Without even looking at the raw rankings, it wasn’t hard to detect that the team struggled at times. The Clippers functioned last season on the erratic efforts of an often unmotivated Baron Davis, generally under-performing veterans, and inexperienced young guys taking on new roles.
Although a collective effort was usually there, overall awareness was less common. The Clippers would surrender easy buckets because they’d overhelp, communicate poorly on screens, or lapse defensively in transition. Synergy lists the team’s defense as 17th overall in the NBA in points per possession (the team is 19th in the NBA going by points per 100 possessions).
No problem. The team was great in isolation ranking 3rd in the NBA in points per possession allowed, which isn’t surprising, because the Clippers have athletic players who can compete one-on-one defensively. DeAndre Jordan defended man-to-man isolation and post-ups well, Blake was excellent in isolation, as were Al-Farouq Aminu and Randy Foye.
The team saw 18.8 percent of its defensive possessions end in a spot-up opportunity for the opponent. That figure is 6.2 percent higher than the next closest category (transition), and with good reason — opponents were looking to attack the 23rd ranked spot-up defense in the NBA.
Too many times last season we saw a Clipper wander off his man as he spotted up in the corner, only to be quickly sealed off or simply not be able to recover.
Al-Farouq Aminu seemed especially susceptible to aimless sagging into the paint and poor closeouts, leading to open shots for the opposition (Synergy tells us that he gave up 46.4 percent 3-point shooting against spot-up opportunities, and it was not a small sample size).
Ryan Gomes, Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe, and later Mo Williams all struggled, as well. The good news is that all of these guys are either young and have time to learn and fix their bad habits, or likely not a part of the long-term core. Hopefully the youth will improve (and with them the team as a whole) in this category as their personnel and overall defensive awareness improves.
The team’s strategy of having the screener’s defender stop ball handler penetration by staying back and protecting the paint while the ball handler’s defender goes over the top of the screen prevents easy penetration and also allows the ball handler’s defender to bother most jump shot attempts from the ball handler (at least well enough to be around average guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, 14th in the NBA according to Synergy).
This should arguably help protect the team from big mistakes on defense, whereas attacking the ball handler by trapping and leaving the roll man wide-open (or covered by a rotating perimeter defender) can allow for really easy baskets if any defender hesitates on his rotation, etc.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, any time a team is guarding the pick-and-roll, no matter the system, everyone has to do their job and make the right play/rotation. The Clippers youth and general lack of awareness and/or experience can mean giving up open spot-up shots despite guarding the initial pick-and-roll action quite well. The team sometimes left the roll man open to pick-and-pop and other high percentage scoring opportunities when the ball handler dribble-probed, drawing commitment from both the initial pick and roll defenders while leaving the ball-side help defender with a choice to run out on the open roll man and leave another (likely even more dangerous) offensive option open or stay at home and leave the roll man open for a jumper. To wit, Synergy has the Clippers ranked 22nd in defending the roll man.
I’ve often questioned the Clippers straight-up style of playing the pick-and-roll, and I do think the team would benefit from trapping (or at least hedging) more, which I feel would at least promote more activity from the entire team on the defensive end. However, the fact is that the team is young. Better communication and better performance within the Clippers’ staff’s defensive system should have the defense performing at a higher level as time goes on.
And sometimes the defensive problems aren’t so deep. Occasionally, people just didn’t move their feet after a series of screens turned into a simple drive from the wing. That kind of thing will happen in the NBA from time to time.
Again, mostly things were not good. And again you could blame youth and injuries. And that’s tempting to do, because last season saw the team occasionally look downright dynamic and, other times, pathetically hapless. Frustrating stuff, but also a common sight for a team depending on young guys, and a team enduring injuries.
General Complaints and Isolation
Beyond those uncontrollable factors, the Clippers still sometimes lost their way with the ball. A possession in the half court with both Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon on the court should not be a possession that sees neither of them touch the ball, and that was something that happened a bit too often (Gordon had far more trouble getting the touches he deserved than Blake did).
Even when the ball did go to someone in what may have seemed like a mismatch favoring the Clippers, good things rarely happened. The Clippers were dead-last in isolation points per possession last season (Baron Davis was the Clippers’ only good isolation player, scoring on 45.3 percent of those possessions, which ranked him as one of the best isolation players in the NBA).
More importantly, the team was 27th in the NBA in spot-up points per possession, and that was where 19.1 percent of all the Clippers’ offensive possessions came, more than any other single category. That could be attributed to a few things but mostly, I think, the lack of good spot-up shooters (sometimes analysis is really easy). Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Baron Davis (for a chunk of the season, at least) and Al-Farouq Aminu were not able to consistently hit 3-pointers to space the floor. Blake also had his share of spot-up shots, which probably shouldn’t happen at all until he gets more consistent from mid-range.
With Mo Williams taking over at the PG spot for a full season, the team is likely to be a bit better off finding success from long range. Picking up a capable shooter wouldn’t hurt, either.
The team’s ball handlers were pretty average in pick-and-roll situations, while roll man offense was slightly above average.
We know that the Clippers started out last season with Baron Davis, who by reputation is supposedly a more than capable playmaker, but Baron’s own lacking scoring ability in the pick-and-roll hurt the team (poor finisher at the rim, poor long range shooter), and Synergy tells us that he actually wasn’t a very good passer in the pick-and-roll either.
Eric Bledsoe was all-but-identical to Baron, both in number of pick-and-roll ball handler opportunities and in points per possession (EB also had a terrible turnover rate in the pick-and-roll when he took the ball himself). Bledsoe’s passing in the pick-and-roll was pretty solid, however, which surprised me a bit.
Mo Williams by the numbers was actually a very solid pick-and-roll guard. We know that he’s a good shooter (especially compared to Baron and Bledsoe), but he was also at least average as a pick-and-roll passer, which I didn’t expect. However, I’d like to see Williams play a full season with the team before announcing his strength in the pick-and-roll. I fear is strong pick-and-roll numbers (especially the passing) could have been the product of small sample size. Conversely, he could improve as he gets used to working in the Clippers’ offensive system.
Blake himself could help out the ball handler by trying to find space even more effectively than he has, as he has an occasional tendency to pop out after setting the screen (sometimes by design to function as a high-post initiator), which usually isn’t as beneficial has him forcing the defense to commit to him on the inside by rolling into the lane.
The team needs to try to reduce isolation possessions and non-Blake post-up possessions (the team is ranked 20th in post-ups with .85 PPP, Blake’s post-up PPP is .9. Big difference), while also finding a way to get more efficient in transition and on spot-up opportunities.
Why do the Clippers struggle offensively despite the presence of a young, potent inside-out tandem?
Simply put, you have to spread the floor in today’s NBA and you have to make shots to do that.
The poor spot-up numbers can also partly explain why the pick-and-roll numbers aren’t as good as they could be. When teams help off of perimeter shooters onto either the roll man or the penetrating ball handler, someone is going to be left open out on the perimeter. If these guys aren’t hitting shots, the offense suffers.
Meanwhile, the team’s only long-term one-on-one threat is Blake Griffin in the post, so the Clippers can’t continue to waste possessions by going into isolation sets off the block.
There are some fixable issues the team is facing going into next season. For one, the team has no excuse to rank just average (15th) in the NBA in transition. I realize that Blake isn’t always in the game (he has to rest sometimes, guys) and he also isn’t always in position to dunk on the entire world on fast breaks, but obviously finishing more in transition is a great way to score easy points without worrying about tweaks to the actual offensive system or roster.
And, I cannot stress this enough, the team also has to do something about their horrible isolation offense. Either find a way to reduce the amount of isolation plays the team finds itself in or do a better job of finding mismatches when guys opt to go one-on-one.
Let’s say that the Clippers take a big jump and achieve offensive mediocrity (around 15th in the NBA from 22nd), and the defense also improves a bit simply due to better team togetherness (through more time together and hopefully less injuries) and the development of the younger guys (17th in the NBA to 15th or so). Without any science at all, I’m going to assume that makes the Clippers an average team by record (41-41, give or take). It’s going to take a few more wins than that to make the playoffs in the West, and it might be a bit ridiculous to assume the team will improve that much in only one season anyway. Of course, crazy things could happen to the Clippers or to one or more competing Western Conference teams and boom, playoffs. We also don’t know exactly what the team will look like next season.
The Clippers showed plenty of promise for stretches last season, but a certain level of consistency is necessary to make the playoffs in the West. I wouldn’t bet on the team finding that necessary level in the next NBA season, but I would bet on some positive growth from the team.