I think this squad can evolve into a fairly good defensive team. Here’s the rosy prognosis – and you can take it with a grain of salt:
In Baron Davis, Cuttino Mobley, and Eric Gordon, the Clippers have a trio of big, strong guards with the ability to play above-average on-ball defense. There will probably be a learning curve for EJ on the pick-and-roll and in other coverage situations, but he seems to have the quicks, court awareness, and body to do decent work defensively. He also has lightning quick hands; he burned Dallas for two sneaky-ass steals Sunday. Cat has aged somewhat, but is still a heady player who gives you a good wing option defensively, not only against shooting guards, but against some 3s as well. Given Dunleavy’s reliance on Cat, he’s likely to be gassed by late winter.
For some reason – maybe because Golden State struggled defensively, or maybe because he’s a bit of a showman – Baron Davis has always been tagged as a guy who doesn’t excel defensively. This is patently false. Like Mobley, Davis afford Mike Dunleavy defensive flexibility – he can guard both 1s and 2s [to wit, we saw Dunleavy use Davis with Mike Tayor on Sunday]. He exerts feisty ball pressure, and defends the screen/roll effectively. Mike Taylor is still a little green, but has the lateral movement to become a decent ball defender, though he’ll have to learn how to fight through a Carlos Boozer or Erick Dampier screen — no easy task for a kid his size.
Al Thornton might be the soft spot in the Clippers’ defense, though I think his improvement over the past few games is evident. He’s still the weak link on rotations and has a tendency to get crossed up on screens, but he isn’t getting beat off the dribble as frequently as I thought he would at the outset of the season.
The good news for Al is that he’s got help on the back line in Camby and Kaman, two towering shot blockers who – when they make good reads – have the potential to wreck havoc around the rim. Camby isn’t infallible; we observed in the Houston game that Marcus prefers to be a one-man zone – playing way, way, way off his man — rather than a cog in a defensive system. He hasn’t shown on a S/R since 2002, which often allows for more penetration than necessary. But Camby still changes a lot of shots near the basket, and that will invariably show up in your defensive efficiency numbers.
Chris Kaman is hard to quantify defensively. In some respects, his defensive games mirrors his offensive one. There are instances when the opponent goes into the post and Kaman is faced with a one-on-one situation. Over the past couple of years, Kaman has learned how to apply his good offensive footwork on the defensive end. Chris will body up on his guy, keep him a healthy distance from the rim. But at the last moment – just like his lapses on the offensive end – Chris won’t finish (i.e. He’ll bite for a desperate pump-fake). Still, Chris has graduated from a shot blocking specialist to a decent overall defender down on the block. Dunleavy likes to employ a lot of perimeter traps, and while Chris used to have a lot of trouble recovering down low, he’s gotten pretty damned good at knowing when to drop off. His read of rotations is much, much smarter, though he’ll still sometimes offer help when none is needed, which will leave his man open for a late pass.
The second team offers some solid interior defenders in Brian Skinner and Paul Davis. Teams have used Skinner as an undersized center for most of his career, but the good news is that the Clips aren’t at a loss for size, and Skinner should get some reasonable defensive assignments at the post. Tim Thomas is an unmitigated disaster; the longer he sits the better. Ricky Davis isn’t a horrible ball defender, but he gets lost chasing a wing off multiple screens and is prone to lapses on defensive rotations.
The Clips now rank 24rd in Defensive Efficiency – at 106 points per 100 possessions – but a week ago, that ranking was 29th. Given their personnel, and the fact that they’ve faced arguably the two of the five best offensive machines in the league for four of their seven games, we should expect them to float toward the middle of the pack by December. More important than stats, though, the full-strength Clippers should be able to apply enough shutdown defense on a given night to afford themselves the kind of 4th quarter run we saw Sunday afternoon against Dallas.