The Same Old Clippers?
"The Clippers are the Clippers." That was the statement made by Mark Cuban before the tipoff against his Dallas Mavericks on October 29th. Still a bit bitter about the DeAndre situation from the summer, Maverick owner Mark Cuban was explaining that no matter how you try to change the image and character of the Clipper organization, that they are still losers, not only in LA but throughout the NBA. I believe that he couldn't be farther from the truth. However after the Clippers again failed to beat the leagues best, the Golden State Warriors last Wednesday, magnifying the claim made by Cuban.
The Clippers blazed their way out of the gate with a 4-0 record during their first four games. With such a result it would have been easy to write-off Cuban's words, however after jumping out to such a hot start, the team has fallen to 3-7 the past 10 games, going 2-5 versus teams that were in the playoffs last year. With such poor results against the NBA's top teams, I can't help but wonder if the Clippers have really changed from their old ways and if they are capable of shaking off this rough start and forge into the resemblance of a championship contender that a lot of people predicted.
While the Clippers did lose on Friday versus the Portland Trailblazers, I wasn't at all surprised given the emotional loss the previous night against Golden State where the Clippers had a golden opportunity to give Steph Curry and the Warriors their first loss of the season. Instead, I will focus on key aspects of what happened Thursday versus the Warriors and the concerning trends that the Clippers must reverse to be a competitor in the mighty Western Conference.
As the Clippers built a 20+ point lead last Wednesday, I wasn't too impressed because like the game in Oakland, Steph Curry received 2 quick fouls at the beginning of the 1st quarter followed by another quick 2 fouls by Draymond Green. That would be equivalent to the Clippers being without Paul and Griffin which we know would be no contest. With 2 of the best players out for the Warriors with foul trouble, the Clippers were able to have their way and build as large as a 23 point lead against the last undefeated team. Being a Clippers fan myself, I was excited about the start and how it seemed that any shot that Chris Paul threw up to the hoop was going in. However I was never content in thinking that the game was over especially with so much time left in the game. If any team could come back it would be the streaky Warriors. Soon enough, the game slowed down, Curry and Green were able to log some minutes and sure enough you had a ball game at the end of the 3rd quarter heading into the 4th where the porous Clippers defense welted away and the offense became as stagnant as ever. The final score was 124-117. While many people view the game as a Warrior comeback, I view it as a Clipper collapse. From watching the game, there wasn't a specific run that the Clippers weren't able to stop, it was a slow methodical boiling of hot water, as the Clippers became comfortable with their lead. Hoping that the clock ran out, the Clippers failed to put the dagger in the Warriors and as a result have not been able to shake the fallout of their defeat.
1. Atrocious Defense
Following the game, a lot of the criticism surrounding the Clippers was over how inefficient their offense was in the 4th quarter. While I agree that the offense struggled to create consistent high quality looks, what really has been causing this team to struggle is its lack of defensive continuity. No matter how poorly your shot may be, the ability to play defense will always keep you in the game.
First, throughout the game there seemed to be a lack of communication and understanding of guarding the screen and roll. It seemed as though Doc devised a plan to switch off of all screens throughout the game, however the execution was far from perfect. In a sequence in the 3rd quarter, Crawford and Griffin don't clearly indicate which person they are guarding on a pick and roll between Bogut and Curry resulting in an easy layup for the Warriors. Another time, Paul and Griffin switch on a pick with Paul taking Green and Griffin taking Curry. Only problem is that Blake sags off Curry just for a moment allowing the league MVP to spot up and make a 3 point shot. The Warriors kept running the play over and over again as the Clippers were unable to provide any answers. Throw in a couple additional extra passes and the Clippers had no shot.
What made me even more frustrated besides the lack of communication and continuity was the lack of hustle, attitude and effort. In the 1st half alone, Paul Pierce recorded 4 personal fouls. By the time the 2nd half came around, every time he was in the game it was as if the Clippers were playing a man down. While I appreciate the leadership Pierce provides, with such a lack of productivity at the defensive end, there was no reason Doc should have rewarded him with 32 minutes. In addition to the ineffectiveness of Pierce, Jamal Crawford, finished the game with 5 personal fouls with most of them being either grabbing or pulling of the jersey because he could not keep up with the person he was guarding or simply wrapping guys up because he was already beat. Lastly, for all the praise Griffin gets for taking his offensive game to the next level, his defensive game has been standing idle. There were too many moments in the game where he was watching the ball and unaware of the player he is guarding. While sometimes he is able to make up for it because of his freakish athletic ability, against the good teams, Blake must step up his game and not just be content playing one end of the court.
2. Rebounding & 2nd Chance Points
The Clippers have never been known for being a dominant force on the glass relying mostly on DeAndre Jordan. However even by Clippers standards, they have gotten off to a new low, ranking in the bottom 5 in rebounds. This can get pushed aside against the below .500 teams, however when you are playing caliber teams like Golden State, Houston, and San Antonio, who box out and do the dirty work to get a rebound, the Clippers weaknesses are exposed. Even more concerning, is the amount of 2nd chance opportunities that teams are able to get versus LA. The Clippers allow the 5th most points on 2nd chance opportunities. A great example of this took place in the 4th quarter. The Warriors shot a 3 and Paul Pierce had inside position on Harrison Barnes. Pierce failed to put a body on him and jogged towards the ball while Barnes hustled to it preserving another position for his team resulting in 3 points by Curry. The Clippers already have their work cut out for them on the defensive end. For them to not secure the rebound and give opponents multiple opportunities will only result in more losses. The Clippers need to get back to the fundamentals of boxing out and team rebounding. DJ cannot do it on his own. It is a team effort that includes, the Center, Forwards and Guards. If it means less fast break points, so be it. The Clippers need to learn how to run a half court offense and defense because that is what it will take to advance far in the playoffs.
3. Free Throw Shooting
The Clippers free throw shooting percentage is the 2nd worst in the Association. While many point to DeAndre Jordan as the main culprit, it has really been a team effort for the team's free throw percentage this year at 69.5%. It is the likes of Austin Rivers (57%), Josh Smith (63%), Lance Stephenson (55%), Wesley Johnson (67%), and Blake Griffin (75%) that have weighed the team down. Given how 10 out of the 1st 13 games have been within 10 points, it is ever so important that the team collectively is able to improve and get the freebies if possible.
4. The 2nd Unit
On a player by player basis, the acquisition of Pierce, Stephenson, Johnson and Smith would add a lot of value to any team. The problem is that it is like assembling a group of All-Stars. They may have all the talent in the world, however they may not be the best team. This is how I currently like to describe the Clippers 2nd unit. A lot of the players i.e. Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith like to possess the ball (aka ball hawks/hogs), leading to a lot of one-on-one basketball. There is not a lot of movement off the ball resulting in a lot of contested shots and no flow in the game causing the team to struggle and give Griffin and Paul shorter breathers on the bench. The only person who trusts the system and moves without the ball is Wesley Johnson. Johnson understands that there are scorers on the team that he doesn't need to have the ball in his hands to be effective. With so many ball dominant players on the team, the offense becomes stagnant and often leads to less higher percentage shots. It will take time to mesh, but for the time being the team has not bought in.
5. Discipline/Mouthing off to the Refs
If you were watching the game on TNT last Wednesday, you probably noticed several of the Clippers players chirping at the referees over any call made against them. Even when everything is going right in the 1st half, you can see how easily upset the team gets after any foul is called against them. First it was Chris Paul who got a technical foul after arguing for an And-1 call, then you have Griffin looking to the big screen at Staples to show the refs how he wasn't responsible for the foul called against him. Then you have Crawford looking for consolation, waiting for the next replay to show how he was innocent. You know what all three had in common? None of their reactions changed the call on the floor. If anything it antagonizes the refs for pointing out where they messed up. What they should instead do is take responsibility for their actions and realize that the only way to win the ball game is to fight through the adversity on the court and realize that you aren't going to get every call. Champions make plays, and don't rely on the refs for calls or to win them games. In any game you play, you are going to get some calls and not get others. Good teams are able to regroup and fight and keep their goal in the front view mirror. The Clippers, against good teams, do anything but move on from plays. While CP3 may think he is working the refs after each foul is called on his team, at the end of the day it is probably hurting more than it is helping as the Clips have become recognized as one of the biggest complainers in the league.
The Clippers are in shambles right now as they are below .500 at 6-7. If this team is unable to put it together next month some major changes are gonna need to take place. Below I examine solid, safe moves that will help this team immediately.
Ever since last years exit in the playoffs, rumors have speculated over whether Crawford would be with the ball club this year. Given the team's lack of defensive efficiency and Jamal's naturally offensive game that relies more with him with the ball and less of a motion offense, I believe that the Clippers have to shop him while he has value. His FG% is down and 3P% is down and he is only going to regress more at the age of 35. I would trade for either a shut down perimeter defender like Toney Douglas or a solid big-man that can provide relief for DJ and Blake when they are not in the ball game like Jordan Hill.
Don't Start Pierce
Something that I don't understand is the lack of playing time being allocated to Stephenson recently. Against the Warriors, Rivers opted for Pierce and Crawford for 30+ minutes all the while the Clippers struggled to put up any resistance for the Warriors comeback. It makes no sense that you would not put one of the premier defenders on your team in the game regardless of what internal problems are taking place. Additionally, you bring in a young player in Wesley Johnson who gives you strong minutes on both ends of the floor and yet is averaging only 14.2 minutes a game. With the emphasis on defense, there is no room for favoritism towards Pierce who deserves to play intermittently between 18-22 minutes a game.
Responsibility is on Doc Rivers
After having full authority as GM and coach of the Clippers, it is time that Rivers started to feel some of the weight and responsibility for his moves as GM as well as in game strategies and lineups. Ever since he moved from Boston, the media and fans have given him the benefit of the doubt for the 1 ring he was able to deliver. People forget that it was Tom Thibodeau who installed the defensive mindset catalyzed by an inspiring leader in Kevin Garnett who took on the leadership passion and responsibilities to guide the Celtics to an NBA championship. Currently, the Clippers don't look anywhere close to where they have to be to get into the playoffs.
While I have been very critical and frustrated by the lackluster performances of late, like the Golden State game, the one positive I can take away is that it is early on in the year and that there is still plenty of time to comeback and make their mark on the season. I still feel that the Clippers have been unable to shake off the loss to the Warriors last Wednesday. Tonight would be a perfect night to get back on track and put everything else behind them. I still believe in this team and still have faith that they will turn it around. Right now they just have to look in the mirror and continue to play hard each play and build trust that can only come through repetition. The Clippers aren't the same old Clippers based on the expectations placed on them and the talented roster that is currently assembled. However, this team has to realize that and believe, otherwise we'll be asking the same question at the end of this season of whether anything has truly changed.