The past year has been quite nerve-racking for the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Paul hit free agency, the Clippers went toe-to-toe with the Memphis Grizzlies in yet another playoff battle and a trade brought Doc Rivers in to take over for Vinny Del Negro.
Although many things have changed during 2013, the desired end result remains the same. The Clippers are in a fight for the Pacific Division, and the Western Conference is as powerful as it has ever been. The Clippers need continuous improvement in order to set themselves apart from the rest of the conference while having a shot at hosting a playoff series.
New Year’s resolutions allow people to set specific goals in an attempt to better themselves in the coming year. The Clippers should do the same.
One of the two major components of the Eric Bledsoe trade, Jared Dudley was acquired to bring in an aware defender with elite long-range shooting. A career 47 percent shooter from the field and 39.9 from three, Dudley is off to a slow start, hitting 43.9 from the field, 34.7 from three and a true-shooting percentage of 54.0 according to Basketball-Reference.
Dudley’s inability to connect from threes above the break—20-of-71—has greatly diminished his offensive production. Furthermore, the offense desperately needs his shooting prowess in order to expand the floor for the four other players, especially with J.J. Redick injured.
To his credit, Dudley is 45.7 percent from the right corner and 40.0 percent from the left. Still, as the ball rotates around the floor and Chris Paul penetrates and kicks, Dudley needs to be able to connect from above the break. He does not contribute much elsewhere on offense, so when his shot is not falling he is basically a neutral player, and some of his minutes would be better divvied among Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ Achilles' heel, seemingly for the last three seasons, has been the lack of depth in the post. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have improved considerably this season, but if either of them ends up in foul trouble or goes out injured, there is no reliable backup for either.
Early in the season, Byron Mullens was in the rotation off the bench, along with Ryan Hollins. However, Mullens has played 11 minutes in December, largely because the Clippers were 12.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench, according to NBA.com. His defense was absolutely terrible and forced Doc Rivers to take him out of the rotation.
Hollins has filled in admirably, as the team gives up a mere 94.7 points per 100 possessions while he is on the floor, according to NBA.com. His offensive game is limited, but he brings energy and toughness off the bench. Antawn Jamison was supposed to provide the offensive production that Hollins lacked, but Jamison has only scored 62 points all season.
The Clippers will likely be forced to make a trade to acquire additional help or look for players who are waived and bought out as the season progresses. Emeka Okafor is a name to keep an eye on, although with the Phoenix Suns' success, they might have no interest in letting him leave town. Jason Collins is another name, mainly because of his defensive abilities.
Much can be said about Blake Griffin’s improvement this season. His scoring output has increased from 18.0 points per game to 21.3 this season. He is playing 4.1 more minutes. His free-throw attempts and percentages have improved as well from last year. Finally, his shooting has drastically improved from 20-24 feet. According to NBA.com, Griffin is shooting 42.1 percent compared to 34.2 percent last season.
More importantly, Griffin is simply playing as hard as he can at both ends of the floor—likely a demand from Doc Rivers. So while Griffin’s skills and statistics have improved, he seems to be playing with a fire about him. After two postseason flameouts and the acquisition of a championship coach, this is a welcomed development.
Griffin’s ability to dominate physically has been there since day one. However, the drive and passion at both ends of the floor this season have made Griffin a more well-rounded player. Hopefully he plays with this fire and intensity all season, and for the rest of his career.
Teams typically struggle early on when adopting a new defensive system, as there is an absorbent amount of new information to process. The Los Angeles Clippers were definitely one of those teams. Doc Rivers’ strong-side system was a challenge for the Clippers to implement early on. In the first month of the season, a Clippers team that was one of the better defensive units last season plummeted.
According to NBA.com, during the middle of November, the Clippers were 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions, surrendering 105.7 points. The bench was a far cry from last season’s electric unit. There were breakdowns all over the place, and teams were scoring at will from nearly every spot on the floor.
Fast forward to the month of December, and the Clippers are giving up a measly 98.1 points per 100 possessions, one-tenth of a point away from the top spot for the month.
Rivers has trimmed his rotations, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan look much improved defensively and the team is suffocating opposing offenses. Marinating this type of defensive intensity and efficiency will make the Clippers extremely formidable in the New Year.
Last season the Los Angeles Clippers won their first Pacific Division title in franchise history. The meaning of that banner is significant for a team that has long been considered the Los Angeles Lakers’ little brother. While winning back-to-back division championships will not change that stigma, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs means far more.
The Western Conference is absolutely loaded this season, and winning a division holds considerable weight. There will be no gimmes come playoff time, but playing at home provides a cushion in what looks to be a wild first round.
The Clippers need to take care of their work in the Pacific and try to avoid another four-versus-five matchup in round one. A division title would check off box No. 1 of tasks the team should strive to accomplish.