Chris Paul Can't Be L.A. Clippers' Best Defender Next Season

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Chris Paul Can't Be L.A. Clippers' Best Defender Next Season
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Chris Paul is the Los Angeles Clippers’ best defender, and it’s a crying shame.

Throughout the course of the regular season and playoffs, Doc Rivers asked Paul to play high-intensity defense against opposing ball-handlers.

That’s all fine and dandy to ask of say, someone like Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies. His sole purpose is to wreak havoc defensively and get inside the head of his opponents because of his aggression, physicality and smarts.

In the case of Paul, it’s practically a criminal offense. He is responsible for setting up teammates, running the best offense in the league and turning himself into a scoring assassin during late-game situations.

Thus, asking him to consistently defend at an elite level on top of that is a bit of a stretch. If that sounds ludicrous, consider this: LeBron James spent the majority of the regular season coasting on defense (membership required) because of his numerous other responsibilities.

Remember, many consider him to be a freak of nature, and yet, even he needed a break of sorts. It's only fair for Paul to need one too.

 

 

Chris Paul State Penitentiary

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Paul is such a defensive pest that his coaching staff feels obligated to ask that he always be at his best on this front.

His ability to move his feet coupled with quick hands and smarts, make him a terrorizing player when applying pressure at the point of attack. Paul expertly forces ball-handlers away from ball screens, which often blows up the opponents’ offensive sets.

The opposition usually gets itself in trouble when it tries to attack Paul either in pick-and-rolls or isolations. Watch as he picks Russell Westbrook’s pocket in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder:

In case you thought that was a fluke, watch him take the ball away from Stephen Curry in the first-round series against the Golden State Warriors:

Paul is simply as menacing as they come. As a result, Rivers can use him in basically every defensive scheme in the book. Traps, double-teams, one-on-one, going underneath screens or whatever preference one may have.

Paul is also good at rotating and playing help defense inside the lane, making things tough for bigger players despite the fact that he stands 6’0’’. Those hands of his just find ways to disrupt plays. Have a look:

As good as Paul is individually on defense, he’s just as good from a team defense concept. Paul understands his assignments, which allows him to send players directly towards his help.

In the video below, Paul forces Curry left because he is aware that he has very little assistance directly behind him. The strategy results in a tough shot and a miss:

Paul’s defense is oftentimes impressive given the results that it yields for the Clippers. However, the coaching staff may have grown far too dependent on his exploits.

During the Western Conference Semifinals, Kevin Durant was torching L.A. and it prompted Rivers to call upon Paul to guard the 6’9’’ Durant.

Rivers explained the tactical adjustment to the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus: “That's called desperate coaching. Yesterday as a staff, we said Durant was beating us off the dribble.  If you put a guard on him, you could make him more of a post-up player.”

There’s a certain level of genius in Rivers opting to put Paul on Durant, but it’s hard to ignore that the Clippers asked their best player to defend Westbrook and Durant during the same series on top of managing his offensive responsibilities.

Paul is hardly ever one to complain, but the physical demands may have taken a toll. Here’s what he shared with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper after Game 4 against OKC:

It’s tough. He was the MVP for a reason, you know what I mean. Early in the game, when things weren’t going right, I went to Doc and said, ‘Might be 48 minutes tonight.’ KD is a great scorer.

I don’t know. It’s tough at times because you try and defend him as well as trying to stay aggressive offensively. Same thing I went through last series (against the Warriors). At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win.

 

It’s probably best for the Clippers to avoid wearing down Paul with their taxing demands on defense going forward. It’s one thing to ask him to do it sporadically, but requiring it throughout the course of every postseason game might remove some of his effectiveness as an offensive option and potentially result in a reduction of his minutes.

Paul began to break down a little late in the series and had practically no gas left in his tank, which probably was part of the reason the Thunder won the series in six games.

In other words, Los Angeles needs a new perimeter stopper.

 

Free Agency

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

There are a few players that will be available on the free-agent market that can give Paul a bit of respite from his defensive responsibilities. The Clippers should take a long and hard look at these types. Keep in mind, L.A. should be in the hunt for a perimeter stopper, and they will gladly accept a player who can also make shots.

Thus, free agents with 3-D capabilities (three-pointers and defense) will warrant more attention than your typical defender that brings nothing else to the table.

Before delving into the players L.A. could go after, we need to establish how much it is the Clippers can spend on the open market.

According to Sham Sports, Los Angeles should have a payroll of $76.3 million in 2014-15, if they bring back Willie Green and his non-guaranteed contract, along with Danny Granger, Darren Collison and Glen Davis—that is if all three exercise their player options.

On the flipside, if L.A. loses one of the players with player options and waives Green before July 1, that gives them a cap figure in the range of $73 million. Also, only $1.5 million of Jamal Crawford’s $5.5 million for the 2014-15 campaign is guaranteed if waived before June 30. 

In the case of Crawford, it's an option worth considering, but given that he is a key bench contributor, he should remain with the team.

Thus, the Clippers have the means to shed some salary.           

That’s important because the projected luxury tax for next season will crest at $77 million, according to NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement expert Larry Coon.

It’s an important piece of information because that will determine the amount Los Angeles can present to a potential free agent. Here are the salary exceptions available per Coon’s CBAFAQ:

  • Taxpayer mid-level: $3.278
  • Non-Taxpayer mid-level exception $5.305

 

If the Clippers retain the previously mentioned players, they are obligated to use the taxpayer mid-level.

They cannot use the non-taxpayer mid-level despite the fact they are beneath the luxury-tax line. The reason is simple: if using the mid-level causes a team to land above the apron ($4 million over the luxury-tax line), said team is ruled ineligible for the non-taxpayer mid-level.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here is the list of perimeter defenders that will be on the market this summer:

Free Agents Stoppers
Player Free-Agent Type 2013-14 Salary
Trevor Ariza Unrestricted $7.7 M
Avery Bradley Restricted $2.5 M
Luol Deng Unrestricted $14.3 M
Kirk Hinrich Unrestricted $4.1 M
James Johnson Unrestricted $630k
Shaun Livingston Unrestricted $884k
Shawn Marion Unrestricted $9.3 M
Thabo Sefolosha Unrestricted $3.9 M

Sham Sports

Ariza is perhaps the ideal player for L.A. He’s a decent long-range shooter as evidenced by his 34.7 percent career three-point shooting mark, and he’s a good defender.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

At 6’8’’, Ariza has the length to bother just about every perimeter player, and he usually does a good job of staying in front of people. What’s more, Ariza is from Los Angeles, thus he might be willing to go back home for less than what he made this season.

Ariza used to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning a title with the Purple and Gold in 2009. He left the team when the Lakers decided to go after Metta World Peace in free agency (both share the same position).

The Clippers could certainly use Ariza, but he does come with a pretty sizable question mark. Beware of the contract-year disease. Ariza signed a five-year, $33.5 million deal with the Houston Rockets after nailing 47.6 percent of his 2009 postseason treys with the Lakers.

Interestingly enough, Ariza hit 44.6 percent of his treys during this last playoff run with the Washington Wizards. In non-contract years, Ariza’s been sub-40 percent from three-point range during the playoffs.

In other words, he won’t always be a perfect 3-D player.

Another option could be Luol Deng. He’s only a 32.9 percent career three-point shooter, but Deng typically defends at a high level. At 6’8’’, he can guard a variety of perimeter players and can even masquerade occasionally as a power forward when the Clippers downsize.

Deng would be a perfect fit in L.A. because of his defensive commitment and willingness to play within the constructs of the team at both ends of the court. However, it seems a little difficult to envision Deng signing with the Clippers for a sum in the $3 to $5.3 million range after earning a little over $14 million in 2013-14.

Instead, I could see Los Angeles going after either Shaun Livingston of the Brooklyn Nets or Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Livingston holding a slight edge. He isn’t a great defensive player, but the former Clipper is certainly bothersome.

At 6’7’’, he does a good job of staying in front of his man and bothering shooters with his length.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Livingston isn’t a strong player, but the Brooklyn coaching staff felt comfortable sticking him on LeBron James during the Nets' Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with the Miami Heat because he avoids committing careless fouls and can make James take tough, contested shots.

On offense, Livingston has no range whatsoever (20.4 percent career three-point shooter), but he is a good ball-handler and decision-maker. In addition, Livingston can attack smaller players in post-ups. As a result, he brings a bit of offense to go along with his defense.

Sefolosha, on the other hand, is a brilliant defender but an average long-range shooter at best. His three-point shooting fluctuates from one season to the next, which makes him unreliable in terms of providing floor spacing.

His defense is certainly a plus, but his inability to consistently convert shots makes him a liability on offense, which makes it difficult to feed him minutes.

The remaining players are decent last-resort options, a list that contains undersized players (Avery Bradley and Kirk Hinrich), an athlete in decline (Shawn Marion) and an adequate defender who occasionally calls his own number on offense when he shouldn’t (James Johnson).

 

Trades

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

The free-agent route is a path worth visiting, but the Clippers could also acquire a stopper via trade.

Prior to the trade deadline, L.A. held some discussions about bringing in Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks according to the Los Angeles Times’ Broderick Turner.

The Knicks ultimately passed, but they might be open to making this move during the offseason depending on the pieces involved in the deal. Turner noted that New York was willing to part with Raymond Felton at the time, and it might want to revisit the possibility.

The Clippers could send Matt Barnes and Darren Collison (if he opts into his deal) to New York in a swap for Felton and Shumpert. Barnes will have two years left on his deal with the final season earning him $3.4 million. Granted, only $1 million is guaranteed in the last year of the contract, per Sham Sports.

Shumpert is a terrific defender with an incredibly cheap contract (set to make $2.6 million next season), and that makes him quite valuable. New York appears to have actually noticed.

The New York Post’s Marc Berman explained in mid-March: “Now Shumpert appears to have a legitimate future with Phil Jackson’s Knicks. According to a league source, Jackson is a fan of Shumpert.”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If Shumpert is off the table, the Clippers should seriously consider trading for Tony Allen of the Grizzlies. Allen is signed until the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign to a deal that averages out to roughly $5 million per year.

There might be some trepidation about Allen given that he’s a huge offensive liability. Allen enjoys freelancing every now and then, and his 26.4 career percent three-point shooting sometimes sabotages his team’s offense.

But by the same token, he is perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league. He is aggressive, strong, quick and plays with an edge that creates fear in offensive players.

In the opening round of the playoffs, Allen was partly responsible for holding league scoring champion Kevin Durant to 29.9 points per game on 44 percent shooting after he averaged 32 points on 50.3 percent shooting during the regular season.

Durant acknowledged to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst that Allen was in his head during the first round of the playoffs: "I'm worrying about a guy coming from behind trying to block the shot. I've just got to focus in on the rim and my shot. I can't go out there and think too much, I have to let my instincts take over."

Los Angeles will have an abundance of options at their disposal in the summer, and it’s clear that they must look at each and every one of them. Paul cannot continue to carry the burden Rivers placed on his shoulders, and hopefully the coaching staff realizes that.

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