Since I made the case this morning touting the Clippers’ defensive potential, it’s only fair that I use the same post as a foil to make the counter-argument, with tonight’s debacle as a case study:
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.
It goes without saying that if the opposing point guard goes for 30 points on 13-20 FGA, a couple trips to the line, seven assists and only one turnover, then the on-ball defense was significantly below average.
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.
At the outset of the second quarter, Eric Gordon is assigned to Bobby Jackson. At about [2nd, 10:10], the ball is delivered to Jackson at the top of the arc. He immediately suckers Gordon with a pump fake, then takes a hard dribble with his left, and squirts into the paint unfettered with an easy finger-roll. Apart from that, most of Gordon’s defensive work is off the ball and is adequate.
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.
If Sacramento were at full strength, Mobley would be saddled with Kevin Martin. But tonight, his assignment is John Salmons.
Mobley is no culprit. Salmons goes 5-19, without a trip to the line. His first layup is off of Marcus Camby on a switch. Salmons’ big 3PM to put the Kings up nine at [2nd, 5:00] comes courtesy of a solid Brad Miller screen. Camby fails to switch or show — he merely drops back. Cat does blow a rotation at [3rd, 5:11] that leaves Salmons open for a 3PA that falls.
Dunleavy puts Cat on Beno Udrih for the final three minutes or so of the 1st half, and Udrih doesn’t record a point. At one point, Cat does a nice job on Brad Miller at [1st, 9:00], whom he inherits off a switch. Miller tries to back Cat in. Miller spins, then fakes, but Mobley stays tight on him, forcing Miller to launch a bad shot. All in all, Mobley plays a fine defensive game.
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 affords 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.
Now for the ugly part. Baron’s woes begin in the game’s first minute. He gets caught behind a Brad Miller elbow screen that gives Beno Udrih enough comfort to drain a 21-footer. [1st, 11:45], and another Miller screen at [1st, 7:33] in transition, which allows Udrih the open space to nail a little PUJIT at the foul line. Spencer Hawes trips him up at [1st, 4:44], again giving Udrih enough room to launch a 19-footer. At [1st, 2:38], Baron gets shredded in transition, as Udrih coasts to a layup.
The second half is even worse. Baron can’t get through a Mikki Moore screen in transition at [3rd, 8:17] — and gets no help from Camby. A possession later, Baron gets beat off the dribble and is forced to hack Udrih in the paint to prevent a layup [3rd, 7:47]. At [3rd, 3:29], Baron makes a poor choice on a high Udrih/Hawes S/R, and gets burned by Udrih when he instead chooses to close on Hawes, who is 26 feet out on the perimeter. A possession later, he loses his balance coming around a Hawes screen at the top of the circle [3rd, 2:59]. This leaves Udrih an almost clear path to the basket [the help is late].
The dagger comes at [4th, 1:02], with the Clippers trailing by only two. The Kings use the full eight to bring the ball across. They’re going to run what’s been their bread-and-butter tonight — a high Udrih/Miller S/R. Baron and Camby initially defend it well. There’s only :08 on the shot clock when Miller tries it again. Davis bounces off the screen and forces Udrih to kick it out to Salmons on the perimeter. But here’s where Udrih wins: As Salmons drives in from the wing, Baron Davis decides to collapse on him. Udrih recognizes this and finds some open space out in the right corner. Salmons sees this, dishes it over to Udrih, who sinks the 18-footer. This is a bad decision by Baron Davis. Why leave Beno Udrih to double — or potentially triple because there’s still Camby — on John Salmons? It was an unnecessary and very expensive shift.
Other than the final sequence, it’s hard to identify a truly boneheaded defensive play by Baron. He simply got outmanned. He couldn’t get through Brad Miller, and Udrih was able to get a step or two on him all night coming around screens, and the back line offered little help tonight when Davis got beat.
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.
Taylor plays only 11 minutes tonight. He is yet another victim of Brad Miller, who pancakes Taylor on a sideline screen that allows Bobby Brown room to unload on a 16-foot jumper. Apart from that, his defensive work is fine.
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.
Jason Thompson does much of his damage against Tim Thomas, though Al looks foolish when he allows the Kings forward to slip underneath him for an easy two on a pretty lob from Brad Miller [4th, 3:53]. Thompson’s basket at [3rd, 9:56] is really on Baron Davis, who switches, but then fails to close out on Thompson on a 15-foot jumper. Apart from that, nothing else stands out for Taylor good or bad.
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.
Sacramento is one of those teams that’s going to test opposing big men on the S/R. It’s particularly challenging for Camby because their bigs tend to play higher than most. Camby racked up four blocks, but his defense hurts the Clips on several possessions. John Salmons takes Camby off the dribble with ease off a switch at [1st, 8:33]. The very next possession, Camby makes a bad decision to collapse on a driving Udrih from behind, leaving Miller wide open from 23 feet, a shot he nails off an Udrih dish. Even when Camby does react switfly on the S/R, he often gets burned. At [3rd, 10:54] there’s an Udrih/Miller S/R off an inbound. Here, Camby chooses to trap Udrih, leaving Brad Miller wide, wide open for the 15-foot face-up jumper he’s made his living on.
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.
Kaman starts on Miller and the first encounter isn’t a pretty one. The Kings run a S/R for Salmons/Miller. Miller slips the screen and Salmons shuttles the ball over to him at the elbow. Miller holds the ball opposite Kaman. Miller goes up with a shot fake, which totally fools Kaman. Miller then takes off for a dribble-drive down the lane, capped off by an easy lay-in.
About a minute later [1st, 9:23], the Kings run a set that gets them some positive mismatches. Mobley ends up with Miller in the right corner. The Kings want to exploit it. Kaman is on Moore, who has the ball up on the perimeter. When Moore recognizes the Miller-Mobley mismatch, he immediately gets Miller the ball. Kaman instinctively doubles Miller, which leave Moore unfettered for a dive to the basket. Miller, one of the better passing big men around, hits Moore en route to the rim for an easy layup. A little later at [1st, 3:43], Kaman makes an unwise decision to be the third guy to collapse on John Salmons. This leaves Spencer Hawes wide open from 15-feet. Kaman can’t recover, and the shot is good.
Kaman’s post defense is fine tonight, but he gets crossed-up too many times — which is often the case with Kaman when the opponent’s big men move around as much as the Kings’ bigs do.
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.
In his one true post defense situation, Davis does good work on Shelden Williams, keeping him well off the block and forcing him into a 17-foot jumper Williams shouldn’t take. Skinner is a DNP-CD.
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.
Case in point: [2nd, 1:43], he fails to recover, leaving his man, Salmons, wide open for a 3PM that puts the Kings up three just before the half.
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.
The Clippers exert little effort to fight through screens, and they fail to collapse on Udrih in the paint. One of the reasons a team arrives late on help is because they don’t have confidence in their defensive rotations. The thought process goes something like this: “If I leave, do I really trust ‘x’ to rotate over? Probably not. I’m better off staying put.” That may or may not be what happens to the Clippers, but there’s no reason Baron Davis and the Clipper big men should have this much trouble defending the S/R against Udrih and Miller, no matter how proficient Miller is at obstructing the on-ball defender. Davis is savvier and stronger than that.