Remember how you felt on March 22?
I’m not sure I’ll ever forget. It was one of those points in this nutty, one-of-a-kind Clippers season. It happened to be my birthday and I, along with Jordan Heimer and a couple other world-class travel partners, was in the building as confetti fell from the the rafters of New Orleans Arena following a Hornets win.
It was an amazing moment, especially symbolic for the two teams connected by the trade of Chris Paul. The one positioned to pick at the top draft had just dismantled the one for which the only franchise player they had ever known preferred to play.
On the other side of the euphoria was what will, in all likelihood, go down as “rock bottom” for the 2011-2012 Clippers. As we exited the arena into a torrential downpour, we couldn’t help but wonder if the Clippers, much less their coach, would ever find their way out of the storm.
But there is nothing like a six-game winning streak to wipe the clouds away. No longer are the playoffs in much doubt, but after such dramatic swings, it may be tough properly assess what this team really is.
Yesterday, Justin Verrier asked at TrueHoop, are these the real Clippers? He wondered if the team that so emphatically responded to adversity has (re)established itself as a legitimate contender, but while that is yet to be determined, the answer to the first question is: yes.
With an honest look at the numbers, we see that these are, indeed, the real Clippers. Capable of storming through six consecutive wins or fumbling away losses to more eager lottery teams, the flaws that have loomed since the season began remain balanced by the strengths that have put them in this position with 13 games to play.
What we know
The Clippers sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, with the Pacific Division lead up for grabs as they face the Lakers tomorrow night. That they’ve gotten to this point is pretty remarkable considering how poorly they have done some things.
Take defense, for example. They entered Tuesday ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, only percentage points ahead of the eighth-seeded Nuggets as the worst defensive teams currently in the playoff mix. It’s a systemic issue that, even with standouts at point guard and the shot-blocking of DeAndre Jordan, remains the single most influential factor in their vulnerability.
They are fifth in the league in offensive efficiency, but at four out of five positions, they give up almost as much as they produce. Jordan and Blake Griffin, who lead the team in effective field goal percentage, are the primary culprits. Call it “The J.J. Hickson Effect,” as referenced by Kevin Arnovitz:
Yet, the undermanned Trail Blazers scrapped hard and Hickson became just the latest in a procession of middling players to torch the Clippers. The bouncy, castaway forward racked up 29 points and 18 rebounds on 13-for-19 shooting from the field. If not for a couple of missed free throws by Hickson and a series of uninspired possessions in the final minute, Portland might’ve soured what has been, thus far, a restorative homestand for the Clippers.
Despite posting above-average player efficiency ratings (PER), the net output of both the power forward (+1.0) and center position (+.5) are almost neutral because of what they surrender to opponents. Due to a combination of poor positioning, timing, planning and in some cases, effort, Griffin and Jordan often find themselves unprepared or unable to anchor a defense that requires consistent pressure on their own men and frequent help for a generally porous perimeter. Both are clearly capable of positive contributions on D, but unless they can collectively realize their potential, they’ll need to redouble their efforts on the offensive end to compensate.
It’s the Butler, with the defense, on the wing
The most generous of said perimeter defenders has been Caron Butler. Unlike the two big men, though, he has been unable for the last few months to make up for it on the other end — the small forward position this season has played to a net -4.5 PER. As if his sole objective this season was to gain D.J. Foster’s approval, Butler has fallen to 36th among qualified small forwards in PER since a hot start that had raised doubt among the doubters. You might be tempted to say that this needs to improve — and a big game or two from Butler could certainly swing a playoff series — but there might be no better example of how the Clippers are who they are, in spite of such glaring weaknesses.
DeAndre Jordan, leadoff hitter
One of the more fascinating developments of this team has been the deliberate effort to involve DeAndre Jordan in the offense to start games. In 13 of their past 16 contests, including last night in Dallas, the Clippers have run sets — often advanced ones with multiple actions — to isolate the big man on the block. Interestingly enough, the guy who didn’t even take one shot outside of the key last season has shown glimpses of an offensive repertoire on most of them.
Of the 13 plays (all but two of which game on the Clippers’ very first possession): three resulted in dunks, two in made baby hooks, and four in trips to the line. It should also be noted that, of the makes, five came off of assists from teammates. That’s nine of 13 plays (69%) that resulted in either direct or indirect scoring opportunities — the worst case scenario of each being a foul drawn on an opposing defender.
Which makes you wonder…why don’t they do this more often? During this 16-game stretch, he’s taking just under his season average of five field goal attempts per game and his season usage rate is close to the lowest of his career. It’s difficult to comprehend why an obvious effort from the bench to involve Jordan essentially ends after the first play, despite its overwhelming success. It speaks to the kind of coaching oversight that has doomed this team time and time again, and that does not figure to change with 13 games left in the regular season.
Saved by the star
Quite simply, the Clippers are where they are because of Chris Paul. This is not groundbreaking news. This year, he trails only LeBron James (31.94) in pace-adjusted PER, at 29.53. It’s a piece that can and has been written every year of his career, but he is so good that he can take just about any team to the playoffs. Once there, the idea goes that by virtue of being something like the second-most dangerous player in the game, he gives you a chance to win.
Whereas guys like Griffin give back most of their production on the defensive end, Paul being responsible for the bulk of the team’s point guard minutes — although his backup, Eric Bledsoe, has chipped in admirably on the defensive end — has held opponents to a 12.9 PER. On a team with no position contributing a significant positive net difference, the +10.3 from Clipper point guards really jumps off the page. It’s why they are who they are.
Positivity is great. Any fan should be so lucky to feel good about his or her team. As Clipper fans, it’s tough not to when you’ve been through all the heartbreak and suddenly you have Chris Paul leading the way. We weathered the storm in New Orleans — for those of us who were there, literally — but as they head into their first meaningful late-season matchup against the Lakers in years, let’s remember that the Clippers face many of the same issues today as they did on March 22nd. With that said, the West may very well be up for grabs, and there are still the same reasons to be positive.