Doc Rivers is more than a leader, beacon for league-wide respect or cultural turning point for the Los Angeles Clippers; he’s a coach that brings schematic upgrades to his basketball teams, particularly on the defensive end. Under the direction of Vinny Del Negro last season, the Clippers ranked ninth in defensive rating—a more than respectable position, but still with room for growth. In 2013-14, they’ll need to take that next defensive step if they hope to crack the elite of the already-deep Western Conference.
Years alongside defensive masterminds Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank afforded Doc Rivers the opportunity to adopt a defensive scheme and learn to teach it from its architects. So while the system he’ll bring to Los Angeles might not technically be his own, he’s more than capable of installing it with a brand-new group of players.
So what is that system, exactly? Since the original Big Three—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—formed in Boston, the Celtics have employed a strong-side overload defense that forces long, cross-court passes or quick ball rotation. In short, it limits the creativity of a team’s primary scorer by discouraging drives and encouraging one-on-one perimeter play. Part of why LeBron James could never get past the Celtics in Cleveland was this defense—second and third scorers are forced to take on a greater creative role, and those other Cavs lacked this capability.
Take this play from Game 1 of the Knicks-Celtics series, when Carmelo Anthony isolates on the baseline against Paul Pierce. Notice how Boston has completely overloaded the strong side with four players, already crowding the lane before there’s even a drive to the bucket.
Jeff Green is under the hoop to provide Paul Pierce with baseline protection. Kevin Garnett pinches into the lane as a deterrent for a drive up the middle. Avery Bradley has the quick kick out. Because of the clear help, Pierce knows he can crowd Anthony. What Anthony is left with, then, is passing the ball out to reset, driving into a double team or taking a well-contested step-back jumper. He chooses the final option, and misses.
On another play, he chooses to drive to the rim. But Boston’s entire defense collapses, and is able to stop him from finishing at the rim.
What’s key here is that Boston stops Carmelo Anthony as a team. Neither Paul Pierce nor Brandon Bass nor Jeff Green can stop Anthony on their own; he’s way too dangerous, and none of them are even considered more than average defenders. The 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers will have similar problems because Matt Barnes is the only capable perimeter defender and he can’t play 35 minutes a game, especially with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley clogging up the wing rotation.
So what happens if the ball does rotate? Defenders start sliding quickly and somewhat scrambling to rotate back to their man; often times a player can catch a moving defender with a quick pump fake and a blow-by dribble to slice through the heart of the defense. But it isn’t just about quick passes; it’s about on-target passes, too.
Here Kevin Durant catches the ball on the wing, setting up a potential isolation as Derek Fisher begins to clear out. Boston, per its defensive strategy, overloads the strong side.
Except on the other side of the play, Kevin Martin is stretching towards the corner, while his man, Jeff Green, remains in a help position against the Durant iso. Durant, seeing the overload, fires a quick pass to the opposite corner to Martin. Nick Collison then sets a screen on Green, who’s scrambling to recover. The result is a wide open Kevin Martin three-pointer, and the holes in the overload strategy are exposed.
Well, not exactly. Notice how Kevin Martin catches the ball. He’s reaching well to his right and high up in the air, which is to say that the pass is not on target. Instead of a simple catch and shoot, Durant’s long (and difficult) pass forces Martin to adjust for the catch and readjust for the shot—a process which requires an extra second. And in that time, Jeff Green is able to fight over the screen and force a Martin pump fake and fruitless drive.
This is the risk Boston is willing to take. If OKC rotates the ball with precision, Boston’s defense is beat. But pressure and long passes typically lend themselves to inaccurate passing and provide the necessary recovery time for Boston to properly reposition.
Later in the same play, Kevin Durant isolates again. This time Paul Pierce comes with the double team as Durant puts his head down, but a quick pass out to Reggie Jackson at the top of the key seems to blow up Boston’s overload yet again. Except the same thing occurs: the pressure causes Durant to throw it at Jackson’s feet.
By the time Jackson gathers the ball, it’s too late. His three-pointer is contested, and it misses.
If all else fails, a great defense has a big man to protect the basket. Roy Hibbert’s playoff dominance is the quintessential example, as the Indiana Pacers adapted their entire defensive game plan to dare offensive players to challenge him at the rim. In Boston, Kevin Garnett, only in emergency situations, served this purpose.
On this Kyrie Irving/Tristan Thompson pick-and-roll, Kevin Garnett is on the opposite side of the play guarding Tyler Zeller.
As the play develops, both Celtics defenders attack Irving. Thompson, who by this point has rolled to the basket, is open at the left block. But Garnett uses his defensive savvy to diagnose the play and shift into a better help position, anticipating the Irving pass to Thompson.
The pass comes and Garnett is ready. But positioning is only half of the defensive battle—it’s still on Garnett to make the play without fouling, which he does.
In Los Angeles, DeAndre Jordan will fill this role. Though his at-the-rim shot blocking is at times impressive, his defensive awareness is often lacking. In particular, late rotations or poor anticipation prevent him from unleashing his long arms on layups and floaters.
More simply, too often Jordan goes directly for the block. Instead of planting himself between the attacking player and the hoop, he grants narrowed access in the paint, trusting his length and timing to swat the ball while it’s in the air. Sometimes it leads to a highlight reel block; other times, he’s a step late and misses the block or picks up the foul. Either way, it’s a gamble. What’s worse is that blocked shots don’t lead to changes of possession as often as misses. Should Jordan establish himself in front of the offensive player, he can create a miss without fouling.
That’s not what happens here. Jordan gives in to his poor tendencies and watches as Mike Conley Jr. slices through the lane on a pick-and-roll. As we can see below, his initial position isn’t all that awful.
A miscommunication among the Clippers perimeter players leaves Conley alone and approaching the rim. DeAndre Jordan, who is guarding Zach Randolph, is more than aware of the developing situation. Still, he refuses to rotate and instead lays back for the blocked shot.
Notice the difference in Jordan’s positioning in each of the photos: There isn’t one. Conley has already moved from the top of the key to just outside the restricted area, on the verge of laying the ball up. Jordan still has one foot planted on the left block, and is on the wrong side of the rim. The result is a violent foul—Jordan’s off arm extends and knocks Conley to the ground. Two free throws, no blocked shot.
Ultimately a defense comes down to execution, and it will be interesting to see how quickly the Clippers can adapt to Rivers’ scheme. Big men will have to be quicker on their feet, and perimeter players will be held responsible for covering more ground than they’re used to. But should the Clips buy in to what Rivers is selling, they could be an extremely dangerous team and likely competitor in the Western Conference Finals.