Should LA Clippers Be Making Their Improvements Internally or Via Trade?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 24, 2013

Nov 20, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) laughs during the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Clippers defeated the Timberwolves 102-98. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The Los Angeles Clippers don't seem to understand this whole defense thing.

That's the only explanation for the porosity they've displayed on a consistent basis, as big men have consistently made them look like Swiss cheese. The defense is just full of that many holes.

DeMarcus Cousins was the latest frontcourt player to absolutely torture the Clippers, dropping 23 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists in an eventual one-point loss. Chris Paul bailed out the Clippers at the end of the game with his crunch-time heroics, but it's not exactly a good plan to rely on CP3 to do all the dirty work each and every game. 

At some point, the defensive woes must be addressed. 

If the Kings—one of the worst teams in the entire NBA—are going to give the Clippers this much trouble, what happens when they start facing tougher teams? How can they possibly expect to emerge out of the brutally difficult Western Conference at this rate? 

There are two possibilities: wait for the internal improvements to kick in, or go out and make a trade. 

Let's break down the options. 


The Case for Internal Improvements

Nov 23, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) reacts after a missed shot against the Sacramento Kings during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Sacramento Kings 103-102. Mandat
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It's only been 14 games, and Los Angeles has still managed to emerge with one of the better records in the Western Conference. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And the team as a whole is far from broken, so it would be a shame to break up this roster so early in a promising season. 

While that's true, the defense is admittedly awful—broken, in fact—and something must be done. But that something could just be holding course and putting faith in internal improvements. After all, Doc Rivers is still on the sidelines. 

Talk about having a great pedigree. 

During Doc's career, his teams have almost always thrived on the defensive end of the court. That wasn't quite as true during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, but the Boston Celtics always employed suffocating units when he was on the sidelines. 

Despite all of the hype Rivers gets for his abilities to get players working together and maximizing the talent of a veteran roster, he's still a defensive coach at heart. He emphasizes the work on that end of the court, and it's tough to write off his improvements after such a small percentage of the season. 

Now you can make the case that an artist is sometimes only as good as the tools he has at his disposal. How can Rivers reasonably be expected to make this a good defensive unit when he's given such poor defensive players to work with?

It's not like he's got a Kevin Garnett anchoring the defense anymore. Not even the Brooklyn Nets have that. 

Nov 21, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers reacts to a play in action against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

But Rivers could. 

Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are porous interior defenders, but they each have potential of varying levels. The T-rex arms Blake uses prevent him from ever being much of a shot-blocker, but he could certainly learn how to use his athleticism to his advantage. 

More than anything else, though, it's all about Griffin's energy. He often looks disengaged on the less glamorous end of the court, and he can make a positive impact there when he actually tries. 

Griffin has been improving as a defender throughout his career, after all. That's flown beneath the radar, but it's apparent if you either watch some film or look at the statistical breakdowns. 

The bigger enigma is Jordan. 

A shot-blocking specialist, Jordan is blessed with insane athleticism, but he's been unable to ever rotate properly. Constantly caught out of position and acting too aggressively, he's more of a liability than anything else. 

But that can be fixed by some excellent coaching. And that's where this case rests. If Rivers can make Jordan into his Garnett 2.0 (or even a poor man's version), then the porosity of the interior defense morphs from a fatal flaw into a flaw that can be worked around. 


The Case for Making a Trade

Nov 23, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) attempts to steal the ball from Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the first quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

There are two main points here. 

First, what's the time frame for assuming that a player can still improve?

While Jordan and Griffin have the abilities to become quality interior defenders, it's not like they're impressionable and young first- or second-year players at this stage of their careers. Griffin is 24 now, and he's in his fourth professional season (fifth if you count what should have been his rookie season). Jordan is 25 and in his sixth go-around with the Clippers.

There's no guarantee that either of them can break the habits they've established throughout the early portions of their respective careers. And there's also no assurance that Rivers can shape them into positives on the defensive end in only a single season.

Secondly, this defense is so bad that improvements from just one or two players might not matter. 

Going into the game against the Kings, LAC was allowing 107.3 points per game, more than any team other than the Philadelphia 76ers. And if you look at points per 100 possessions, the story is similarly awful. According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers have a defensive rating of 107.8, which beats out only the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz.

Not exactly something to write home about, huh?

Nov 13, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On top of that, the Clippers are just hemorrhaging points in the paint. They allowed 46 big ones in that area of the court against Sacramento, and that's just about par for the course. shows that LAC is allowing 47.2 points in the paint per game, and that's a mark that just leaves everyone else in the dust. The Portland Trail Blazers are the only other team on the wrong side of 47, and that's by design as they consciously focus on the perimeter.   

At some point, changes are necessary. 

The Clippers aren't even utilizing a remotely competent defense, and the easiest way to remedy that is adding a new player to the rotation. Hence a trade since the free-agent pickings are rather slim. 


The Verdict

Nov 23, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) warms up prior to the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It's a tough call, but it's the right decision to remain put. For now. 

If this trend continues deep into the season and we're nearing the trading deadline without any sign of improvement, then it's time to panic. But not just 14 games in. 

On top of that, who exactly are the Clippers going to trade? 

Paul and Griffin are obviously off limits, and not many players hold enough value that they'd be worth trading. Stellar interior defenders are a dying breed, and it's tough to find a team that would be willing to give one up and strengthen a team already emerging as a contender. 

Really the only option is dealing Jordan, which is tantamount to giving up on his progress. And if the Clippers aren't willing to see what he can do, why should any other team take on his $11 million salary on the hopes that he'll turn things around?

Beyond that, the Clippers would be left dealing Jamal Crawford or Jared Dudley, and it would be hard to find A) takers and B) takers who would be willing to provide enough value to make the move happen. 

And the idea of making a trade gets worse still. 

Once the move is completed, then you're left trying to fit a new rotation member into the system. Where's the guarantee that he'd be a good fit for the remaining members of the organization? How do we know that he could learn the rotations well enough to make a difference in 2013-14? 

There isn't a guarantee. We don't know that he could make an impact this year. Hell, we don't even know that any trade could be made. 

Holding tight and hoping that Rivers works his magic isn't just the best option for L.A.

It's the only one. 


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