Despite boasting the best offense in the league, the Los Angeles Clippers must fix their defense if they hope for a deep playoff run this season.
Early into the season, the Clippers own the second-worst defensive rating at 106.6. Only the lowly Sacramento Kings are defending at a worse clip. Despite solid wins over the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Clips gave up over 100 points in six of their first eight games.
While this high-powered offense is capable of putting up video game-like numbers, it is the defense that will be key late in the season and in the playoffs.
The "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns of years past demonstrated that it is impossible to win a championship with only a potent offense, as they were soundly eliminated from the postseason when matched up against elite defensive units like the San Antonio Spurs or the Los Angeles Lakers.
Clipper Nation has exercised patience, trusting the process as new coach Doc Rivers integrates his complex Thibodeausian defensive scheme. Even though it is early in the season, close losses still might hurt Lob City down the stretch.
Where is the defense ailing? What can be improved?
We will look at where the Clippers are really struggling and what they need to do to improve their poor defensive performance.
Defend the Three-Point Line
After struggling to defend the three last season, the Clippers are back up to their bad habits. Miscommunication on defense and some effortless closeouts have seen the Clips allow opponents to drain 37.4 percent of their long balls through their first eight games.
LAC's season opener against the Lakers saw the Mamba-less purple and gold knock down 48.3 percent of their threes. Two nights later, the Warriors lit up the Clips to the tune of 57.1 percent shooting from downtown.
Poor three-point defense was a trend for the Clippers all of last season.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Lob City allowed opponents to convert 37.3 percent of their three-point attempts, the fifth-worst mark in the league and the worst of any Western Conference playoff team.
Even with the poor start, Rivers' system should yield better results as the season goes on. The Clippers certainly have the requisite veteran-savvy players and athletic personnel capable of contesting three-point shots.
Rivers' history of success at defending the three-point line should also be promising.
Coaching the undermanned Boston Celtics last season, Rivers' team held opponents to 34.2 percent shooting from distance, the fourth-best mark in the league. The 2011-12 Eastern Conference champion runner-up C's lead the league at defending the three, holding opponents to 30.8 percent shooting.
Those Celtics had Kevin Garnett barking orders from the back line, and the adjustment process for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to assume similar roles has certainly involved a learning curve. Nevertheless, the Clips have a stellar individual perimeter defender in Chris Paul and high basketball IQ team defenders in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, who should coalesce once the defense improves.
The season has not been totally devoid of success at defending the three.
In a gritty 107-94 road win in Houston, the Clippers held the floor-spacing Rockets to just 26.9 percent shooting from long range. In a close loss on the road to the Miami Heat, LAC limited the defending champs to 31.3 percent shooting from downtown, roughly 12 percentage points behind their Southeast Division leading average.
Early returns on three-point defense are concerning, but history says that Rivers' defenses typically protect the three-point line at an elite clip.
Relative to the defensive-minded second unit of last season, this season's bench mob has yet to demonstrate that it can consistently defend at a high level.
The five-man unit of Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Byron Mullens and Jordan posts a defensive rating of 113.9. The caveat of an extremely small sample size should be taken into account, as Green has been pushed into some games due to an injury that forced Matt Barnes to sit out.
Will the second unit be able to defend at an elite level this season?
The two-man bench tandem of Collison and Mullens boasts an ugly 117.2 defensive rating. Collison has been exposed as an on-ball liability, while some of Mullens' rotations have been suspect.
Compare the Collison-Mullens duo to the Eric Bledsoe-Lamar Odom tandem of last year, and it is easy to see the dichotomy in defensive effectiveness.
Bledsoe and Odom helped lead the stingy "A Tribe Called Bench" to a two-man defensive rating of 93.7. In 283 minutes of action, last season's five-man unit of Barnes, Bledsoe, Crawford, Odom and Ronny Turiaf finished with an unbelievable 89.8 defensive rating. That number would have easily lead the league last season.
Given the absence of the ball-hawking Bledsoe and the savvy Odom, it is easy to see how the personnel of this season's second unit might have a proclivity to give up more buckets.
Regardless of their poor early season performance, the second unit will have to tighten up on defense and take some of the pressure off of the starters.
All statistics accurate as of November 11, 2013. Statistics used in this article from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.