As I mentioned in a 3-on-3 earlier this week, the preseason doesn’t give us much in the way of resolving tension. Instead, the past few games have raised more questions than they’ve answered. The Clippers enter the regular season this Tuesday with a new coach, two new starters plugged into the rotation and an array of new faces on the bench.
With so many new variables in the mix, self-discovery is going to be an inevitable theme for the Clippers this season. What these past few games have lacked in concrete answers, they’ve made up for in minor insights. Over the course of the first few weeks of the regular season, here are some of the things we should keep our eyes out for.
1. J.J. Redick’s basketball genius
I’ve got some strong beliefs about J.J. Redick. Despite the fact that he’s maximized his ability and established himself as above-average in nearly every major facet of the game, he’s continually been labelled as a one-trick pony. And that simply isn’t the case. He’s a much-improved defender, an intelligent and precise passer and the way he plays off the ball is akin to high art.
When NBA GM’s were asked which player is best at moving without the ball, Redick ranked second amongst his peers (trailing only Ray Allen). Moving without the ball effectively requires agility, intelligence and constant effort. Redick exhausts defenders with his constant movement; his manipulation of single-double screens and nuanced misdirection is a skill undeniably worthy of our attention. Yet other times, it’s the subtle movements that are the most effective, requiring the utmost IQ and laser-sharp focus.
Three things happen simultaneously in the video below: Chris Paul makes an aggressive move to utilize DeAndre Jordan’s screen, Redick’s defender turns his head away from him and Redick makes his way above the break.
This was far from a complicated set but as always, the devil’s in the details. Instead of starting out at the three-point line, Chris Paul comes off a screen and receives the ball 18 feet away from the rim— an area from which he’s one of the league’s deadliest shooters. Any CP3-DJ pick-and-roll is bound to draw attention; Paul’s proximity to the rim simply heightens Utah’s attention. It’s almost natural for the rookie Ian Clark to prioritize stopping Paul instead of guarding Redick, especially when he appears to be more than one pass away. Situating the attack closer to the basket is just flat-out smart execution by the Clippers.
What really killed the Jazz though, was the urgency with which Redick moved up the court. It took just the turn of a head for J.J. to realize his man was leaving him. That’s the difference between a contested shot and an uncontested shot. Or worse, a good passing angle and a turnover.
Curling off screens, Redick is one of the most dangerous players in the league. He’s made a career out of outrunning his defenders and maneuvering them into brick walls. According to Synergy, he notched 0.98 points per play coming off screens, ranking him an impressive 40th in the league. This play is a staple for any NBA offense:
Redick is a massive threat from the spot he catches the ball, not just because he shot a staggering 53.5 percent there last season but since he’s basically made a career out of coming off screens, he knows just where to attack the defense. Before even catching ball, J.J. knows DeMarcus Cousins is coming up to contest a potential shot so it doesn’t even take a split second for him to decide to shovel the ball off to DJ.
There’s no doubt that the determinant factor for the Clippers success this season will be their ability to defend the ball. The majority of the Clippers’ defensive potential hinges on DJ’s ability to make relevant strides, both figuratively and literally. An overbearing athletic behemoth, Jordan’s always had the tools for defensive dominance.
The question is, can Doc Rivers inspire him to play with his head for 30 minutes per game? We saw DJ making a concerted effort to see everything on the floor early in the preseason but his improved awareness hasn’t been without some lapses in judgement. Here’s a screencap of a play that ended with Isiah Thomas converting an and-one and DJ picking up a foul after a late rotation.
Ed note: Scroll over the dots on the picture for captions.
Inventive captions provided by yours truly. Switching gears, here’s a possession where the Clippers defensive rotations are mechanical and shrewd. To begin, both Marcus Thornton and Grevis Vasquez run off screens as Redick and Paul chase them. At the same time, Griffin maintains a solid balance between preventing any passes to the middle and watching Patrick Patterson. As Vasquez catches the ball at the top of the arc, Thornton runs through a double-screen on the left side of the court.
DJ, correctly interpreting the distance between Redick and Thornton as unsafe, intelligently signals for Griffin to hedge. Blake does so effectively, preventing Vasquez from delivering the ball to Thornton in scoring position and immediately recovering back to Patterson.
Finally, with Redick and Griffin preparing to trap Thornton, he dribbles away from Patterson’s oncoming pick. Here’s where Redick’s underrated defensive skills come to the fore. Redick’s chest stays in front of Thornton the entire way as he perfectly contests the worst shot in basketball with the shot clock running down. Now, if only they’d secured the rebound…
L.A. wasn’t able to string together a strong rebounding effort in the preseason. They were dominated in the paint at farcical levels for a team with championship aspirations, especially when you take into consideration the fact that they’ve got one of the NBA’s best young starting frontcourts at their disposal.
The Clippers are no strangers to the risks involved with hedging and recovering. Many-a-time last season Griffin and DJ were burnt by their own over-ambitiousness, only it’d usually be in the form of a made basket on the first possession. Effective rebounding is a multifaceted affair. The outcome depends on skill, positioning, size and effort. But I wonder if the Clippers’ defensive strategy doesn’t have them too outstretched when Dudley’s on the floor:
Ed note: Scroll over the dots on the picture for captions.