Is the Los Angeles Clippers Defense Still a Fatal Flaw?

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Is the Los Angeles Clippers Defense Still a Fatal Flaw?

You're probably familiar with all the talking points that reverberated throughout Los Angeles this offseason. 

"Doc Rivers is going to fix the defense." 

"DeAndre Jordan is going to be the Defensive Player of the Year."

"There's actually going to be a consistent defensive system in place. The system matters more than the parts!"

All of these things could still materialize, but the first five games of the season have done very little to inspire confidence that they will.

Engaging in small-sample-size theater is something that should be avoided whenever possible, but the optimism surrounding the Clippers' top-ranked offense has to be tempered by the fact they also sport the league's worst defense.

There's a duality to the Clippers' performance so far this season, and it's a little surprising. Most felt that the offense, while admittedly stagnant last year, had little room to grow after ranking fourth in offensive efficiency last season.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The thought was that Chris Paul would run the offense like Chris Paul has always run all of his offenses: slow and smart, with everything flowing through him.

That hasn't been true so far. The Clippers have been noticeably faster, with lots of playmaking generated through sources other than Paul. 

The defense, meanwhile, was supposed to be where the big improvements would be seen, and it was supposed to mirror what Boston was built on under Rivers: strong-side help defense and the elimination of easy buckets in transition.

This also hasn't been true. The Clippers are giving up threes and free throws at an alarming rate, and the system has done little to dissuade running teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets from getting up and down the floor with ease.

For example, here's the Lakers' shot chart from the season opener this year. Look at all the attempts from behind the arc and at the rim:

And it's not just uptempo teams that are giving them fits. On Wednesday night, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic obliterated Jordan and the Clippers interior defense to the tune of 30 points and 21 rebounds as L.A. suffered its second loss this season.

Is the overall product a good one so far? Unquestionably, but regular-season success on both ends hasn't eluded the Clippers in the past. This was the fourth-best offense and ninth-best defense last year in efficiency, but it was also a team that preyed on bad second units and blew out a lot of inferior teams.

When the Clippers ran up against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs, a team with a very defined style of play, the defense completely melted. The lack of principles and delayed decision making ultimately doomed the Clips, and that's what Rivers, in large part, was brought in to rectify.

But will he? Is his system good enough to account for some really poor individual defenders (Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Byron Mullens) playing substantial roles? Is there enough athleticism on the wings to survive?

In a very strange way, the Clippers' struggles defensively can almost be viewed as a positive thing. Defensive systems aren't built from the ground up over the course of a few preseason games and a week of regular-season action. It takes months and months of repetition.

Absolute failure isn't the worst thing at this stage. Success can breed complacency, and the last thing the Clippers need is a false sense of security on the defensive end. They've had that before. This is going to be a long, arduous process centered around developing the right habits.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Remember, players tend to struggle initially with this particular system. We've heard Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson reiterate that Tom Thibodeau's defense has a steep learning curve, and every rotation player for the Clippers is having their first go at that system. 

Would a continued imbalance sink the Clippers' championship hopes, though? Teams that ride their offense almost entirely have a sparse history of winning titles, but it's hard to imagine that a Doc Rivers-coached team will finish with a below-average defense.

In the past six years, Rivers hasn't fielded a team that has ranked lower than sixth in defensive efficiency. There's reason to trust that the system works, because there's a strong track record that tells us it will.

That said, it could take some serious time. Maybe that's 40 games, or maybe it's a whole season. But to identify it as a potentially fatal flaw at this stage of the game is premature. Rivers has more than earned his chance to try to make it work with this group, and now we'll see if he can.

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