Last season, the Los Angeles Clippers paired the league's fourth-most efficient offense with the ninth-stingiest defense on a per-possession basis. They were one of just four teams, along with the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, to rank in the top 10 in efficiency at both ends of the court.
While the Clippers core has remained intact this offseason, their depth has been significantly remade. In doing so, they've maintained the pieces of a powerfully efficient offense but may have set themselves up for a significant decline at the other end of the floor.
To understand how the Clippers have set themselves up for a defensive decline, you have to understand what drove their defensive performance last season. The simple answer is that it came from the bench.
The Clippers primarily used two different starting lineups last season.
Chris Paul, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were the constants with Chauncey Billups swapping in for Willie Green at shooting guard later in the season. Those two lineups combined to play 982 minutes—about a fourth of the Clippers season total.
During those minutes, they surrendered 103.4 points per 100 possessions with Green and 103.2 with Billups. Those two marks are considerably higher than the Clippers' season long defensive rating of 101.0 and would have given them the 16th most efficient defense if they were stretched out across the entire season.
Green and Billups were both defensive soft spots on the perimeter, and Butler's defensive reputation is vastly overstated at this point in his career. But the underlying issue was the combination of Griffin and Jordan in the middle.
Across the entire season, the Clippers allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions whenever Griffin and Jordan were on the floor together. That mark is about the same as what the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors allowed last season—not exactly the most intimidating defenses in the league.
A significant portion of that defensive ineffectiveness can be attributed to an inability to defend the rim.
According to NBAwowy.com, Clippers' opponents made 63.8 percent of their shots at the rim when Griffin and Jordan played together. The Sacramento Kings were the only team in the league who allowed a shooting percentage at the rim higher than that mark all of last season.
Both players are strong, athletic and mobile, however, they both were inconsistent in defending the pick-and-roll and were vulnerable to strong one-on-one attacks. The video below shows just a few examples.
Over and over again they over-helped and under-rotated. Neither player seemed willing or capable of making the paint their defensive domain and taking personal responsibility for keeping opponents at a distance.
While Griffin and Jordan struggled together, as a team, the Clippers were able to defend the paint at a more than respectable rate across the entire season. A big reason for that was Lamar Odom.
Consistency and Odom don't often find themselves in the same sentence, but last season he was the one Clippers' big who could be counted on to be in position, make the right rotation and fill empty space in the paint. When he was on the floor, the Clippers allowed just 95.4 points per 100 possessions and allowed their opponents just 53.9 percent shooting at the rim.
As good as Odom was, he also had the benefit of frequently playing with two of the Clippers other best defenders, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes. Together, those three played most of their minutes with either Ryan Hollins or Ronny Turiaf and provided the Clippers with a dynamite defensive unit that could sweep in off the bench to shut an opponent down.
They provided a marked change of pace to the starting unit's precision offensive attack with their aggressive defensive pressure and up-tempo transition attack. The Clippers were fantastic for many reasons last season, but this balance was the structure upon which every other success was built.
The Clippers have added some significant talent this summer, but if you look closely, you can see the balance beginning to trickle away.
In the starting lineup, Butler and the Green/Billups combo have been replaced by J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Both are terrific system defenders, well schooled in containing penetration and funneling ball-handlers towards their help. However, neither is a unilateral, lockdown defender, and both are most effective with a strong defensive back line behind them.
Of course we've already covered Griffin and Jordan's shortcomings in that area. Even accounting for the defensive upgrade, Dudley and Redick provide, it's tough to imagine the natural development of Griffin of Jordan turning this into a top-tier defensive unit.
However, the biggest defensive questions are coming from what was once an area of strength—the bench.
Barnes, one of the defensive anchors, is back, but the Clippers signed Darren Collison to replace Bledsoe and B.J. Mullens to fill in for Odom.
The second unit backcourt now features Jamal Crawford and Collison, two of the worst defenders at their positions in the league. Their problems run much deeper than physical shortcomings of height and weight. Both are inconsistent, poorly disciplined and easily distracted.
Then we come to Mullens, who spent last season with the Charlotte Bobcats, purveyors of the league's worst brand of defense, surrendering 108.9 points per 100 possessions. Somehow, when Mullens was on the floor, thing got even worse with their defensive efficiency dropping to 113.0 points per 100 possessions.
Essentially, when he was on the floor for the Bobcats, their opponents scored at a rate slightly better than the Heat's season long mark. With Mullens protecting the paint, the Bobcats' opponents attempted nearly 40 percent of their shots at the rim and made them at a 63.4 percent clip.
While Redick and Dudley may bring the starting unit's defense to average or slightly better, they'll have to cope with a second unit whose defensive prowess has been drastically limited. They've replaced two of the strongest defenders with two players who struggle mightily at that end of the floor.
The good news is that it may not matter.
Even with these changes the Clippers are not fundamentally flawed. They have strengthened themselves offensively and could easily chase last season's franchise-record mark for wins. But they posted a 0.683 win percentage last year because they were incredible talented and incredibly balanced.
They'll go into next season with the tide of their talent rising near the high-water mark they set last season. But, despite adding two solid defenders to their starting lineup, they appear to have fundamentally unbalanced themselves.
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