Currently sitting atop the Pacific Division at 17-8, the Clippers have seemed to already solidify themselves as a playoff team. The season is more than 1/3 of the way through, and the Clippers have knocked off the Heat, Thunder, Lakers, Blazers, Nuggets, and a handful of other pretty good teams along the way. They’ve had a few slip ups here and there, but they’ve shown that when reasonably healthy, they’re deserving of a playoff spot.
The Clippers chances at contending for a title, however, are a little more cloudy. A lot has been made about the loss of Chauncey Billups, and many seem to think that the title chances now rest on the shoulders of J.R. Smith — a relatively frightening thought when you take a step back and look at it all.
The Clippers certainly have their needs, but none need to be addressed more than their issues on the defensive end.
Despite their impressive start to the season, the Clippers currently rank 24th among all NBA teams in defensive efficiency, allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions. To give you an idea of the company the Clippers are keeping, the six teams below them in defensive efficiency currently have a combined winning percentage of .316. That’s pretty typical — the teams that are the worst in defensive efficiency are almost at the bottom of the standings. Makes sense.
The Clippers, obviously, are breaking the rules here by rankings as the 2nd best team in the West right now. It raises the question: Are these winning ways sustainable, and can the Clippers really contend for a title with their defense being this bad?
It’s important to look at this from a historical perspective. Here’s a list of the last five NBA Finals teams and their league rank in defensive efficiency during the regular season according to HoopData.com:
2011 Dallas: 7th
2011 Miami: 5th
2010 Lakers: 5th
2010 Boston: 6th
2009 Lakers: 5th
2009 Orlando: 1st
2008 Lakers: 1st
2008 Boston: 6th
2007 San Antonio: 2nd
2007 Cleveland: 4th
In the last five years, no team that has ranked lower than 7th in the league in defensive efficiency has made the finals. Again — the Clippers currently sit at 24th. That’s a huge gap.
Even making the playoffs is a bit of a dicey proposition for teams ranking where the Clippers currently do. Over the last five years, only four teams have finished outside of the top 20 in defensive efficiency in the regular season and made the playoffs:
The 2010-11 New York Knicks (swept 4-0 in the first round)
The 2007-08 Washington Wizards (defeated 4-2 in the first round)
The 2006-07 Los Angeles Lakers (defeated 4-1 in the first round)
The 2006-07 Washington Wizards (swept 4-0 in the first round)
Are the Clippers current defensive numbers the product of a little small sample size theater? Maybe. You can certainly point to roster turnover, the new additions, the injuries and everything else as reasons for the poor defense thus far.With that said, the rate the Clippers are winning at seems plenty unsustainable unless the defense improves in a hurry. At the very least, history indicates they’ll have a tough time in the playoffs if this keeps up over 66 games.
No matter how good the Clippers offense may be under Chris Paul, it seems that scoring can only carry the Clippers up to a certain point. If they want to contend for a title, the Clippers have to find a way to fix what’s happening on the other end of the court.