What are the markings of a contender? An identifiable offensive or defensive trait? A star on the court that evokes security to the observer? Entrenchment in top-10 efficiency categories? More than anything, a contender breeds familiarity. It provokes an implicit understanding that a team will validate the status come the postseason.
Through 54 games, the simple fact is that Los Angeles is all of these things. Except familiar. The Clippers have been an amalgam on offense, adjusting to injuries and the varied skill sets of each understudy. In their projected lineup, J.J. Redick drove the offense; the perpetual motion machine, running floppy along the baseline, knotting the defense in his early paces. Dribble hand-offs blurred effortlessly into elbow sets and, by the time 16 ticked off the shot clock, Chris Paul had already cycled through four options and a series of counters. If all else failed, last season’s staple high pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin would be in the back pocket.
Then Redick fell and the team stumbled. Ridicule and derision mounted against Los Angeles as skepticism crept in. The Clippers started the season a stellar 107.9 in offensive efficiency and a meager 102.6 defensively, both numbers inferior to that of the starting lineups’ ratings. And in observing the roster, this was by design. Last season’s ninth ranked defense was something of a misnomer. The 2012-13 crew featured a miserly bench, capable of tazmanian chaos on the court that shrouded the defensive ineptitude of the starting lineup. Key to one of Doc Rivers’ hiring was the belief his strong-side pressure defense would assuage those issues. The nexus of two-way performance should reside with the players that see the most on-court time, not propped up by shadow minutes of specialists.
But questions assailed the defense: a team cannot be considered a contender with as porous a perimeter presented by L.A. By the numbers, the defense improved as the season progressed, but simultaneously the offense crumbled, all against the detritus of Eastern competition.
|Dudley, Jared | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Paul, Chris | Redick, J.J.||16||290||109.4||101.6||7.8|
|Collison, Darren | Dudley, Jared | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Redick, J.J.||1||9||107.9||121.7||-13.8|
|Dudley, Jared | Green, Willie | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Paul, Chris||7||126||96.8||97.8||1.0|
|Crawford, Jamal | Dudley, Jared | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Paul, Chris||11||199||110.7||95.0||15.7|
|Collison, Darren | Crawford, Jamal | Dudley, Jared | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre||3||55||122.0||93.1||28.9|
|Collison, Darren | Dudley, Jared | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Redick, J.J.||4||57||116.5||99.5||16.9|
|Barnes, Matt | Collison, Darren | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Redick, J.J.||9||164||109.4||108.0||1.5|
|Barnes, Matt | Collison, Darren | Crawford, Jamal | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre||2||54||113.5||110.7||2.7|
|Barnes, Matt | Crawford, Jamal | Griffin, Blake | Jordan, DeAndre | Paul, Chris||1||17||146.9||42.4||104.5|
*Clippers’ starting lineups in chronological order
Consider that their projected starting lineup has played a collective 290 minutes through 54 games this season. Could anyone feel comfortable with a contender after observing a set of starters for 5.3 minutes a night? A team whose expectations were built on the shoulders of a top-heavy rotation? Unlike in seasons past, Los Angeles was supposed to live and die on the prospects of a Big 3 and new acquisitions. That’s the extent that anyone was aware of the Clippers. 16 games to start the season where chemistry, trust, nuanced familiarity of skill and system were developing at best.
|Aldridge,LaMarcus – Batum,Nicolas – Lillard,Damian – Lopez,Robin – Matthews,Wesley||52||1059|
|George,Paul – Hibbert,Roy – Hill,George – Stephenson,Lance – West,David||46||915|
|Bogut,Andrew – Curry,Stephen – Iguodala,Andre – Lee,David – Thompson,Klay||33||647|
|Durant,Kevin – Ibaka,Serge – Jackson,Reggie – Perkins,Kendrick – Sefolosha,Thabo||28||508|
|Harden,James – Howard,Dwight – Jones,Terrence – Lin,Jeremy – Parsons,Chandler||21||273|
|Beverley,Patrick – Harden,James – Howard,Dwight – Jones,Terrence – Parsons,Chandler||20||329|
|Durant,Kevin – Ibaka,Serge – Perkins,Kendrick – Sefolosha,Thabo – Westbrook,Russell||19||280|
|Dudley,Jared – Griffin,Blake – Jordan,DeAndre – Paul,Chris – Redick,JJ||16||290|
*other prospective contenders’ starting lineups
Yet can you dismiss a team that has managed top 10 slots in both efficiency disciplines with their theoretical best lineup having played a total of 5.3 minutes a night? A team who, despite prolonged injury to two of their four best players, has managed a 36-18 record with more games on the road than at home? That has not had more than one day off between games in almost a month? It’s a preposterous proposition.
The only certainty in the lineup has been Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. A chief concern entering the season was Griffin’s ability to carry title expectations; “the Clippers only go as far as Griffin can improve.” In 19 games that Chris Paul has been absent, the fourth year forward has seemingly answered such inquests. Griffin took it as a personal mission to sustain the Clippers growth with their floor general out, not only increasing his production, but emboldened to initiate, facilitate and sometimes take over the offense.
|Before Chris Paul injury||16.0||52.0||7.3||70.4||10.6||3.1||1.0||22.1|
|After Chris Paul injury||17.9||54.5||10.9||70.2||8.5||4.4||1.4||27.4|
Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford aren’t Paul and Redick, and shifted accordingly towards pick-and-rolls. Griffin would claim those passes on shallow rolls, creating brief halfcourt 4-on-3 mismatches in which to exploit a defense. The result of Griffin as the fulcrum of the offense yielded the most efficient offense in the league.
For DeAndre Jordan, a steadier incline. He is third in the league in rebounding rate, sixth in defensive rebounding rate for a team that is almost criminally negligent in containing the glass. Los Angeles is 19th in total rebounding rate and 28th in defensive rebounding rate. Without Jordan, the bottom falls out completely for this team. And why do the Clippers struggle so much despite Jordan’s antics? It all circles back to injuries.
Chris Paul is fifth in defensive rebounding rate amongst point guards. Curiously, the starting backcourt’s absence was felt more palpably on defense than offense. While Collison and Crawford can support Griffin offensively to keep the Clippers afloat, they are not the help defenders needed to buttress Jordan’s burgeoning defensive talents. Jordan is the stalwart of the team. He is their imposing rim protector and weakside quarterback, calling out coverages and rotations and constantly encouraging the defense to communicate.
But it’s his first year in a defensive system, asked to contribute to a level never confided upon him before. And while he hones his instincts and cleans up the numerous errors that occur on a given possession, Jordan relies on his help defenders to clean his own mistakes. It’s no surprise that the best defensive lineups feature strong team defenders in conjunction with Jordan; it is a defense of symbiosis rather than reliance on the individual.
Therein lies the rub; not only have the Clippers yet to reveal what they are, but they lack a context of achievement in which to tether expectations. There’s no proof this group of players works. No evidence Rivers can imbue success to anyone. No storied history to a franchise. It’s safer to be skeptical of the unknown element. “You can’t prove it until you’ve done it,” is the long held adage of basketball. Because witnessing the process is dirty, frustrating, unconventional and often ugly. It’s much simpler to judge a finished product than to assess the potency during the muck and the mire.
We seek to use stats to validate a position we already hold to be true. Once an opinion or belief is set, an overwhelming amount of data is necessary to shift perception. For the Clippers, the information of success does not yet exist. Too many key players have gone down asynchronously. But they’ll be healthy soon. They’ll all be on the court. And it’ll all be so familiar there’ll be nothing left to lose.