The expected stylistic change brought on by interim head coach Kim Hughes raises an all-important question: Can the Clippers function effectively as a running team? I took the opportunity to watch a ton of game tape to get a better sense of the Clippers’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses when they push the ball in transition. Let’s take a look and see who is fit for the running game.
The Wings: Gordon, Butler, Thornton, R. Davis
- Eric Gordon – Gordon might possess the least complex game of any guard in the league. The simpleness of Gordon’s game is particularly evident in transition. When filling the wing on the break, Gordon either spots up on the arc or makes a b-line straight for the rim. There’s no in between. Think about this: When was the last time you saw Gordon attempt a reverse? A floater? A shifty hop step and opposite hand finish? Gordon’s main tactic on the break is to go a million miles per hour towards the rim and attempt a right handed layup, contact and defenders be damned. In a way, Gordon reminds me of a top-end speedy sports car with bad tires in the snow: There’s a lot of power there, but it easily slips out of control. Gordon’s main problem is that he absolutely pounds the ball into the hardwood, almost as if he were playing with a flat ball on a dirt court. Gordon has a ton of time to progress towards harnessing his explosiveness and staying under control, but for right now he’s far from a polished ballhandler and playmaker on the wing. Verdict: Despite the likely increase in turnovers, Gordon’s increased free throw attempts and added scoring should make up for it.
- Rasual Butler – As the proverbial “3 and D” guy for the Clippers, Butler is essentially a specialist who does a few things very, very well. However, outside of perimeter shooting and on-ball defense, Butler doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. As the wing man on the fast break he often shies away from filling the lane completely, and instead opts to back off and spot up for short to mid range jumpers, of which he shoots a pretty bad percentage (36% from 10-15 feet). The same aspect of Rasual’s game that can allow him to go off for 30 points will also likely keep him from being a great wing player in transition: Butler rarely ever passes up his shot, even if he’s gone cold. There’s a selflessness and playmaking ability necessary to consistently run a successful fast break , and I’m not sure Butler has that. When Butler avoids his natural tendency to spot up and fills the lane completely, he’s a subpar finisher unless the dunk is readily available. Verdict: An increased tempo means Butler will have the ball in his hands more often…which also means he’ll be liable to shoot some frightening PUJIT’s. He’s much better suited for the halfcourt.
- Al Thornton – Thornton’s role has diminished quite a bit this year, yet he’s still one of the better finishers at the rim on the roster. In theory, an uptempo game should better showcase his talents and athletic ability. There’s a problem here though. Most 2 on 1, 3 on 1, or 3 on 2 fast breaks happen from blocked shots and steals. Rarely will you see a defensive rebound result in a mismatched fast break. The strong majority of transition opportunities actually come from your secondary break. The resulting looks from those secondary breaks? Spot-up jumpers. Ask yourself this: Do you really want Al Thornton shooting more jumpers? I’d be more inclined to predict success for Thornton in an uptempo game if: A. The Clippers actually caused turnovers and B. The Clippers secured long defensive rebounds more frequently. Verdict: Is a 20 foot Thornton jumper a better look than what the halfcourt offense could produce? Probably not.
- Ricky Davis – In Mike Dunleavy’s offense, Ricky Davis provided one key service: He stretched the floor. Ricky has actually been a pretty solid player in his limited time –he ranks favorably among the league’s other wings in field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage. Ricky’s transition opportunities have been limited, but he’s been less than impressive in his chances. Not surprisingly for a man with the nickname “buckets”, Ricky Davis is first and foremost a shooter. Nearly every one of his field goal attempts this year have been jumpers. Similar to Rasual Butler, if he gets an open look, he’s firing. Verdict: Ricky Davis can be useful in an uptempo setting, but his real value is in the halfcourt.
We’ve long discussed how the Clippers wingmen are terrible on the defensive glass, but this year they’ve taken it to a whole new level. Out of players who log at least 25 minutes a game, only four wing players in the entire league average lower defensive rebounding numbers than Rasual Butler, Eric Gordon and Al Thornton. Andre Iguodala (5.9 DRB per game) nearly averages more defensive rebounds a game than Butler, Gordon and Thornton combined (6.7 DRB per game).
What’s one solution for wings that don’t box out and usually don’t even come within 10 feet of available rebounds? Release. Close out on outside shooters, and then fly by and leak out. Camby and Kaman may not be Wes Unseld and Kevin Love, but they can deliver some decent outlet passes. What’s the risk if the wings aren’t doing anything on the glass as is? Might as well try and get some easy buckets, right?
Even with all that said, the reality here is that the Clippers’ wings are shaky ballhandlers and even shakier decision makers. Since three of the four wings are jump shooters, speeding up the tempo will create them more open jump shot opportunities, just without Kaman or Camby underneath in prime offensive rebounding position. The mid to long range two-point jumper is the most inefficient shot in all of basketball, yet the Clippers’ wings (primarily Butler and R. Davis) use that as their main calling card on the fast break.
The goal of an increased tempo is to create easy looks. However with the Clippers’ current personnel on the wings, a running style might not accomplish that.