 76ers (5-7), New York (3-7) and Milwaukee (2-7). Will the Clippers’ defense improve? It almost has to. This is an area in which last year’s version of the Clippers finished No. 9 in the entire league, and the majority of the players from that team are on this year’s team. They also now have a coach, Doc Rivers, known for coaching stellar defensive teams. His Boston teams finished in the top-5 in that category in five of his final six seasons with the team (they finished 6th last year).
So what’s the problem? The Clippers have allowed opponents to top the 100-point plateau in 9 of their first 11 games this year. I wrote last year about how the Clippers were atrocious in keeping opponents off of the three-point line, and that’s something they still haven’t corrected. As of now, they’ve let enemies hit 38 percent of their tries from deep, which is the 8th-worst mark in the NBA. Opponents are also connecting on 47 percent of their field goal attempts, which is only better than the percentage allowed by the Pistons and Wizards. Bad, slow rotations and poor communication has a tendency to result in open looks for the opponent. While the team clearly misses the defensive exploits of the great Eric Bledsoe on the wing, it’s not like Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick aren’t solid defenders themselves. With more time, I’d expect this to come around.
DeAndre Jordan is basically on the team to do nothing but defend, rebound and dunk. While he’s blocking shots very well (5th in the league), he’s also allowing his opponents to hit a whopping 63 percent of their shots at the rim. To compare, his companions atop the blocked shots per game leaderboard, Roy Hibbert, Anthony Davis, Brook Lopez and Dwight Howard, are allowing their foes to convert on 34.7, 33.3, 31.5 and 47.1 percent of their shots at the rim, respectively. To translate, Jordan has been, like, terrible there. While Griffin has improved defensively throughout his career, he’s still below-average at his position. It’s no coincidence that the Grizzlies’ big man tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph combined to score 49 points against this duo the other night.
Another factor is that the Clippers’ bench has been an unmitigated disaster so far. The Clippers’ starting five (Jordan, Griffin, Dudley, Redick, Paul) has a respectable +/- of +3.6 whenever they’ve been on the floor together this season, and it’s +3.2 if you flip Jamal Crawford in there for Dudley. Not bad.
Whenever the Clips run out the 5-man unit of Jordan, Byron Mullens, Matt Barnes, Crawford and Darren Collison, they’re a -3.6, making it one of the very worst 5-man groups in the league. Collison and Mullens are just awful defenders. Despite being as quick as anyone in the league, Collison struggles to stay with opposing ball-handlers, and gets crushed trying to go through screens. Mullens is just slow-footed, and can’t stay with anyone, block any shots or use any strength defending the post. As a result, the two of them together helps makes for a pretty atrocious defensive tandem, regardless of who else is out there with them. The fact that Mullens is the primary backup big makes it no surprise that the team is interested in bringing Lamar Odom back. If he can return to the team in shape and committed, he’ll be an instant upgrade on that end of the floor.
We’re still only 11 games in, so there’s plenty of time for the Clippers to get this thing figured out. They’re too talented and well-coached to go through the entire season this sieve-like defensively, so I have little doubt they’ll get it together eventually. But if, for whatever reason, they fail to improve, they’ll be destined for another early playoff exit come April.
About the Author
Written by Taylor Smith
Taylor Smith is a writer for the Los Angeles Clippers.