Whenever the sky used to fall on the Los Angeles Lakers back in the day, you could always count on the babbling of their fans to be pacified with the mention of one single phrase:
Even if it wasn’t always logical, there was this faith that the Lakers could turn it on whenever they needed to. Losses to the Bobcats were embarrassing, sure, but when the playoffs rolled around there was a belief that the team would take it to another level. Most of the time they did. The switch could be difficult for them to find, but it almost always seemed to be there.
The Clippers (you can put your pitchfork down — we’re talking about them now) have their own switch now. But unlike the Lakers, there’s very little mystery involved as to where it is, or how to reach it. The Clippers switch is a tangible thing, because the Clippers switch is Chris Paul.
Pick your pitchfork back up, because I’m going to talk about me and my apartment for a second. My apartment has been dubbed “The Cave”, mainly because it gets very little natural light. To give you a better image, it’s basically four walls, my old Darius Miles jersey, and a window that rarely catches the sun. It also smells funny, but that is neither here nor there. I use three lamps to light The Cave. Since I have lived here, two of those lights have died on me. If I weren’t such a lazy, worthless human being, I would go to the store and buy light bulbs, like any reasonable person would. Instead, I live with one functioning light, because I can survive that way.
I realize that one day this light will go out, and I will be completely in the dark. Regardless though, I’m just going to keep flipping the switch for that one lamp, because right now it works.
That’s kind of like the Clippers and Chris Paul right now — they’re relying almost solely on Chris Paul to take care of everything late, and very rarely has that strategy not worked. But here’s the truth: Chauncey Billups was the first light to go out. Now Caron Butler is flickering all of the sudden, and DeAndre Jordan doesn’t seem far behind. Even Blake Griffin’s light seems a little dim lately.
But here’s Paul, somehow always lighting up at the right time, carrying the Clippers to wins they don’t always deserve. The Clippers gaudy record would indicate that this strategy is working. Just keep the game reasonable until Paul can flip the switch and save the day. He’s done it time and time again, hitting game-winners against Philly and Portland, or bailing the team out multiple times like he did against Houston. Paul is obviously reliable in that regard — if his stats in the fourth were stretched to a full game, he’d be averaging 28 points on 52 percent shooting. The Clippers seem content with riding Paul’s insane production to wins, because why wouldn’t they? They’re winning. That’s all that matters, right?
Well…no. Here’s the problem with the Clippers heavy reliance on Paul. NBA coaches, contrary to popular belief, are smart. They know what Paul is capable of. The best teams in the league force you to pick your poison, but the Clippers don’t really do that — Paul just administers the poison on his own and kills you himself. Eventually though, teams will start doubling Paul as soon as he crosses half court. We’ve seen it before in New Orleans — it’s not that crazy of a thought. They’ll get the ball out of his hands, and if they fail at that, they’ll collapse on him as soon as he moves towards the rim. Defenses will make anyone other than Paul beat them. A good portion of the time Paul will still beat them, but at times it will come down to things like this: Can Blake Griffin hit a mid-range jumper? Can Caron Butler hit the open 3 from the corner? Can Randy Foye make the right decision?
That’s the problem with knowing what activates your team’s switch — everyone else does too. Since Chauncey Billups went down, it seems like the rest of the teams in the league are catching up and figuring things out. The Clippers are playing .500 ball since the night in Orlando when Billups went down. Randy Foye is shooting 37 percent from the field in that time period, Caron Butler is shooting 33 percent. These are problems in their own right, only magnified by the fact that these two players bring little if nothing else to the floor. Foye is statistically one of the league’s worst rebounding guards and assist men, and Butler is near the bottom of the barrel in those categories for small forwards as well. Both rank horribly defensively according to MySynergySports.com, particularly in defending spot-up shooters — an area the Clippers allow nearly a full point per possession. Basically, it amounts to this: Foye and Butler are strictly shooters (not scorers — shooters) who as of right now can’t shoot. That’s a problem.
That’s not an easy fix, but the offense still shines because of Paul and Griffin. Ask yourself this though: when is the last time the Clippers have scored directly from an off-ball screen? When’s the last time you saw someone cut backdoor for a layup? The Clippers are great offensively, but their predictability could easily be the death of them in a seven-game series.
That is, of course, if the defense doesn’t kill them first. The Clippers are still ranked 21st in the league in defensive efficiency, and the time is ticking on the “they just need time to jell” reason. More troubling than anything, for me anyway, is that Blake Griffin is still not being held accountable for his lack of focus on the defensive end. His offensive improvements have been great, but is Griffin in anyway a better defender this year than last year? Has he ever once blown up a pick-and-roll? Griffin and Jordan both have the ability to defend above the rim, but neither have much going on above the shoulders. Jordan has developed the defense mechanism of attaching himself to the rim no matter what. Are his wings to be held responsible for leaking everything to him and conditioning him to do that? Partially, but at some point Jordan needs to waddle out to the deep end when Samuel Dalembert is banging in 15-footers with ease, or when Kevin Love is trailing on the break. Sadly, the Clippers best defense right now is a good offense.
The same things that make the Clippers offense a good one makes their defense a bad one. The “hands off” approach to offensive structure, the “letting good players make good plays” is all fine and well for the most part when you have superior talent like Paul and Griffin. Defensively though, that doesn’t fly. Jordan isn’t getting his minutes cut solely because Kenyon Martin is a better offensive option — Kenyon’s a better defender as well. That’s a lot of money and a lot of raw defensive talent on the bench that you can’t help but think could be molded into a smarter, more effective defender. But even if you can’t give the knowledge to Jordan, you should be able to make Griffin at least care. Hold him accountable. Do something when he stands through three straight defensive possessions, or plays matador defense for a guard on the way to the rim. Save for Martin and flashes with Jordan, the Clippers backline defense is almost as bad as the perimeter D.
If Del Negro isn’t mixing variety into the offense, managing the game at a high level, motivating players to dig in on the defensive end or implementing defensive schemes to account for the iffy personnel…well…what is he doing? The Clippers may not need a master innovator on the offensive end, but they sure as hell need someone who can get the team to even occasionally show they can play defense at a playoff level.
If the Clippers are truly depending on Paul’s bailout efforts as a sustainable winning formula going forward, they’re already living in the dark.