You know him from the comments section or Twitter as TimmyTheTooth, but did you know Tim Albeanu is a former basketball coach? Fun fact, I know, and that’s why we asked Tim to drop some knowledge on the Clippers’ offense and Chris Paul. Enjoy.
For the past two years much discussion has taken place if Lob City’s version of “hero ball” is a sustainable model. There are different versions of hero ball around the league with varying levels of success; one just across the hallway. What makes this version of hero ball so much different? It’s the mindset of the hero. Our hero actually would prefer to set up a teammate rather than take the shot. He’s more concerned with the process and developing his teammates than getting his. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at things) he’s forced into the traditional hero ball roll because there are flaws in the Clippers offense that oftentimes leave him no choice.
Sadly, I watch the Clippers play with a perfectionist disposition from my years of coaching. It’s not a trait I admire much in myself when it comes to sports, mostly because I don’t enjoy games as much as I should. I focus on the deficiencies that I see more so than the positives. The coach in me wants more from this team than a good record — I need progress. I long for sets and plays that show some semblance of order. Not a Mike Dunleavy Sr. ran offense, but a happy medium of that and Chris Paul freelancing. I want to know that there is a plan and that the plan is being executed. Therein lies the problem. Pigeonholing a point guard of Chris Paul’s caliber in a traditional offense probably isn’t the best use of his skills. Paul relies on his creativity to make things happen and that’s what makes him such a difficult guard and at the same time, that’s what can make the Clippers’ offense stagnant. Let’s focus on what adjustments the team could do to lessen the reliance of hero ball.
A Paul-led offense would thrive on more active cutters. Allow me to explain the dynamics of a cutter. An effective cutter is made of three things: Effort, IQ and finishing ability. It takes a lot of energy to make hard cuts and for those of us who play ball, it can be a fruitless endeavor on most tries. Hard cuts, even if you don’t get the ball, have ripple effects on a defense.
IQ is the second element of a successful cut. This is needed to reduce the amount of negative cuts that might happen in the flow of an offense. Negative cuts can lead to unbalanced courts and/or can bring unwanted defenders in another player’s space– both go hand in hand and are necessary when CP is weaving/darting/disappearing in a cloud of smoke in and out of the lane. Keep in mind that CP’s goal (along with every other team) is to get to the middle of the lane at all costs. Other than dribbling there, a good cut will also do the job. Once in the middle, the defense has to collapse and things open up for either an open corner shot or a hockey assist to a second cutter or a big man positioned down low.
The third element for an effective cutter is to be a good finisher. A willing cutter and willing cutter that can finish are two separate things. The Clippers really lack players with this skill set. Barnes is really the only player that can cut effectively using all three skills. This becomes a big problem when, late in shot clocks or games, the Clippers start ball watching and wait on Paul to create for himself or others. What we saw the Dallas do last week (blatant double teams on Paul at almost half court) is a foreshadowing of the strategy other teams will take as well (the Hornets attempted the same thing the following night). Instead of guys cutting and taking advantage of the open space, the Clippers stationed themselves in the corners and settled for three pointers, thus giving back any advantage gained by the double team. Inevitably, a team is going to come along that can actually force Paul to get rid of the ball and when that happens the other guys can’t be stationary because it lets the other team off the hook.
The root of any offense is to get the ball to the middle of the key. This can happen in a few ways such as dribble penetration, quick rotations of the ball followed by a cut, or by post entry. Once the ball is in the middle of the lane, a level of chaos on defense ensues. The Clippers rely on Blake Griffin and Paul to create this chaos, and rightfully so. Chris does this through dribble penetration and post ups and Blake primarily through post ups and kick outs out of the double team. The problem is, the Clippers rely on these two guys to initiate most sets and as result the offense becomes predictable and to a certain degree guardable in the half court.
Griffin needs to get himself in to better position on the block before he makes his move. Too many times he’s catching the ball in no-man’s land because of a poor seal off or bad entry pass. Once he gets the ball he often squares up and almost waits for the double to come. He needs to make his move quicker and not let the defense settle in. We’ve had quite a few disappearing acts from Griffin this year where he has been too passive late in games. He needs to be a bigger force late in games moving forward.
The Clippers also lack a second wing that can create chaos through dribble penetration. This may be the hardest role to fill and most likely would require a trade this summer to address the issue. Bledsoe has the best shot at filling that need but is still learning to harness his speed and make good decisions on the fly. I’m removing Crawford from this group as well because the chaos he creates is primarily designed for him to get his shot off and not to setup teammates. Billups in theory could offer some driving ability, but health and his desire to shoot first hinders this ability.
The Nuggets, for example, are exceptionally good at creating chaos. Despite a lack of consistent 3 point shooters they are still able to put up massive amounts of points in the paint every game. They have multiple guys at multiple positions that have the ability to penetrate, cut, and most importantly, finish at the rim.
The Clippers need to do a better job of getting Paul the ball after the chaos has been established with time to spare. This allows him to put the finishing touches on the defensive breakdown. It should not be forced on Paul to have to continuously create the chaos by himself even if he is elite at it.
One facet of Griffin’s game that needs to improve for the Clippers to make any type of noise in the playoffs is that Griffin has to shoot that free throw line shot off pick and rolls with Paul. Regardless if it’s going in or not, Griffin needs to take that shot to keep the defense honest which will then open up the driving lanes for him and teammates. It looks like he’s abandoned the shot completely unless he’s forced to take it, which is a shame because we all saw what Paul was able to do with David West knocking down mid-range shots a few years ago. Until Blake can take that shot without hesitation and make teams pay for sagging off him, the Clippers offense will be bogged down in the half court. As we saw in last year’s playoffs, that shot is what the other team is going to be willing to give up and Blake has to take advantage. Whether he can do so consistently enough to alter the other team’s defensive strategy remains to be seen.
The Clippers offense has been elite all year, but there is always room for improvement and improvement will be needed when they come across the active defenses of San Antonio and Memphis. These teams will most likely force the Clippers to beat them in other ways and the rest of the Clippers should not assume that Paul will be there to save the day.