You know you have talent when a 56-win season is a letdown, but that's exactly what last year was for the Los Angeles Clippers.
A franchise-record win total wasn't enough for the Clippers to get out of the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, as the Memphis Grizzlies sent them packing with four straight wins after L.A. took a 2-0 series lead. The Clippers were flawed, and Game 3 through Game 6 of that series showed exactly why.
This year, there is a change in regime, a transition in philosophy. Former Boston Celtics' coach Doc Rivers comes into town bringing championship credibility, and he's going to have to repair the faults we saw all of last season. Here are five of the most important changes he has to make:
Fix the three-point defense.
You could argue the worst aspect of the Clippers’ team last year was its three-point defense. You could absolutely argue that.
Actually, Dion Waiters, Toney Douglas, Marcus Thornton or Austin Rivers probably would argue that. Each of those guys seemingly came out of nowhere last year to help lead their teams to wins against the Clips.
Opponents shot 37.3 percent from long range against the Clippers last season. That was good enough to rank L.A. 26th in the NBA in defending the three, not exactly something of which to be proud.
The Clippers didn’t rotate well on defense at all. Big men like DeAndre Jordan and Ryan Hollins were often out of place and weren’t able to recover for other players defensively. Wings usually played a little too far off their men in man-to-man defense and hedged too hesitantly on jump shooters.
The Clips got lit up because of that.
The wings just didn’t close out enough to defend the three. That’s how someone like John Lucas can end up hitting five threes in 18 minutes of game play. Of course, the Clippers’ sparse use of the zone defense didn’t help the three-point defense either.
This criticism is not based on a small sample size. Teams took 20.5 threes per game against the Clippers last year. Because of those percentages and that volume, Rivers has to change the way the Clips defend the perimeter for this season.
Play DeAndre Jordan in crunch time.
I feel like I should be sick of writing this—actually, I am sick of writing it—but I have to do it anyway:
DeAndre Jordan should have played more last season.
Vinny Del Negro’s substitution rotations were generally odd last year. Game 6 against Memphis in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs was one of the weirdest coached games in Clippers' history—not necessarily one of the worst, just one of the weirdest.
Del Negro closed the game with Grant Hill on the floor after giving the 19-year veteran five DNPs to start the series. He kept Chauncey Billups out there while Billups continued to miss shots left and right. He inexplicably sat Jamal Crawford for the entire second half of the game. It was too perfect a microcosm of the frustrating season that was about to come to an end for Clippers fans.
This year doesn’t have to be like last year, when Jordan averaged only 5.0 minutes per fourth quarter while playing in a mere 30 total fourth quarters all season. This year, the Clippers are leaning on Jordan too much—especially defensively—not to rely on him late in games.
At this point, the free throw excuse doesn’t make sense. Actually, it never made sense considering deck-a-DJ is an intentional foul in the final two minutes of games. Jordan’s atrocious free throw shooting wasn’t a reason to sit him in crunch time; it was a façade, a veil to hide the real reason he didn’t play down the stretch of close games.
Simply enough, Del Negro just didn’t trust Jordan. But that won’t be a problem with a coach who said at Clippers media day he thinks D.J. could contend for Defensive Player of the Year.
This year, the Clippers will actually put Jordan in a position to succeed.
The Clippers had one of the better benches in the league last year and sometimes even went 11 deep, but that didn’t always have the best effects.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Eleven deep is too deep for a normal game. And that’s how you end up with your two All-NBA players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, averaging only 33.4 and 32.5 minutes per game, respectively.
The biggest weakness with this year's roster is the lack of a third big man. Will it be Byron Mullens or Antawn Jamison? Do Ryan Hollins or Lou Amundson have a chance to pass either of those two in the rotation?
Regardless of who ends up getting the most minutes off the bench at center and power forward, Griffin is going to have to play more minutes.
As for Paul, it seems like Doc already gets it.
“I’m going to let him roll,” Rivers said at Clippers media day. “I’m not going to play him 45 minutes a night, but I’m going to play him...You want to preserve everybody on your team, but you still want them to play the right amount of minutes so they never lose rhythm as well.”
Well said, Doc. I guess we won’t be seeing another career-low minutes total for the best point guard in the league.
Space the floor better.
One of the most frustrating parts of the Clipper offense last year consistently showed when Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan shared the floor together. It’s not that those two couldn't play well together; it’s just that they didn’t know how.
So many times last season, Griffin would have the ball in the post, make a move into the lane, and be greeted by a cutting Jordan, who would bring over a second defender just in time to double team Griffin. Vinny Del Negro may have lost his hair over that type of offense if it weren’t always so perfectly quaffed.
It all starts with Griffin’s jump shot.
Of course, the Clippers will be able to space the floor better just from the acquisitions of J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison, but still there is a misconception out there that Griffin has to make jumpers. The mid-range jumper, though, isn’t a shot on which you ever want to base your offense.
Griffin doesn’t need to make an astronomically high percentage of his mid-range shots. He doesn’t need to be Serge Ibaka or Chris Bosh. He doesn't need to take a bunch of jumpers. Actually, that would be a poor idea considering how strong he is when he works in the post and finishes at the rim.
The Blake Griffin extremist critics are quick to point out that realistically Griffin won’t be a great shooter. But in reality, the jumper just needs to command enough respect so that defenses close out on Blake when he has the ball 18 feet away from the hoop.
Griffin shot 35.1 percent on mid-range shots last season—not awful, but nothing to write home about. The problem was that for the first two and a half years of his career, those shots were relatively open. Defenses didn't come all the way outside to guard Griffin's jumper. They just gave it to him.
In the second half of last season, though, things started to change for Blake. Defenses started to respect Griffin's shooting more as he improved, and because of that, it unclogged the middle of the floor. Add in an extra year of improvement and some creative sets from Rivers and assistant coach Alvin Gentry, and there’s a good chance we won’t see D.J. crashing the paint anymore just as Blake Griffin makes his move to the rim.
Get more defensive rebounds.
Individually, defensive rebounding is more about fundamentals than anything else. The same could be said about team defensive rebounding. It’s about placement.
Last year, the Clippers were so chaotic on the defensive end that they struggled to become a great defensive team. At times, when the Clips honed that chaos and turned it into organized disorder, the defense looked dominant—but the defensive rebounding still was never really there.
When your center ends up out of place and often out on the perimeter at the end of possessions, you’re not going to pull down a ton of boards. Last year’s Clippers, who finished 15th in the league in defensive rebounding rate, learned that time and time again.
There were countless reasons why Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Hollins and whomever else was playing center couldn’t have great rebounding seasons last year.
They bit on too many fakes that sent them flying 16 feet from the hoop. They hedged too aggressively on pick-and-roll defense. They relied a bit too much on athleticism and not enough on boxing out. On top of all of that, the Clippers’ wings weren’t exactly dominant rebounders, either.
You could actually say the same about this year’s roster. Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley have all been below-average rebounders historically. The rest of those problems, though, are correctable.
Doc Rivers and assistant coach Tyronn Lue are implementing a new defensive system to help create a more disciplined defense, one that doesn’t consistently take centers and power forwards away from protecting the rim. Simply because of that, positioning will be better for those bigs who were too far from the hoop too often last year.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in 5th grade, but he maintains that his per 36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
(All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.)