With 42 points on 14-of-26 shooting, it’s safe to say Carmelo Anthony had his way with the Clippers in Sunday’s matinee at Madison Square Garden. The Clippers got the win, so Anthony’s gaudy point total didn’t matter that much, but his performance continued a perturbing trend of opposing wings lighting up the Clippers.
In the game before Sunday’s, against the Heat, LeBron James had 30 points on 9-of-11 shooting. A week before that, against the Celtics, Paul Pierce had 22 points on 7-of-16 shooting, along with the game-winning jumper over Matt Barnes’ outstretched arms. And going back another week, Kevin Durant had 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, going into Super Saiyan mode and doing this.
Those games, unlike the Knicks game, all resulted in Clipper losses.
The fact that those four players – four of the top five players in PER at small forward, perennial All-Stars, and (most likely) future Hall-of-Famers – had noteworthy scoring outputs shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it highlights the fact that, despite their best efforts to improve their individual wing defense this offseason, the Clippers are still prone to defensive struggles against dominant wing scorers.
That’s not to say that the additions of Barnes and Grant Hill haven’t provided the Clippers with much-needed size, length, versatility and veteran savvy, because they have. But both players, along with Caron Butler, provide a bevy of strengths and weaknesses, and there are drawbacks for playing one too many minutes over another.
Disclaimer: I’m only discussing defense. While cases can be made for the benefits each player brings to offensively, I’m not focusing on that. Also, the point of interest is solely the Clippers’ small forwards: Butler, Barnes and Hill. They’re the ones who’ll likely be defending the big-time wing scorers. Lastly, I’m looking at this in terms of individual defense, not the team as a whole. Obviously the five guys on the floor will dictate the defensive results, but the Clippers have had some trouble strictly in terms of one-on-one perimeter D.
Let’s take a look at some of their defensive numbers:
Caron Butler: 0.98 PPP (356th), 1.09 PPP in isolations (247th), 0.83 PPP in post-ups (98th), 106 DRtg, 14.5 SF opponent PER
Butler, the nominal starter, is a tough, strong and physical defender, who has lost a few steps since he ruptured his right patellar tendon with the Mavericks back in early 2011. But besides having the girth and proper mindset to defend top-notch scorers, Butler hasn’t been very successful this season (or last, for that matter).
His defensive points per possession (PPP) is atrocious – among the worst in the entire league – and frankly, none of his Synergy numbers are good. The only category he’s in the top 100 is post-ups, which makes sense, but he barely even cracks it there. He simply can’t defend players with quick feet or athleticism – he’s too slow and his reaction time is non-existent.
In the above clips, Iman Shumpert and Anthony blow by Butler with relative ease. There should have been help in the first clip (although it’s difficult to ask Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan to leave Anthony or Tyson Chandler open); in the second clip, Griffin helped and was forced to foul Anthony.
But individually, Butler just can’t stay in front of either player. While both guys are undoubtedly athletic, players have been blowing by Butler all season. He’s simply a defensive liability in almost all one-on-one situations.
Despite giving up three inches and about 15 to 20 lbs. to Josh Smith, Butler stands his ground and doesn’t fall for the initial spin move fake. He proceeds to push Smith a bit, without fouling him, and then gives him no choice but to fire up a contested hook shot that rattles out.
While he fares better in the post because of his size, his numbers are somewhat boosted by the Clippers helping over and doubling in a lot of cases (yet it shows up as a Butler stop in Synergy). For all his floor spacing and leadership, it’s difficult to justify a reason Butler should be out there defensively unless a team is deploying three big men (like the Utah Jazz).
Matt Barnes: 0.81 PPP (89th), 0.54 PPP against pick-and-roll ball handlers (9th), 0.57 PPP off screens (8th), 102 DRtg, 13.6 SF opponent PER
Barnes has been the Clippers’ wing stopper all season, and for the most part, he’s done a great job. He’s among the best in the league at defending off-the-ball movement, whether off screens, cuts, or pick-and-rolls. It’s a rare ability, one that the Clippers are lucky to have (Butler, Jamal Crawford and Willie Green aren’t great off-the-ball defenders).
He doesn’t have the best footwork – he often gets beat when closing out on shooters, which is why his spot-up defense is subpar – but he makes up for that with length, hustle and tenacity. He’s a confrontational and pesky defender, much like his on-court demeanor, and he’s always hovering around his man, poking and prodding him.
Watch Barnes make LeBron work for the ball. He stays glued to him, fronts him, and then denies him the ball on the wing (so much so that Battier is forced to pass the ball then screen for LeBron to free him up). Even after LeBron gets by him on the pick-and-roll, Barnes times his attack perfectly and tips the ball out of LeBron’s hands. That’s great defense on the best player in the world.
Once again, Barnes is a pest off the ball, this time with Durant. The Thunder run him off two screens, one along the baseline and one at the free throw line, and even with that, Barnes stays with Durant and contests his 3-pointer. There’s almost no way he could’ve played that better, especially against the caliber of player that Durant is.
Here, Pierce makes two moves on Barnes — the initial right-handed attack, and then the step-back — but Barnes doesn’t bite on either. As a result, he forces Pierce into a tough fadeaway that barely grazes the rim.
Barnes isn’t the picture-perfect defender — like Shane Battier (basically) was a few years ago when he had more athleticism — but he hustles his butt off, doesn’t give up if he gets beaten, and tends to make the opponent react to him, not the other way around.
Grant Hill: 0.75 PPP (28th), 0.67 PPP in isolations (N/A), 0.54 PPP on spot-ups (3rd), 106 DRtg, 10.4 SF opponent PER
Even at 40, Hill’s basketball IQ allows him to make defensive plays most players a decade or two younger than him can’t make. Though he’s unquestionably an exceptional athlete, he’s slowed down a bit too – a trend among the Clippers’ wings – so he can’t be asked to defend roadrunners or a team’s top scoring option for more than 15 minutes or so a night.
Still, he’s the Clippers’ best on-ball wing defender. He gives players the slightest room to trick them into thinking their open, but when they rise up to shoot, he uses his length to quickly recover and aptly contest the shot. This can be a poor strategy if a player gets hot, but it usually renders athletic players ineffective, as they’re settling for jumpers instead of attacking the rim (which is what the Clippers want, obviously).
He did an admirable job against Anthony in the fourth quarter Sunday, holding him to just 9 points on 3-of-6 shooting, and showing the Clippers a glimpse of what they envisioned over the summer when they signed him. It’s a small sample size so far, but Hill looks like he was worth all the hype.
Admittedly, this was a bailout play by Anthony. He simply settled for a poor shot. But that, in part, was because Hill’s defense on him was so good. He’s up on Anthony, pressuring him, and angling him off into the help where there’s help. Hill understands angles better than any Clipper — he knows where his help is and where to direct the ball handler.
Hill does a lot of good things here: he hedges out on Felton, recovers to Anthony rapidly (him and Bledsoe had a slight miscommunication there), and then closes out on the 3-pointer and forces Anthony into a travel. It’s subtle things — you may need to rewind and re-watch them — that make up good defense.
The Hill-Durant matchup is one to look out for, as he may very well be the most equipped player to handle KD come playoff time.
Here, Hill does a good job of staying with Durant after the spin, not letting him out of arm’s reach and soundly contesting the shot. Ironically enough, Barnes is the help defense here, and he does a superb job of meeting Durant outside the paint and forcing him into a difficult shot attempt.
There’s no doubt that these two guys are L.A.’s top two perimeter defenders against large wings.
On ClipperBlog Live after the Heat game I proposed that the Clippers make a change in the starting lineup, substituting either Barnes or Hill in for Butler.
While Barnes plays more than Butler (26 minutes compared to 24.2), he gets most of his minutes against the opponent’s bench, sans the last few minutes of the game. Meanwhile, Butler plays most of his minutes in the beginning of the first and third quarter, which is when the opposition has their best players and scorers in – a vital time in which the Clippers need a lockdown defender out there. Butler can’t provide that, and neither can Green, Crawford or Chauncey Billups.
Individual defense is only a fraction of what makes up a good defense (as you see, Clippers are doing just fine with Butler logging the minutes he is), but it’s not a coincidence that some of the Clippers’ recent losses have been because they haven’t been able to get stops against proficient scorers.
The Clippers are suffering against the LeBrons and Durants (and even the Kobes) because they’re going long stretches without their best defenders out there (Hill only averages 16.9 minutes per game). It may not hurt them now, but it can in the playoffs. Even 10 minutes of Butler on Durant can be the difference in a playoff game, and eventually a series.
I understand team chemistry is arguably the most important aspect of the Clippers’ season, and thus the notion of someone replacing Butler in the starting lineup would never happen.
So what can they do?
Revamp the rotation is the most logical and seemingly only option.
If Butler is going to start because of his pedigree, then throw Barnes or Hill in at the 7- or 8-minute mark of the first and third quarters (not with 2 or 3 minutes left in the quarter).
At this point, Butler should probably be playing somewhere in the 15-20 minute range, with Barnes and Hill soaking up the rest of the small forward minutes (and some at power forward). L.A. has a lot of options — even Billups and Eric Bledsoe can defend bigger wings in a pinch.
This isn’t a dire problem, but a problem that should be fixed nonetheless. They just can’t rely on Butler, Green or Crawford to have major defensive roles.
One thing’s for certain: the Clippers need to get creative and figure out a way to maximize their defensive potential.
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