The Clippers’ dysfunction and bad chemistry have been well-documented, and the cultural issues that surround the club must be addressed before the 2009-10 season opener. But even if the Clippers return to training camp as a svelte, rededicated bunch, there are some fundamental weaknesses that extend beyond things like effort, coaching, and alchemy.
They’re difficult problems to evaluate, largely because of the dynamic we’re all familiar with: To the naked eye (and Mike Dunleavy), the Clippers don’t have any obvious gaping holes. Healthy, they have a chance to win every night. They feature a solid frontcourt rotation, a dynamic 20-year-old shooting guard, some promising young talent in the stable, a point guard who has promised to rededicate himself (and can’t possibly shoot worse than he did in 2008-09). So says the book.
The problem with this premise, of course, is that it simply isn’t true. Though each player features redeemable qualities (even Baron Davis, for all his shooting woes, put up some decent pure point numbers and finished with a league-average PER), the Clippers, as a collective, have serious deficiencies. Part of that is environmental/cultural/competing agendas, but there are fundamental on-court issues, as well:
- Base Defense: The Clippers finished 26th in defensive efficiency. Although some of that can be ascribed to a team that featured only three five-man units that logged more than 100 minutes together, the issues can’t be explained away with the simple idea that a team can’t gel defensively unless they play together for long stretches. We’ve discussed the issues here at length, and if you’ve been watching any postseason basketball, you see how effectively the good teams defend the screen/roll and how that contrasts with the Clippers efforts. Zach Randolph’s last four teams have finished 26th, 29th, 26th, and 28th respectively in defensive efficiency (his 2004-05 Portland squad finished a mediocre 20th, though Zach played in only 46 games). Baron Davis? 26th, 23rd, 17th, 17th, 17th/26th (split season GSW/NOH). If the Clips trade Marcus Camby this offseason, and that’s conceivable, they’ll lose a guy who finished 3rd in the NBA in individual defensive rating (per adjusted +/-).
- Shot Selection: The Clippers were 24th in the NBA in three-point percentage, yet spent 22% of their attempts on shots beyond the arc (15th), making them one of the outliers in the league. Most teams grasp their limitations, but not the Clips. They compound a weakness by indulging. Baron Davis is the worst offender. Though he shot only .302 from three-point range, he used 34% of his attempts on three-balls. Of the 82 eligible players in the NBA who made the three-point shot more than 30% of their attempts, Davis was dead last in 3P%. Any chance Davis will moderate his shot selection next season? The good news is that there’s precedence. After a rough 2005-06 season, Davis scaled back his 3PA/game from 6.0 to 4.4.
Unfortunately, you’ll find patterns like this up and down the Clippers’ roster. Take Al Thornton. Here’s a guy with freakish athleticism who shoots .611 on inside shots — quite, quite good — but only .365 on two-point jumpers. That, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. Paul Millsap’s split on inside/2P jumpers is .634/.367, which makes him a decent comp. The difference is that while Thornton uses a majority of his shot attempts on two-point jumpers (53%), Millsap takes a two-point jumper only 36% of the time. Millsap maximizes his efficiency by taking the ball inside 63% of the time, while Al makes inside shots a measly 36% of this attempts. Yes, Millsap is a power forward, but he lacks Al’s dribble-drive ability. Want some SF comps? See Young, Thaddeus (yes, he’s a 3), Kirilenko, Andrei, and Ariza, Trevor.
Marcus Camby is another offender. There’s no good reason that a big man who converts his two-point jumpers at a .343 clip should use 48% of his shot attempts on them. There was only one other player in the NBA who shot below .350 on 2-point jumpers, yet devoted such a heavy proportion of his shots to them — Tyrus Thomas.
Even Zach Randolph, a fairly efficient scorer, could use some improvement. His inside/2PJ split was .645/.377, but he took more of the latter (42%/46%). In terms of Inside/2PJ shooting percentage, Kendrick Perkins, Emeka Okafor, and David Lee are all good comps for Randolph, but each attempted more than twice as many inside shots as two-point jumpers. It’s an unsettling trend for Zach. Three seasons ago, he allocated 60% of his attempts to shots in the basket area. In 2007-08, that number dipped to 51%. And now 42%.
Shot selection is a potentially fixable problem. Guys have patterns, but those habits aren’t necessarily predilections. Thornton can be coached to put the ball on the deck and drive, and there were times last season he took that initiative and had some of his best games of the season.
- Passing: Nothing new here. Mike Dunleavy has been collecting incapable passers for years. Wing players such as Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette, and Al Thornton stifle ball movement on the perimeter. Theoretically, a guard of Eric Gordon’s combo pedigree should help — and his 15.0 assist rate isn’t horrendous — but it’s clear that EJ’s height doesn’t allow him to see the NBA floor, at least not yet. Apart from Marcus Camby, who’s good-not-great, forget about any help from the bigs. Kaman has improved, but still gets flustered in double-team situations and doesn’t have the confidence to make plays for others. Zach Randolph is a vacuum, with neither the instincts nor inclination to do anything with the ball other than shoot. Until the organization makes a concerted attempt to draft, develop, and acquire guys who can keep the ball moving in the halfcourt, the Clippers are destined to be relegated to the bottom third of the NBA’s scrap heap offensively — healthy or not. Unlike 2005-06, the Clippers no longer have a defense that can compensate for a low-grade offense.
Over the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll find out whether Mike Dunleavy intends to cling to the apocryphal notion that the Clippers’ roster, as presently constituted, can succeed at full health, or whether he’ll take measures to address the very real basketball issues that plague this club. Although it’s important to remember that trades aren’t easy to execute in the NBA, smart front offices find ways to dislodge a Luis Scola from a rival, or snag a Nicolas Batum. The Clippers must add more complete players to the roster — bigs who can pass, perimeter players who can defend multiple positions, and guards who can rebound. There are too many multifaceted players in the NBA to rely on single-dimensional talents who may impress with a 20-10, or can jump out of the gym, but can’t perform the basic tasks and grasp the nuances that elevate bad teams to respectability.