In the NBA, there’s a fine line between being good and great. The Clippers have straddled that line throughout the season. Lately, a recurring theme for the Clippers’ struggle has been their defensive tenacity, or lack thereof. Be it a glitch in the system, a lack of effort, awareness, personnel — or most likely, a combination of these factors — the Clippers just haven’t been able to string together a stretch of good defensive performances since their 17 game winning streak. March, specifically, has been a bad month for them. The Clippers’ defensive efficiency this past month was 106.2, as compared to the 99.6 rating they had before the month. That’s approximately the difference between Chicago’s 5th ranked defense and Detroit’s 25th rank defense. In the Clippers’ last five losses, that number has plummeted to 111.9.
After Zach Lowe beautifully demonstrated how the Grizzlies took advantage of the Clippers’ curious defensive rotations over at Grantland, I started paying close attention to the team’s defensive miscues. Here’s what I found:
One of the things Los Angeles has been doing is having DeAndre Jordan hedge on pick and rolls. If you take a look at the league’s best defensive teams — Memphis and Indiana, namely — they rarely have their shot-blocking big men hedging on pick and rolls, primarily because they’d rather have them close to the paint. Even Dwight Howard when he was with the Magic and could hedge and recover faster than anyone in the league would tend to hang back on pick and rolls. In general, players of DJ’s mold are more valuable when they’re defending the rim rather than hanging out at the three-point line. Here are a few situations where the Clippers got burned as a result of Jordan hedging.
Instead of hedging and recovering here, Jordan decides to stick with Deron Williams 30 feet away from the rim. Paul, seemingly confused at DJ’s aggresiveness here, does his best to block the passing lane to Lopez but doesn’t actually commit to him.
Wallace comes up and Deron gets the ball to him, effectively giving the Nets a quick 4-on-3 situation. At this point, Jamal Crawford commits to the ball-handler, Wallace, and Blake Griffin is stuck in-between Lopez and Reggie Evans. DJ, on the other hand, is still nowhere close to recovering.
Evans makes his move to set up a pick and roll with Wallace, forcing Griffin to choose between sticking with Lopez at the rim or following Evans. In hindsight, Griffin probably should have stuck with Lopez since a Wallace-Evans pick and roll is… well, a Wallace-Evans pick and roll. Regardless of what Blake chose to do though, the Clippers were already in big trouble.
As soon as Blake makes a decision, the ball is in the air and the Nets have gone Lob City on Lob City.
This play starts with Kosta Koufos dribbling the ball towards Danilo Gallinari, who is coming off a down-screen courtesy of Andre Iguodala. Since Chauncey Billups is unequipped to slow Gallo down, and neither Butler nor Billups — considering they’ve spent the majority of their careers guarding wings — are well-versed in the art of hedging and recovering, the Clippers really have no choice except to let Gallo gain a decent amount of separation.
Koufos hands the ball over to Gallo, initiating a side pick and roll. Thanks to a great screen by Iguodala, DJ is forced to either help Butler out or allow Gallinari to get a wide open three-pointer. The Butler-DJ duo does a good job of neutralizing the pick and roll here, so the ball goes back to Iguodala.
What happens next is the real problem. Once Butler recovers on Gallo, Jordan A) waits too long to get back into the paint, and B) can’t find his man. It is not communicated that Griffin has switched to Koufos and DJ spends the rest of the possession essentially guarding open space. Thus, Kenneth Faried flashes into the paint — again, not communicated — and nail a wide open floater.
The Nuggets love to set up their offense while the other team is still getting back in transition and justifiably so, since it often forces their opponent into a defensive frenzy. Early in the first quarter, Iguodala and Faried initiated a pick and roll while most of players on the floor were still rushing back.
Billups goes under the pick, and it seems that Griffin is just flat out not paying attention to the play. George Karl, who has no shortage of tricks in his playbook, has had his big men set up out of bounds this season, in an effort to improve the Nuggets’ spacing. It pays dividends for the Nuggets here, as DJ is just a second too late and Faried gets an easy reverse lay up.
Just for fun, here’s a clip of Lamar Odom hedging properly.
Interestingly, three of the Clippers’ five best defensive lineups feature Odom (minimum 100 minutes played). Not to mention, the Clippers defensive efficiency soars from 104.6 with Odom on the bench to 95.5 with him in the lineup, which represents the largest on/off court defensive disparity among the Clippers’ rotation players. It’s the approximate difference between the 20th ranked defense in Utah and Indiana, ranked as the best in the league.
Since neither Blake nor DJ have complete mastery of pick and roll defense, the Clippers sometimes, and by sometimes what I really mean to say is often, decide to switch. Considering how point guards don’t generally fair well in the post against big men and the Clippers’ bigs aren’t exactly equipped to check quick guards on the perimeter, this usually doesn’t end well.
In continuation of the Clippers’ theme of putting Griffin into tough spots, the Clippers play good defense for the majority of this next possession, but Barnes overhelps and the Nets capitalize on a 2-on-1 under the rim.
With Jamal Crawford having his hands full against Deron Williams, Eric Bledsoe intelligently decides to collapse into the paint and help off of Keith Bogans. Williams kicks the ball back to Bogans and Bledsoe recovers in time to guard the Bogans-Blatche pick and roll.
Bledsoe, being the defensive dynamo that he is, also recovers to Blatche right as he catches the ball. All of his work is in vain though since Barnes needlessly rotates up and double teams Blatche 22 feet from the basket.
Wallace dives to the rim and Blatche gets him the ball. Essentially, Griffin is screwed. The Clippers are guilty of plays like this at least once a game: the opposing offense should be in a tough spot, but because someone — Barnes, in this case — makes an unnecessary rotation, a good defensive possession is negated.
Another problem the Clippers have is that some of their guards have a tough time getting around screens.
On this play, Joe Johnson gets a great screen from Lopez, leading to an easy basket at the rim. It starts off like this: Wallace and Evans run a pick and roll on the right side of the floor, prompting Butler and Griffin to switch, because any time you have to take on the deadly offensive combination of Evans and Wallace, there’s nothing you can do but switch. Anyway, Wallace passes the ball to Johnson on the left side.
After passing the ball to Williams, Johnson immediately rubs off of a Lopez screen that Willie Green crashes into. That’s okay though, because DJ is there and he’ll close the passing lane. Right? Right…? Guys?
Wrong. Jordan is set up to contain Deron after Paul moves to down a theoretical Johnson screen that never comes. Instead, Johnson cuts straight through to the basket, Green failing to catch up or communicate. On the other side of the floor, Griffin and Butler are too preoccupied with switching their checks back to normal to notice that Johnson has a wide open dunk waiting for him.
Here’s the thing with the majority of the Clippers’ defensive problems: they’re systemic. Don’t get me wrong. The Clippers could very well use a defensive upgrade or two on the perimeter, but a vast amount of the Clippers’ breakdowns on that end are fixable. For example, having DJ hedge on a pick and roll should be a last resort. Blake Griffin should be guarding the more high-post oriented players while DJ hangs back in the paint to protect the rim. Considering their personnel, the Clippers should be avoiding switching on screens as if it were the plague. Instead, it’s becoming more and more of a common occurrence. Lastly, the problem of unnecessary rotations should be easy to fix. Just eliminate them.
Overall, the Clippers have the potential to be a good-to-great defensive team and they showed it earlier in the season. Their recent problems seem to be a result of either a lack of effort, lack of bench play, a change in strategy, other teams figuring them out or most likely, a combination of those factors.