With five games left to go in the regular season, the questions surrounding the Clippers’ postseason future still feel somewhat complex and insoluble. Are they playoff roadkill? Are they first-round fodder? A contenders’ punching bag? Can I think of more ways to reword the same question? What are questions?
The Clippers have oscillated between elite and mediocre this season, their highest point being December’s 17-game winning streak with the lows sporadically transpiring since the All-Star break. In five months, the Clippers have transformed from a tough second-round out to a surefire championship contender to a possible first-round disappointment. This is not so much because their playing style is volatile or potentially explosive, but because their grave fault is a lack of consistency. Naturally, predicting the future is akin to navigating through Edmonton during a snowstorm. The road ahead is murky, somewhat dangerous and above all: annoying.
The dirty little secret of the 2012-2013 Clippers is that the 2012 Clippers are an immensely different team than the 2013 Clippers. Before the new year, the Clippers were kicking ass and taking names, sporting a 25-6 record and a net efficiency rating of 10.8 more points scored than allowed per 100 possessions, which was good for first in the league by the end of the calendar year. Since then, however, the Clippers have cobbled together 24-19 record and that breathtaking net rating has dwindled down to an unmemorable 2.6.
After witnessing this team’s growth and — more importantly — potential, it’s frustrating to see them emulate the same average team they were last year. It’s tempting to assume the Clippers can flip the proverbial playoff switch in a few weeks, but that notion tends to defy conventional wisdom. Great teams, if they do begin to peak in the regular season, do it closer to the playoffs. This team, instead of looking powerful and focused, seems lost and vulnerable.
The Clippers’ recent struggles can’t be blamed on just one Achilles’ heel. Their problems are so wide-ranging and intricately fused together that you could teach a university-level course dissecting them. The team’s depreciation has strengthened the long-standing stereotypes surrounding them: offensive monotony that stems from an over-reliance on Chris Paul, defensive deterioration and uninspired coaching — all of which will contribute to a disappointing and inevitable playoff exit if things don’t change quickly.
Among earthly beings, Chris Paul is the best of the best. Nobody knows better than him how to maintain an almost poetic balance between passing, scoring, assertiveness and allowing the game to come to him. But the Chris Paul offense, while more effective than not, has often buckled under the pressure of its impossible-to-maintain expectations. Paul is a basketball mastermind. Every move he makes is meticulously choreographed, but no man is an island (for the record, LeBron James does not fall under the “earthly beings” category), and Paul can’t keep the Clippers afloat without some much-needed help.
Meanwhile, the Clippers’ reliance on Paul has reached farcical levels. He goes from averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 assists with a field goal percentage of 50.7 in wins to 15.7 points, 8.4 assists and a 41 percent shooting clip in losses. With points and assists combined, Paul accounts for 38.5 percent of LA’s points per game even though he plays just over 33 minutes.
Paul’s usage rate of 22.43 is more than acceptable for a superstar of his level, as his unselfish nature downplays just how much he contributes to every shot the Clippers take when he’s on the floor. It also makes his crunch time figures all the more alarming: During the last three minutes of game action when the Clippers are within five points, Paul’s usage rate skyrockets to 37.5, accounting for 50 percent of the Clippers made baskets and assists, or 45 percent of their points. Of course, any time you analyze crunch time figures, you’re dealing with a pretty small sample size. For some perspective, I took a look at how a few other superstars’ numbers change in the same situation.
LeBron’s crunch-time usage rate is 39.8, but he only accounts for 35 percent of Miami’s points. Kevin Durant, on the other hand, has a ridiculous usage rate of 51.5 while accounting for 56.4 of his team’s points. Lucky for him though, he can rely on Russell Westbrook as a crutch when things aren’t working for him. Tony Parker — widely considered to be Paul’s only competition for the point guard throne this season — only has a crunch time usage rate of 19. Over in Pacerland, even Paul George and David West share the load together as none of their usage rates increase by any notable measure. For the Clippers, it’s Chris Paul or bust.
The movement here is inconsequential and slow. As a result, the Rockets defense isn’t exactly stretched out. Lucky for the Clippers, Paul doubles as both Cliff Paul and the elusive Point God. Regardless, plays like this one occur far too often and they don’t exactly represent sustainable offense.
What makes the problem even more troublesome is that when the Clippers’ offense goes cold, it flattens completely. Teams are starting to realize that if they can get the ball out of Paul’s hands, they’ve already won half the battle. If Paul is on his game, the Clippers rise to his level. They move the ball around, they make intelligent cuts, they space the floor well. If he’s neutralized, the offense looks like an unmobilized mess. Here’s the thing: if you’re going to run an offense that is purely relegated on Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll mastery, you should at least make it a little less obvious to the opposing defense. The Clippers’ offensive inconsistency seems to go beyond the heroics to their point guard, though. Their lack of adjustments — such as Odom still hanging out on the perimeter despite the funeral procession of his jumper occurring immediately after he was traded from the Lakers — prevent the team from dominating on offense.
On to the defensive end, where the team has really dug its own grave. I illustrated the Clippers’ struggles on that end last weekend, and it mostly comes down to the system. The big men, though they are not physical equipped nor defensively aware enough to do this, often start games by hedging hard and trapping the ball-handler on pick and rolls. When that fails, they settle for switching on almost everything. Seriously, everything. Not only does this make it even harder for the Clippers to stop their opponent from scoring, it also gives them a disadvantage on the boards. By the way, if the Clippers’ defensive problems are never completely summed up in 15 seconds, it won’t be for a lack of trying:
To begin, DJ and Willie Green immediately opt to switch on a Tony Parker-Tim Duncan pick-and-roll attack. Taking advantage of the mismatch, Parker throws the ball to Duncan in the post who has the much smaller Green on him. At this point, not one of the four guys in Clippers jersey decide that it’s a good idea to double and a lack of effort and communication on the defensive end has the Spurs a bad call away from an easy and-one.
When asked about the Clippers’ defensive deficiencies a few weeks ago, Blake Griffin attributed the problem to the team’s lack of a consistent system to rely on. Griffin himself has been struggling lately as well. Over the past six games, he’s been scoring just 15.2 points per game while shooting 43 percent from the floor and grabbing 6.2 rebounds, despite playing a few more minutes than his season average. For the most part, Griffin is the kind of player that makes the NBA one of the best products on the planet. When he throws caution to the wind it turns into pure electricity, making him borderline unstoppable and a SportsCenter Top 10 staple. However, his lack of experience and/or indifference on the defensive end prevent his game from being rock-solid. And then there’s the Blake Griffin Dribbling Exhibition, which either stagnates the Clippers’ offensive flow or ends like this:
Blake’s right-hand man, DeAndre Jordan, has been a polarizing subject for Clipper faithful lately. If all things are equal, there’s no question that DJ is the Clippers’ best option to have on the court. When crunch time creeps along though, teams start to implement Deck-a-DJ, intentionally fouling him to send him to the line. Considering how Jordan is shooting just 39 percent from the stripe this season, it seems appropriate for Vinny Del Negro to take him out of the game. However, as our own Jeremy Conlin stated after the recent loss against the Spurs, Del Negro’s decision might be playing right into the hands of the opposing defense:
“The funny thing about this strategy is that Lamar Odom has been equally bad shooting free throws this year. He’s made just 45% of his attempts from the line this year. Admittedly, it’s a small sample, just 15-for-33, but Odom has never been a particularly strong foul shooter. He made just 59% last season, and hasn’t made 70% of his free throws since Kevin Garnett played in Minnesota.”
On the other hand, some fans would rather have Odom on the floor because he fits the Clippers’ defensive system better. While this is true to an extent — Odom is the only Clippers’ big man that can hedge and recover with any measure of success — the Clippers, as noted above, are a ridiculously better defensive unit when DJ is on the floor. This is primarily because he provides size, intimidation, rim protection and rebounding that Odom simply cannot. The problem is that Vinny uses him incorrectly, opting to take him away from the rim rather than having him play the pick-and-roll flat. The previous week, the Spurs started using the hack-a-DJ strategy in the third quarter. In a situation like that, with an eternity of time still left in the game, the Clippers would have been better suited to keep Jordan in the game and allow the Spurs to fall into foul trouble. Not to mention, sending Jordan to the free throw line over and over again may allow him to develop a rhythm.
No examination of the Clippers’ fall from grace would be complete without a mention of their lack of bench productivity. During the 17-game winning streak, the second unit was sporting an offensive efficiency of 104.4 and a defensive efficiency of 83, for an astonishingly high net rating of 21.4. Since then, Turiaf has fallen out of the rotation and the once-energizing bench mob has allowed an average of 120 points per 100 possessions while scoring just 115.7.
Of course, the Clippers’ myriad of injuries hasn’t helped their situation, as Del Negro has been forced to change the rotation time and time again. As a result, the starting line up has also suffered. When the Clippers start Billups, the lineup has a 12.8 net rating. With Willie Green inserted, that rating drops to a good, but not great 5.4.
The Clippers aren’t the contender they feigned being in the early portion of the season. Comparing this team to the one that defeated 17 teams in a row, while almost irresistible, feels slightly unjust and more than a touch painful. The chief qualities with which the Clippers had earned widespread admiration (suffocating defense, a disciplined pace, fiery enthusiasm) early in the season, have seemingly vanished.
Considering how the vast majority of the Clippers’ troubles are of an adaptable variety, a great deal of the blame has fallen on the shoulders of Del Negro, and rightfully so. For most teams with star power, a coaching philosophy coupled with a disciplined system is the engine that makes them go. The Clippers, without either, are impossible to dissect. It’s simply impossible to know what they have in their young talent until a reliable leader takes the wheel.
The confusion bundled in more confusion wrapped up in disbelief that is the Clippers’ season shouldn’t be looked at as a failure, though. After all, it’s the best year the franchise has had
since moving to Los Angeles, regardless of how the team performs past April. Being consumed by the issues that prevent the Clippers from exploding into championship contention should be taken as a welcome divergence from discussing the draft lottery and Lamar Odom’s ability to make a differ- oh, wait.
At end of the season, only one team will be a champion while the rest will simply be. For the most part, fandom is about the journey and this season, for better or for worse, has been an adventure. The Clippers have officially escaped awfulness… that alone makes the 2012-2013 Clippers season worth remembering.