Transition is the buzzword floating around this summer, and for good reason. There’s a new head coach in town after Mike Dunleavy held the post for seven years, which is an eternity in this landscape. There are eight new players on the roster, five of them rookies. There’s a new general manager calling the shots upstairs.
But as everything seems to be changing, some things have stayed exactly the same. A quick glance at the roster can make you come back to a very familiar question: Why don’t the Clippers get out and run more?
The Clippers have ranked 28th, 30th, and 27th in offensive rating the last three seasons. What made them one of the worst offensive teams in the league during that stretch? Some of it was the personnel, but a lot of it was the system. Mike Dunleavy never had a proficient offense during his tenure as coach, even during the playoff run in 2005-2006. That team ranked 18th in offensive rating and were carried by an incredibly strong defensively. Defense was always Dunleavy’s calling card, but when his teams started off slowly and got into a hole they could rarely get themselves out of it. Without a dynamic offense to keep up with teams the Clippers often fell behind. Once the losses piled up the defensive effort slipped, and the results were not pretty.
Dunleavy ran a halfcourt offense with an emphasis on post play and mismatches. The scheme never stuck once Elton Brand left town, mostly because he never had a go-to guy on the block after that or mismatches to exploit. Zach Randolph performed admirably (never thought I’d be saying this) as a low post scorer, but he gave it right back on the other end (that’s better). Chris Kaman was the focus last season, and although it led him to an All-Star appearance, the offense predictably never hummed with him as the primary decision maker in the halfcourt.
Once Dunleavy was let go and Kim Hughes took over, the big talk was that the Clippers were going to run more since they were freed from Dunleavy’s massive playbook. Baron Davis would finally be given the freedom to roam and run. The Clippers would play at a fast pace, it was said, because they had played too slow, too methodical in the past.
So what happened? The Clippers turned into one of the worst defensive teams in the history of basketball in the second half of the season, and their offense devolved into a turnover fest, which was incredible considering there wasn’t a terrible amount of passing going on. Only a few games into his short term as head coach, Hughes himself admitted that the Clippers might not have the personnel to run. His adjusted assessment turned out to be correct.
The running experiment sputtered, which was disappointing for every person who believed Baron Davis could thrive again in an uptempo system. But before we pronounce the abilities to run (and Baron Davis’ career, for that matter) dead in the water, it’s important to remember the circumstances surrounding that late season attempt at an uptempo offense.
As previously stated, the defense was absolutely atrocious and rarely caused turnovers, and that’s the primary way teams get out and get transition opportunities. The wings did nothing to help the cause, as they rarely leaked out on the break or rebounded, instead choosing to hover around the free throw line extended where they served no purpose whatsoever. If the team actually managed to get a stop or a turnover, their fast break opportunities too often resulted in spot up jumpers instead of layups at the rim. Hughes and Baron, no matter how much they wanted to run, simply couldn’t do it given the personnel and the general effort level on the defensive end. It always sounds nice in theory, but pushing the tempo and getting fast break points requires quite a bit more than just wanting to do so.
Enter this year’s rookie class, the leaders of this transition stage and quite possibly the leaders of the Clippers new transition oriented offense.
Obviously when you talk about the rookie class everything starts with Blake Griffin. It’s important to remember that the man he’s replacing, Marcus Camby, was actually a great piece to build a running game around even if the Clippers never did it. Camby was a top-notch defensive rebounder, great weakside shot blocker, and one heck of an outlet passer. You weren’t getting a ton from him on the secondary break because of the time it took him to mosey back up the court, but he would have worked fine as the catalyst of it all. Can Blake Griffin replace what Camby brought to the table? Maybe not right away, but eventually, yes. Griffin projects to be a great defensive rebounder and weakside shot blocker himself, but he provides a whole new element Camby didn’t. When Baron gets out in the middle of the floor, Griffin will be following closely behind and beating his own man up the floor, ready for any dump off, alley oop, or putback dunk that comes his way. Know how Amar’e Stoudemire looks out in transition? Griffin could look very similar.
While Griffin looks like he’ll work in just about any offensive system with any pace, Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t quite there yet. It’s hard to pin him down quite yet, but the skillset he showed off at Wake Forest and in Summer League would lead you to believe that he’s perfect for a running game. Like Griffin, Aminu was one of the best rebounders in all of college hoops and was also the defensive Player of the Year in the ACC his sophomore season. With that incredible wingspan, good speed and lateral movement, Aminu can cover a ton of ground, get his hands on a lot of balls, and block shots. On the offensive end, Aminu looks pretty limited right now to getting to the rim and drawing fouls or finishing. That’s something that likely won’t happen off the dribble for Aminu in the halfcourt, but out on the break? He’d be a nightmare with all that size and athleticism streaking down the court.
Then there’s Eric Bledsoe. He’s lightning quick with great end to end speed and the fearlessness to get to the rim. When he’s in the game, the energy level and the speed factor should go up a few notches. Marqus Blakely, though undersized, is another incredible athlete who can finish with his explosive leaping ability. Add in Eric Gordon, who would benefit from a defense on their heels, and DeAndre Jordan, who can clean up the messes on the offensive glass and would almost certainly score 50 points a game without the offensive goaltending rules, and you’ve got yourself an incredibly young core who have skills that all mesh together.
If you’re building your offense around your talent, similar to what Stan Van Gundy did in Orlando, you have to believe Vinny Del Negro will want to get his athletes out in the open floor. As long as the rebounding and defense is present, there’s no reason to think that he won’t.