Lets do an exercise where everyone says a list of teams they think have a realistic shot at winning the title next season.
(wait 45 seconds)
I’m assuming your list looks fairly similar to mine: Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets, Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets, Clippers.
Of those 8 teams, I personally think the Clippers have the smallest chance of making a serious run at the finals next season, and the reason for that is a lack of players on the roster who are good at defense. Defense, as you may recall, is what teams spend half of the game doing. It happens when the other team has the ball. The goal of defense is to prevent the other team from scoring.
The backbone of any great defense is a big man who can patrol the paint and make players think twice before trying to force up an inside shot. An agile, smart big man is also a valuable resource in guarding pick and rolls, the most frequently ran play in the NBA by a lot. Depending on the scheme, an able bodied center can either hedge the pick to force the ball handler to change direction or can effectively hang back to prevent the roll man from receiving a pass.
Right now the players on the roster who can defend power forwards and centers are:
Matt Barnes (maybe if you’re really desperate)
The team is also apparently interested in bringing back Lamar Odom, much to the delight of candy distributors in the city of angels.
Looking up and down that list, there does not seem to be a lot of inside presence on this Clippers roster. Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan, the two stars of Lob City, have not developed defensively the last two seasons the way the team would have liked. In March, Grantland’s Zach Lowe chronicled the defensive issues that had plagued the Clippers for much of the season. His main point was that there were frequent communication issues between Griffin and Jordan that led to teams getting open looks near the rim. Griffin and Jordan get all the credit in the world for being incredible athletes, and they deserve it. No big man tandom is more terrifying in transition. Just ask Brandon Knight.
But in the NBA, being a freak athlete is simply not enough. To be a truly great team player and defender, a player must not only think about himself and his own man. He needs to be cognizant of the other nine guys on the floor, what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are, and what the rules of his teams’ defensive scheme require him to do in any given situation. All those rim rattling slams Griffin and Jordan have thrown down are worth only two points each, and unless they start to mature and buy into a defensive system, they can get used to five more years of second round exits.
In all fairness, Blake and DeAndre have played the last few seasons for Vinnie Del Negro. Del Negro has developed a reputation as a “let em play” type coach, which is a nice way of saying he has no idea what he’s doing out there. I don’t know how much time he puts into making sure his hair looks so fucking perfect every damn day, but he probably should have diverted some of that energy to coaching. It would not be crazy to suggest the lack of defensive development shown by Griffin and Jordan has simply been due to a lack of direction.\
So now in comes Doc Rivers the coach, who formed a reputation as being a defensive schemer thanks in large part to former assistant and current Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Even after Thibs left for Chicago, Boston remained top defensive team. The reason? Kevin Garnett. While the principals of Thibideau’s overload scheme are still practiced by the Celtics (and a bunch of other teams as coaches start to adopt this strategy that works to eliminate corner threes and anything going to the rim), Rivers has relied heavily on Garnett to be the anchor of the defense. With Garnett on the floor last season, in which the Big Ticket turned 37, the Celtics held opponents to an offensive rating of 99.3. With Garnett on the bench, the Celtics oppenents ORtg soared to 108.3. While Rivers is certainly an excellent coach, it is worth asking if his status as a defensive guru is a little unworthy.
The Clippers have made a lot of noise this off season, bringing on Doc to coach, resigning Chris Paul, and swinging a trade that landed JJ Redick and Jared Dudley. But it has been the more quiet moves that should be the most unsettling to Clippers fans. They resigned Ryan Hollins, who is just does not possess any skill that would make him an effective basketball player other than being seven feet tall. They also brought in Byron Mullens, a player who averaged nearly four 3pt attempts per game despite shooting a lowly 31% on those attempts. They also gave up Caron Butler in the three team deal that brought in Redick and Dudley. Butler is a capable defender and above average three point shooter who will certainly be missed on this team next year. While Matt Barnes seems ready to take a larger role on the team, his success has always come in limited minutes.
The Clips could trot out an interesting super small lineup of Paul-Redick-Dudley-Barnes-Blake for short stretches, a lineup that would be a nightmare for opposing defenses. But it will also require Griffin to step up his game on defense or else they will get torched with a group that small. Blake certainly has the pedigree to be a game changing defender. We all know how athletic he is and how high he can jump. If he can channel that athleticism towards the other side of the ball he will morph into an MVP candidate.
But in a league where small is sexy, the Clippers will likely have to go through Memphis or San Antonio during the course of a deep playoff run. After getting beat up and out worked by the Grizzlies in the first round this year, nothing the Clippers have done this summer makes me think that they aren’t in for another beat down should the teams meet in the post season again.
For the first time in the history of humanity, there’s a lot of title talk in tinsel town that doesn’t have to do with the guys in purple and gold. But unless Doc Rivers is able to completely revamp the defensive culture on this team, the talk about championship contention will remain nothing but talk, a cheap commodity in life and especially in the NBA. I have no doubt that the Clippers will be a top four team in the West when the regular season comes to a close. But without polished interior defenders, Blake Griffin and company will be spending June on the couch.