Probably the biggest difference between this Clippers squad and last year is the defense. They were 18th in defensive efficiency last year and have made a huge jump all the way to 5th in the NBA. Meanwhile, the offense is only around one point per 100 possessions better than last year. When shots aren’t dropping this season, the team has something to fall back on. The defense makes it easier for the team to get into their deadly transition game. To be blunt, the D just helps the Clippers win.
The defense has been less about not allowing good shots and more about rotating quickly to contest these shots. The excellent expected points per shot work Ian Levy is doing at Hickory High gives us a glimpse into this. The Clippers are allowing an expected points per shot of 1.054, good (or bad) for 24th in the league. But LA isn’t allowing opponents to make these shots. Their actual points per shot allowed is 1.035. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty stuff: what technical things have the Clippers improved upon on the court? The most obvious thing to look at is the Clippers’ improved defense in both parts of the pick and roll.
Defending the pick and roll big man
Last year: 1.03 Points Per Play (PPP) (25th in the league), score 52.5% of the time
In the above clip from last year’s playoffs, the Spurs come at the Clippers with a double high pick and roll. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin have no idea how to defend this. They aren’t moving in sync and this allows Tim Duncan to pop open for a jumper. The main error is on Jordan here, but some blame can be laid on Griffin as well for not communicating and just blindly following his man. Jordan needs to stay with Duncan, Chris Paul stays with Tony Parker well and Griffin will be at the rim to contest from the weakside (Well, he should be there and ready to contest).
Who knows if it was a strategy or just the Clippers inability to defend it, but the Clippers consistently gave up pick and pop jumpers last season and they were burned by it. 92.2% of opponent big man makes in pick and roll situations last season were jumpers.
This year: 0.94 PPP (8th), score 46% of the time
The most impressive thing about the above clip is the rotations Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan make. Watch Griffin: he starts moving over towards where Aldridge will be, before Aldridge even has the ball and is in position. Then, Jordan, without having to think, sprints to the basket to cover Griffin’s man. Improved defensive chemistry between the two big men has been huge for the entire D.
Defending the ball handler
Last year: 0.78 PPP (11th), score 37.6% of the time
The Clippers were actually fairly proficient defending this play last season. The main problem was inconsistency. The big man didn’t have a consistent strategy and quite often you would see similar possessions in the same game where the big man would defend the pick and roll in completely different ways.
Here, Jordan defends a pick and roll one way, hedging hard, in the first quarter. Then, just one quarter later, he defends it in a completely different way sitting back and letting the guard attack. Let’s be clear: neither of these ways is wrong, the problem is the inconsistency. Other players aren’t sure of which way the big man will defend and this can screw up secondary rotations.
This year: 0.69 PPP (1st), score 33% of the time
This season, the Clippers have gone with a consistent strategy and are hedging hard on almost every pick and roll. A short compilation, just from Sunday’s loss against Boston:
This new strategy has been successful – opponents are turning the ball over a whopping 24.9% of the time on pick and roll ball handler plays.
One of the biggest reasons the Clippers lost to the Spurs in the playoffs last year was the Spurs running the pick and roll successfully, forcing rotations, and opening up three point shooters. If the Clippers can defend the pick and roll with their primary defenders they can’t keep the Spurs off the three-point line where they are the most deadly. At some point during the playoffs, the Clippers will have to face Spurs or the Thunder; both excellent pick and roll teams. We’ll see then how improved this defense really is.