The Los Angeles Clippers have demonstrated during the course of the 2013-14 season that they are one of the best teams in the league.
Despite playing in a brutal Western Conference that is rich with talent, the Clippers are within striking distance of the top three squads in the West. Their top guns are finally complemented with role players who could eventually lead them to a finals berth.
Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated offered this assessment of the Clips during the 2013 offseason:
This promises to be one of the most shocking transformations in the history of sports, given that it was 13 years ago that the Clippers were featured on SI's cover as the worst franchise in sports history. That was no exaggeration then, and it is no exaggeration now to envision Sterling -- who in 32 years of Clippers' ownership has generated just four seasons above .500 -- sitting courtside next June.
Los Angeles added J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to spread the floor for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. In addition, it signed Darren Collison to spell Paul, given that they traded away Eric Bledsoe to the Phoenix Suns.
Those moves were certainly big, but the most important transaction was perhaps the acquisition of Doc Rivers as the head coach. He brought in a championship pedigree as well as a humble defiance that L.A.'s "other team" desperately needed.
The players have clearly bought into it, as Jamal Crawford shared with CBS Sports' Ken Berger:
"I'll never forget it," Jamal Crawford said. "The first meeting I told everybody, 'The only person who could've had a better speech than that is in Washington in the White House.' He's unbelievable. He had our antennas up. Every single player was sitting on the edge of his seat looking at him, hanging on every word he said."
The Clippers have responded well and are playing good basketball. It's largely gone unnoticed because the Indiana Pacers opened up the season by winning 20 of their first 23 games. In addition, the Portland Trail Blazers only dropped four of their first 25 contests.
Naturally, the Clippers have not looked as impressive. They have lost more than double the amount of games during the same stretch, and thus, it looks as though they are underachieving. But in truth, Rivers' group is just fine.
More than just Lob City
Much has been made about Blake Griffin's lack of a low-post game. Indeed, some believe that the forward's inability to consistently score with his back to the basket will doom the Clippers because they do not generate enough quality looks.
Mind you, that is actually overblown. Jared Dubin did a great job over at HoopChalk of outlining this and breaking down Griffin's low-post game:
Without fail, every time Blake Griffin is putting on a show, the chirpers come out of the woodwork. "All he does is dunk." "He never takes jump shots." "He has no post game." Those of us who watch closely, who have seen Griffin slowly but surely morph into one of the most powerful offensive forces in the league, know better. The truth is, Griffin has been developing his post game for years, and it's come to the point where he's now one of the toughest covers in the league on the low block.
The highflier is converting 44.6 percent of his post-up shots, according to Synergy Sports, and more importantly, he is the featured option on a team with a top-10 offense.
One might assume that L.A.'s efficient scoring is mostly a product of acrobatic dunks, but that is actually incorrect. The Clips are in the league's bottom five in shot attempts per game taken directly at the rim, per NBA.com. In addition, they are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the Association.
They combat these deficiencies by protecting the ball and making jumpers rain from mid-range. By design, Los Angeles runs a lot of pick-and-rolls, which allow its ball-handlers to get open shots around the free-throw area. Watch how Chris Paul gets a clean look against the best defense in the league:
Paul, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green and J.J. Redick are the usual suspects in this setting. NBA.com tells us they are one of the best shooting teams from this area of the floor, and that opens up things for their bigs. Eventually, it pulls interior defenders out of the paint to contest shots, and from there, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan get opportunities directly at the rim.
Even Griffin's jump shooting will force defenders outside of the basket area, where he can take them off the bounce. Watch him go right at Roy Hibbert:
The Clippers offense can go through lulls occasionally when teams pack the paint and dare them to make shots from downtown. Still, Rivers has shown he has enough tricks up his sleeve to create high-percentage looks for his unit.
Given that mid-range jumpers are by and large viewed as the most inefficient shots in the sport, one can only wonder if an offense can consistently put up points at a decent clip while relying on them.
It's a fair question, and in actuality, there is a precedent. The Minnesota Timberwolves of Kevin Garnett and Sacramento Kings of Chris Webber both consistently ranked in the top 10 in attempted mid-range field goals in every season.
Given that the Clippers have title aspirations, making it a round shy of the NBA Finals might be a letdown. Then again, Minnesota and Sacramento were defeated by one of the best tag teams of all time in O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
One struggles to find a duo as formidable in today's Western Conference, and in turn, that means LAC has a shot at participating in the championships series.
Portland Trail Blazers doppelganger
The Los Angeles Clippers are the doppelgangers of the Portland Trail Blazers. That might sound ridiculous, but their statistical profiles and schemes offer some similarities.
Los Angeles and Portland both do a great job of avoiding turnovers, which allows them to consistently get into their offenses where they are usually superior to the opposition.
Moreover, both teams struggle with scoring points in the paint, according to Team Rankings. That comes as a result of their willingness to manufacture shots from mid-range. Their methodology differs, but the end result is fairly similar.
Portland uses LaMarcus Aldridge in the pick-and-pop, which forces opponents into rotating and leaving a player open for a jumper. Wesley Matthews benefits from this here:
When teams decide to stay at home, Damian Lillard and Matthews are afforded with opportunities to convert shots off the bounce.
The Clippers, on the other hand, prefer to create shots off the dribble in the pick-and-roll and use it to set up their scores in the paint.
The major difference between these squads is the long-range proficiency. There are nights where the Blazers simply cannot miss from downtown, while the Clippers have contests where they barely see the net move.
Los Angeles counters that problem by aggressively attacking defenses and creating free-throw opportunities. Indeed, they are among the leaders in attempted free throws through the first quarter of the season.
Considering that Portland has often operated with the best offense in the league this year and also seems poised to secure the top seed in the Western Conference, emulating the Blazers is not a bad idea.
Keep in mind, the Clippers have the premier playmaker in basketball, which also allows them to score close to the same level as the Blazers late in ballgames. Per NBA.com, both teams score at a top-five rate in the clutch.
Thus, it's not outlandish to state that Los Angeles is exactly where it should be. It has battled injuries as well as one of the toughest schedules in the Association, per ESPN.com, and yet, it is in the thick of the race for the Western Conference crown.
Doc Rivers was brought in to fix the defense and turn the Los Angeles Clippers into a juggernaut. His success with the Boston Celtics was a product of superb defense and great play from Hall of Fame-caliber players.
There was an assumption that the coaching staff would turn Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into a duo of bruising defenders. That has yet to become reality.
Statistically, the Clippers are the proud owners of a top-10 defense. They do a good job of providing resistance against most teams by virtue of their athletic front line. Where they get themselves into trouble is against the elite offensive units.
Rivers' team can handle the basic things like defending a pick-and-roll on one side of the court and rotating in unison. Look below how the Clippers stymie the Thunder offense:
However, whenever opponents add multiple facets to the offense, the Clips struggle. For instance, great offenses will run a two-man action on one side of the court and then swing it to the other side for a pick-and-roll.
Los Angeles will defend the first set, but then things get far too complex for its interior defenders on the second action. Thus, L.A. will be a half-step late and give up an open shot.
It becomes far more egregious when the secondary play occurs in the middle of the floor. From there, players defending corner shooters must retreat into the paint to deter drives and then quickly run back out to perimeter players.
That is an area where the Clips struggle, and thus, teams do a good job of converting corner three-pointers against them. Making matters worse, Los Angeles does a really poor job of corralling ball-handlers.
Consequently, L.A. gets beat off the bounce and gives up good looks in the basket area. With that said, the defense is not an abomination. Again, it's great against the majority of the league.
Still, given that the Clippers have championship aspirations, they need to do a better job of defending the elite teams. Since their offense is already among the best, Chris Paul and company must at least be average against the league's very best.
Building great habits and chemistry obviously takes time, and the Clippers have the regular season to figure that out. With enough repetition, Los Angeles can aspire to get stops in key stretches against the upper-echelon squads.
That comes with trust. The Clippers coach echoed that earlier in the season to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:
"If I call a timeout, it's usually over defense. It's rarely over offense," Rivers said. "I try to get them to get back. What happens, and the fear for a coach, is you can't keep having breakdowns because it breaks trust and guys say, 'Well, I'm not helping the next time because every time I help, my guy scores.' So that's the area we have to improve."
The Clippers defense is a work in progress, but it is coming along at its own rhythm. Very few teams can systematically slow down the best scoring teams in the league. Los Angeles just needs to be able to make things somewhat difficult by season's end, and well, it has a coach capable of getting it there.
Statistics used are updated through December 16, 2013.
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