Stepping into a new situation is always challenging, but stepping into a new situation in which millions of people are watching and copious success is demanded from the get-go is a nearly impossible task to manage.
That, however, is what awaits the Clippers’ new head coach, the first hire with immediate championship aspirations. You can criticize Vinny Del Negro as much as you’d like — and there’s substantial material for that — but the Clippers won 56 games this season under his watch and narrowly escaped into the second round last year. It’s debatable how much credit he deserves for the team’s progress, and it likely isn’t much, but it’s safe to assume the future incumbent will have to outperform Del Negro to be considered an undeniable success.
As such, the Clippers must be diligent and thorough in their analysis of the available coaches. There’s a laundry list of wishes, and an endless menu of qualified candidates, so it’ll be an interesting to see what variables — clipboard expertise, game management, preparation, communication skills, etc. — the Clippers value more heavily than others.
In last week’s ClipperBlog Live, the crew discussed what they were looking for in a new coach. Jordan Heimer claimed that one of his coaching requirements would be using Blake Griffin more efficiently in the offense. D.J. Foster stated that his goal for a new coach would be a strong and coherent defensive system. Meanwhile, Kevin Arnovitz concluded that he wanted someone who could hold players accountable and, more importantly, adequately problem solve.
Those are all great points and I wholeheartedly agree with each of them. However, I have another addition to the list that, to a larger extent, incorporates the organization’s offseason strategy and development.
This offseason, the Clippers’ top priority — outside of re-signing Chris Paul and hiring a quality coach, obviously — should be establishing an identity for next season’s squad. Whether that’s determined by their new coach or management, or some combination of the two, is irrelevant. As long as they cultivate a reliable defensive system and layered offensive structure, the source of the change isn’t particularly important.
(Side note: It’s fine if players, Paul in particular, recruit free agents, but don’t let them build the team. As the situations in Cleveland and Orlando a few years ago showed, that’s never a good idea. This year’s squad resembled a player-assembled roster, and ultimately confirmed the belief that a GM’s job is harder than it looks.)
Ideally, the Clippers hire a coach that has a distinct and appropriate style that matches the roster, and is aware of his limitations, as those traits will serve them better in the long run.
For the most part, there was no clear-cut identity this season. Everyone talks about Lob City and lauds the team’s athleticism and full-court prowess, but they really only had four athletic players (Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes) and played slower than most people thought (19th in pace in the regular season; 11th in the postseason). They were potent in transition, sure, but their success primarily came in the half-court setting. The closest thing they had to an identity — their upbeat chemistry — was all but gone by season’s end, as tactical differences split the locker room.
The Clippers were presumably versatile, capable of successfully adhering to their opponent’s style of play, which worked fairly well for long stretches. But that false premise cost them in the playoffs when they didn’t have the size, athleticism or game plan to counter a potent Memphis attack, culminating in their head-scratching Game 6 performance that made it seem miraculous they ever won 17 games in the first place.
Any Paul-led offense is going to be successful, as was the case all season, but their defense continued to regress throughout the year and was ultimately their undoing. As Blake Griffin said late in the season, the coaching staff changed the defensive ideology on a game-to-game basis, and not in a productive or efficient manner.
What started as a much improved top-10 defense — they ranked just 21st after Feb. 1 — ended up allowing the Grizzlies, an average offensive team over the course of the season, to rack up a 109.7 offensive rating (a figure that would rank 3rd in the league), and more importantly, a 113.3 offensive rating in their four straight wins to close out the series (a mark that would lead the league). The Clippers had no palpable defensive system with stern rules or preferences, and their season-long inability to properly rotate on 3-point shooters or dual big men action was inexcusable.
Offensively, the average Clipper possession usually boiled down to a predictable high pick-and-roll for Paul or a Griffin post up. The sets were more complicated than that, of course, but the Clippers wings, outside of Jamal Crawford, were rarely involved in the offense outside of just standing in the corner or occasionally cutting. If neither Paul nor Griffin could produce timely shot attempt, one of the Clipper wings would usually receive a kickout pass with about 6 or 7 seconds left and then have to fire a contested, low-percentage jumper with the shot clock winding down. Clank.
The fact that the Clippers finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency is a testament to the brilliance of Paul, Griffin and Crawford offensively, and the chaos the Clippers’ bench regularly imposed on weaker opponents. More than anything, the Clippers just had more talent than 90 percent of the league, allowing them to slaughter lesser opponents.
Outside of securing a coach that will iron out these issues, the Clippers need to bring in players that will fit their new culture. This year’s roster felt like a mishmash of abilities, and the ill-fitting nature of the parts was exposed by the Grizzlies. The starting unit and bench unit were worlds apart philosophically, and despite the supposed advantages that could produce, it often meant that mixing the vastly different lineups had somewhat unpredictable results.
The Clippers had a lot of veteran names that sound good in an old video game — Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill — but their reputation didn’t match their on-court production. Presuming Paul re-signs, the Clippers have a promising foundation with him, Griffin, Jordan, Bledsoe and Crawford on board. Of course, Jordan and Bledsoe will likely be moved for a veteran package in the future, which is an asset unto itself. Barnes, who is also a free agent, should be signing priority No. 2 after Paul.
With almost half their roster set to hit free agency, the Clippers will have a reasonably clean slate to rebuild their bench and periphery pieces. Instead of looking for guys who were All-Stars a decade ago, they should look for inexpensive, undervalued players that fit next season’s game plan. If they can rid themselves of some of their unproductive players and contracts, and find a bargain or two, they’ll all but ensure a five-year window (or so) of considerable success.
The ramifications of signing a new coach are widespread and far-reaching. It’s not just about upgrading from Del Negro; it’s about building a sustainable culture and finding the right pieces to fit that intricate and fluctuating puzzle. This year’s roster got by mainly with their talent and ability to improvise on the fly. That speaks to the individual greatness of Paul and Griffin. But as Miami’s defeat at the hands of Dallas in the 2011 Finals showed, that model can only get a team so far. At some point, a team needs to be able to fall back on a system or a plan, not just a talented player or two.
If the Clippers can re-sign Paul and Barnes, hire the best available coach within their price range — they have arguably the most desirable coaching vacancy in the NBA — and shore up the fringes of their roster accordingly, there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy a more viable and fruitful season. The challenge, as always, is actualizing the plan.
Stats used in this post are courtesy of ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.