Watching the postseason over the past couple of weeks has offered a reminder that the NBA, at its essence, is a game of exploiting mismatches in the halfcourt. Good teams do this effectively when their offenses are humming. The standout defensive teams? They’re the ones who can recover from, compensate for, or avoid those mismatches altogether. They also have the capacity to withstand a defensive switch because they have smalls who can hold their own against bigs, and vice versa.
Among the Clippers’ many flaws, their ineffectiveness both offensively and defensively in this regard makes them a vulnerable team every night, no matter how much talent we perceive there to be on the court. When you watch how good Cleveland, Orlando, and Houston are at recovering defensively off the opponent’s action, it’s no wonder they’re playing basketball well into May. Orlando did incredible work on Boston’s flurry of picks and rolls Tuesday Monday night, and I haven’t seen the Cavs blow a defensive rotation in weeks. Some of their guys get beat off the dribble, but on screens — both on the off the ball — the Cavs choreograph defensive ballet.
The Clippers’ position defense poses problems from outset. Al Thornton and Zach Randolph are poor straight-up defenders, though Al has demonstrated that in simple isolation situations, he’s passable. Baron Davis, either because he’s gotten slower, stopped caring, or isn’t 1oo percent, is no better than average at the point, unless he recommits himself to on-ball defense. Though Marcus Camby excels as a team defender, he’s ineffective against both perimeter-oriented centers like Mehmet Okur, and isn’t a stalwart post defender one-on-one. Eric Gordon is undersized, which doesn’t hurt him every night, but creates problems against sharpshooting 2 guards. Chris Kaman, when healthy, has become a very serviceable defender down low, but not exactly Buck Williams or Hakeem.
Position defense is the foundation of team defense, but isolations represent only a fraction of halfcourt possessions. Where quality teams pick apart defenses is on pick-and-roll action. I had a chance to spend some time with Rockets’ assistant Elston Turner on Monday night discussing how Houston’s defensive machine works. Turner cited “defensive flexibility” as one of the primary assets to Houston’s defense. Sure, Houston has outstanding individual defenders in Ron Artest and Shane Battier, along with Yao Ming protecting the basket, but dynamic offensive players are still going to beat those guys several times a night. What Turner likes about his squad is that, if need be, Artest can switch onto a 1,2,3, or 4. Battier can guard the ball and has the ability and instincts to rotate to the weak side on reversals. Turner even had the chutzpah to put Luis Scola on Trevor Ariza for significant stretches Monday night because he knew that, at any point, there was a defender who could rotate over to help out Scola. Because Houston features that defensive flexibility, chances are that rotation wouldn’t cost them. This dynamic allowed Houston to assign Artest to Gasol at the pinch post, where so much of the Lakers’ offense is initiated. Artest could make a quick choice off that pinch post action: Does he stay on Gasol, or pick up the guy getting the handoff or pass? Either way, Houston wouldn’t be compromised all that much defensively.
What about the Clippers? Do they have guys who can defend multiple positions? Eric Gordon can cover either guard, but how often do you see a 1-2 screen-roll in the NBA? Only when Mike Bibby is on the floor. Against less potent 3s, Mike Dunleavy isn’t entirely uncomfortable letting Baron try his hand on a switch, which I don’t have a big problem with. To Dunleavy’s credit, he recognizes the team’s defensive limitations, and tries to keep them out of switch situations as much as possible.
The 2005-06 squad was masterful at making lemonade out of lemons in frenetic halfcourt possessions, and showed-and-recovered as well as any team in the West that season, save San Antonio. Cuttino Mobley, Elton Brand, and Quinton Ross were a big part of that — and Sam Cassell, challenged as he was, was heady enough to funnel the guys who beat him to the right spots. Unfortunately, this current Clippers defense doesn’t have the will or alacrity to do what’s necessary to avoid mismatches. They’re too slow [Baron, Randolph], too oblivious [Thornton], too unwilling [Camby], or still learning the intricacies of NBA defense [Gordon].
There’s a reason the Clippers haven’t beaten Utah in an eternity, got mauled against Denver post-Chauncey, and even lost that Toronto game by 70 points six weeks ago. They simply can’t withstand teams that force mismatches as their primary offensive strategy. I also think it’s not a coincidence they beat Boston when Fred Jones and Mardy Collins combined for 70 minutes. Those two guys offer the Clippers Turner’s defensive flexibility, something the Clippers desperately needed that night against Boston’s rotating pick-and-roll schemes. It’s just too bad that Jones and Collins are woefully inefficient offensive players.
Offensively, the Clippers are pretty lousy at exploiting mismatches with a few exceptions. Zach Randolph’s offensive instincts are solid in this area and it’s one of the things that makes him a strong offensive contributor. On a nightly basis, we saw him put the ball on the deck against slower 4s, and muscle inside against weaker post defenders, whether they were his assigned defender, or a player he picked up on the switch. Baron used to make mincemeat off 1-3 through 1-5 pick-and-rolls back in his Golden State days, but he was extremely tentative in 08-09 when big men were in front of him, opting to fire a contested jumper rather than blowing past the big. I don’t ascribe that to laziness. He expressed an earnest concern in conversation in January that he’d lost some explosiveness and didn’t feel like he could get to the rim like he used to. Whatever the case, it’s a monumental problem for the Clippers the next four years if their point guard can’t take advantage of a small-big mismatch. In an increasingly PG-driven league, that’s most teams’ most powerful weapon. Without it, you simply can’t run an efficient offense.
Given Baron’s limitations, it’s vital that more S/R action be initiated for Eric Gordon, and that Gordon continue to improve his ability to take full advantage of the space afforded him off those screens. Kaman’s return to full health will help Eric, because Chris is far and away the Clippers’ best pick man up top. That said, Chris still has room to improve his finesse on those screens in order to draw the mismatch for his guard — and for himself, too! Did you notice in the Chicago series how good Joakim Noah is at running interference on a simple brush screen, thereby getting Derrick Rose an opposing big man to penetrate against? You might not think of Dirk Nowitzki as a great screener, but watch how often Jason Terry ends up with a hulking big in front of him [and, in turn, how Dirk draws a small as his defender]. Other masters: Tim Duncan, Kendrick Perkins [though he's never set a legal screen in his life...still...it ain't illegal if they don't catch you], Udonis Haslem, Kurt Thomas, Lamar Odom.
Zach Randolph? Not on that list.
The Clippers finished 30th in offensive efficiency, and 26th in defensive efficiency last season. If they have any hopes of improving, they’ll need new personnel who can provide the sort of flexibility that will enable them to defend sound offensive teams, and an offense that’s more persistent at finding mismatches for its talent. They’ll also need their existing players to better recognize mismatches, something their small forward doesn’t do effectively. Even more important, their point guard must rehabilitate physically to the point where he can penetrate, which is the single most productive way to scramble a defense, and force it into bad rotations which often result in mismatches.