If the Los Angeles Clippers somehow manage to eke into the Finals, defeat an Eastern Conference juggernaut and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, critics will point to their offensive execution – and not their defense – as the key to their success.
But defense wins championships. And champions rarely have defenses ranked outside of the top-10. Look no further than the last ten teams to play in the Finals – as D.J. Foster pointed out, no team ranked lower than seventh in defensive efficiency.
The Clippers currently rank 22nd in the league, giving them a puncher’s chance at defeating Oklahoma City, San Antonio or Dallas in the later rounds of the death match disguised as the Western Conference playoffs.
If you can’t get an adequate amount of defensive stops, you can’t win playoff basketball games. It’s simple, but the logic is often lost amid teams throwing lobs, knocking down barrages of 3-pointers and scoring 120 points on any given night.
The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks of the mid-2000s exemplified this concept to a tee – they’d win 55-60 games during the regular season based off brilliant offensive schemes (easily defeating other “contenders”) and then falter in the postseason because their rotations were spotty, they couldn’t secure defensive rebounds and they weren’t “tough” enough inside.
The same pitfalls appeared to be found in the Clippers (excluding the least important of the three, toughness) – until one transaction potentially changed their end-season fate:
While the addition of Martin has not gone unnoticed by the Clipper faithful, his impact on the defensive end has been undervalued by just about everybody else. Though it sounds illogical, he may be saving the Clippers’ season.
He’s arguably the Clippers’ best defensive player at the tender age of 34. Yes, probably better than DeAndre Jordan or Chris Paul. His strengths – defensive rotations, weak side help, playing physical and scrappy on-ball defense – have rubbed off on the Clippers and the change is noticeable.
Since his arrival, eight games in all, the Clippers have allowed over 100 points in just two games (though Cleveland came close with 99 points). They’ve allowed 86 points or fewer in half of those games. Their defensive efficiency numbers are on the rise too.
Martin’s defensive rating of 97.31 leads the Clippers, and his net rating (compares the Clippers’ defensive ratings with him on and off the court) is a -8.04, trailing only Blake Griffin’s -10.13 rating (negative ratings in this stat are actually positive – it shows your team does worse with you off the floor).
On the downside, their offense has taken a slight hit. With Billups gone, the Clippers’ first unit is no longer indestructible offensively. The obvious way to counterbalance the hit to their offense was to improve defensively, which they’ve been doing.
If they play the way they’ve been playing post-Billups (and with Martin), they’ll likely finish in the mid to late teens of the defensive efficiency rankings, which is decent. They probably wouldn’t win the West, but the conference finals is within reason.
They’ve only gone 4-4 since the arrival of Martin and the departure of Billups, but much can be put on the on-the-court turmoil that the injury caused and the adjustment the team has had to make (Randy Foye’s inability to replace Billups’ offensive output doesn’t help).
But Martin wasn’t brought in for offensive purposes.
Just take a look at his box score stats and it seems his impact is limited. In fact, his paltry PER of 6.92 suggests he shouldn’t even play. But we know better. His advanced stats show his effect. The way Griffin and Jordan are rotating, as well as the rest of the team, prove that Martin’s leadership is being put to good use.
He was once in a similar position to Griffin. He was never as talented, and never received the same amount of laudation, but he was a 6’9 athletic power forward known for his freakish athleticism, in-your-face dunks and illustrious status as the No. 1 pick.
If anyone can help Griffin get to the next level, it’s Martin. His career underachievement (compared to his draft slot) serves as a warning as to what could be if Griffin doesn’t continue to work hard and improve on his game.
And thus Martin’s impact is more than on the floor. It’s off the floor, in the locker room and in the huddle. The true test will be the second half of the season and the playoffs, when we see how much the Clippers can actually squeeze out of their roster defensively.
Clipper fans love Reggie Evans’ hustle and chant “Reggie!” during games, and deservedly so. Evans works his tail off, majorly helps out the Clippers’ second-largest weakness (rebounding) and has earned a special place in Clipper fans’ hearts (as the original “other big man” not named Brian Cook or Solomon Jones).
In reality, though, there’s another player that deserves more credit. It’s safe to say, we should be hearing more “Kenyon!” chants.