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Can Doc Rivers Transform Clippers from Floppers to Bullies?

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Can Doc Rivers Transform Clippers from Floppers to Bullies?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Tough defense begins with willingly rugged players, not habitual floppers.

Basically, staunch defensive sets don't originate from the Los Angeles Clippers. Not this season.

Doc Rivers inherited a roster of talented, largely one-way players. His most valuable asset and one of the few two-way players on the docket, Chris Paul, is notorious for flopping.His second-best player, Blake Griffin, is another known for his ability to fall limply to the ground. 

His Clippers? Struggling defensively early on.

This isn't so much about flopping as it is the need for reform. Last year, when the Clippers ranked eighth in defensive efficiency, they weren't known as defensive juggernauts. They weren't the team other NBA franchises circled on their calendar for fear of incurring Los Angeles' defensive fury.

It was the Clippers' fourth-ranked offense that scared people.

Nothing has changed this season; it's only gotten worse. It's all about the offense in Hollywood, leaving Rivers to overhaul a defense that has thus far folded against every opponent it has faced.

 

 The Climb

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Each of the Clippers' first three opponents have totaled over 100 points. Two of them have went for at least 115 points. The same team that allowed 115 or more to four teams all of last year, has already done so twice.

Think about that.

Potent offensive sets have carried the Clippers to two victories in three games. Their 113 points per night rank first in the NBA and are steadily creating a culture where the Clippers must shoot their way to victories.

Placing the fate of a team on their ability to hit more shots than their foe isn't Rivers' style. His teams are prided on defensive fortitude, on inflicting a world of physical hurt. 

Through their first three games, Los Angeles isn't so much distributing butt kickings as it is being trampled.

The 110.7 points per game the Clippers are allowing ranks dead last in the NBA. Their defensive efficiency sits at 112.8 points per 100 possessions, also last. Opponents are converting 47.6 percent of their shots (27th) and 47.8 percent of their threes (29th). It's ugly. 

Fortunately, it's also early. Like really early. So early, that it's too early for supper.

But let's not brush this off like it's one of Ray Lewis' pregame speeches. Early performances can be indicative of what comes next.

Look at last year, when the Clippers allowed 100-plus points just once in their first three before going on to finish with the eighth-most efficient offense in the NBA. Turned out that meant something; this could mean something too.

Rivers will have to ensure it doesn't.

 

Think Like the Celtics

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

When Rivers took control of the Boston Celtics in 2004, they weren't terrible. But they weren't good, either.

In each of his first three years at the helm, Boston closed out the season with a defensive rating of 106.6 or worse, never finishing better than 14th in the league.

Then came the arrival of Kevin Garnett and everything changed.

From then on, Rivers turned his Celtics into a platoon of defensive tycoons. Over the next six years, they never allowed more than 103.8 points per 100 possessions and ranked in the top five of defensive efficiency five times. And they never finished outside the top seven.

That's how Rivers' Celtics made two Finals appearances. That's how they won a championship. Defense.

To legitimately make a play for a title of their own, the Clippers must follow suit. Starting now.

Things cannot stay the same. The age-old adage that states defense wins championships is exhausted in use, but only because it's true.

Each of the last 12 NBA champions have boasted a top-10 defense, which doesn't bode well for the Clippers if they wish to shoot their way towards a title. Buckling down on defense is essential; becoming an aggressive outfit on both ends of the floor is imperative.

"Soft" just isn't a word they can afford to have in their vocabulary.

 

Is the Right Personnel in Place?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Think back to those Celtics teams of the last six years.  

When they were fighting for their postseason lives—so, last season—they were a scrappy contingent. You didn't mess with the Celtics. If you pushed, they pushed back. Garnett threw elbows, Paul Pierce was always breathing in your ear and Rajon Rondo was hassling you on the perimeter like a car salesman on Red Bull.

They had that "it" factor.

Garnett himself was the defensive lynchpin; the guy who brought everything together. He could be heard barking orders on the defensive side of the ball, providing help defense off switches, pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration. He was everywhere.

The Clippers don't have that. Paul is one of the few two-way players on the team and point guards rarely quarterback the defensive attack.

Floor generals are already launching offensive sets; defense should be on someone else. 

But there's no one on the Clippers to shoulder a Garnett-type burden. Blake Griffin is an offensive powerhouse, but he's no defensive mainspring. J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford are both liabilities on that end of the floor, and we've already ruled out Paul.

As for DeAndre Jordan, he's a shot-blocking maven. Rivers sees him as someone who could develop into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and for a defensive-minded coach like himself to see something like that, it must be there.

Problem is, the Clippers actually allowed 6.4 fewer points per 100 possession without him on the floor last year. And for his career, the Clippers are allowing an average of 1.5 points per 100 possessions more when he's on the floor.

Also, it's difficult to rely on a player like Jordan to be your primary source of defensive firepower.

Late in games, he becomes a hindrance because of his foul shooting. While Rivers has previously said he's too good a defender to remain on the bench, he resorted to shuffling him in and out of the game against the Golden State Warriors for fear of Hack-a-Jordan having its intended effect.

This is what Rivers is up against. There isn't one player he can count on to be an enforcer or the antithesis of flopping. He's in possession of an array of spare parts, none of whom, including Paul, are fit to the play the part of a bully.

 

Forever Soft?

Noah Graham/Getty Images

For as hard as the Clippers tried to distance themselves from the Lob City moniker, it's still defining them. When you consider how poor their defense has been, that's fine. But Rivers needs something more out of them.

Something he's not going to get.

Where will the Clippers' defensive finish this season under Rivers?

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Will the Clippers finish as the worst defensive team in the NBA this season? Absolutely not. Teams coached by Rivers will learn to play stellar defense.

What they'll never be, no matter how much their numbers improve, is a defensive monarch. They're not built that way. These Clippers are more likely to toss a full-court lob and react in unison than they are to pound their chests at a key defensive stop.

Beating opponents into submission will happen only on the offensive end. Messages will be sent on the offensive end. They'll be ruffians on offense, one-sided aggressors fated to battle inconsistency on the less glamorous end of things.

Defense is secondary to offense in Tinseltown. Not even Rivers is enough to make that change.

 

 

*All stats retrieved from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.

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