As we near the halfway point of the season, the West and the entire landscape of the NBA is starting to take a more visible shape. The clear cut contenders — the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, and newest member Golden State Warriors — have made themselves known and it only seems like a couple more of teams can crack that elite group. Along with the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers are that other team that is just on the cusp of contention, and it is actually somewhat difficult to point to exactly what is stopping this team from reaching that next level. Let’s take a closer look to see exactly where this team stands and answer the question, are the Clippers a contender:
The Goods — The Offensive End
There was once a time where I questioned Doc Rivers ability to coach on the offensive end. The Big Three era Celtics were always an average offensive team — despite their firepower — and I seriously questioned whether Doc Rivers would be that much of an upgrade from Vinny Del Negro on the offensive end of the court. Rivers has proved me completely wrong, though, as the Clippers have clearly become one of the most dominant offensive teams in basketball this season. They are ranked 5th in the NBA in offensive efficiency — posting a 106.5 offensive rating — but more importantly, in watching the Clippers it is quite obvious their offense is something that can sustain come playoff time when the defenses are better and are gearing up to slow opponents down.
The Clippers do a really good job of keeping the floor spread — despite having two space crunchers logging heavy minutes — and they move the ball really well out of the pick and roll and post isolation situations. As a result they are among the league leaders in 3s attempted — ranking 8th with 24.2 3s attempted per 100 possession — and even though they are only shooting 33.3 percent from deep (3rd worst in the NBA), their three point shooting benefits their offense just based off the sheer number of 3s they are taking. A lot of that is because of their penchant for corner threes, as the Clippers are taking over 30 percent of their threes from the corners — one of the highest percentages among high volume three point shooting teams. And this team, honestly, has better three point shooters than the numbers are letting one, and if those shooters — J.J. Reddick in particular — can get it going from beyond the arc as the season goes on, there is a good chance this offense becomes even more high powered.
In general, though, there is not much else about the Clippers shot distribution that is worth writing home about. They take a solid amount of mid-range jump shots, but they do so in the same vein as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the last two Miami Heat title teams. That is, they take more mid-range shots than an efficiency geek would be comfortable with, but they make such a high percentage of their mid-range shots — 42.5 percent, which ties for 2nd with Oklahoma City — that their relentless firing of mid-range pull ups is not necessarily to their detriment. They also make up for their mid-range shooting excess with their restraint from taking the other really inefficient shot in basketball. The Clippers are near the bottom of the league in shots from the paint, non-restricted area, and seem more compelled to take shots at the rim than take them from that tough in between range. That benefits the Clippers greatly, as they are one of the most efficient teams at the rim in basketball. I mentioned earlier how well the Clippers keep the floor spread and how well they move the basketball. Both of those things typically lead to the lane being clear more often, which makes attacking and finishing at the rim much easier. And the Clippers have followed that line of thinking, shooting 66.5 percent at the rim, ranking only behind the Miami Heat in terms of efficiency.
He Might Be Underrated Now
And while Chris Paul has been the key cog to making this offense work, Blake Griffin has been key to the Clippers offense in Paul’s absence, and still was a key contributor when Chris Paul was healthy. Griffin has simply been a wildly efficient scorer so far this season — putting up a 58.0 True Shooting Percentage — and his abilities as a scorer and passer have been essential to the Clippers success on offense. Here is Griffin’s shot chart so far this season:
Griffin splits most of his time offensively between being a screen setter and roll man, and isolating from the low post area. He has generally been great in both regards, mostly because he serves as a dual threat with his ability to score it and pass it from both areas. As a roll man after a screen, Blake has shown a nice touch fading to the top of the key after high screens, and fading to the left baseline after side pick and rolls on that side. He is obviously, also a major threat rolling to the rim, and his ability to draw extra defenders to him as he rolls to rim creates extra passing lanes and passing options to open shooters for Chris Paul or any player coming off of a Griffin screen. Griffin also is more than capable of finding those players himself when he catches the ball farther out from the rim out of the pick and roll. When attacking the basket after receiving the pass out of the pick and roll, Blake has proven to be very good at finding the open shooter — or even DeAndre Jordan at times — that the defense helps off of to contain his attack on the rim. All of these options Griffin creates, has led the Clippers being really good out of the any pick and roll scenario, and a Paul-Griffin pick and roll is one of the tougher plays to defend in all of basketball.
The Clippers have also been really effective when Griffin works out of the post, as well. Griffin’s lack of polish from the post has been talked about ad nauseam, but the fact that Griffin does not necessarily have a great hook shot or turn around jumper from the post is actually somewhat of benefit to the Clippers offense. See, since Griffin does not have those shots in his arsenal, he does not take those shots, and as a result typically avoids some of the more inefficient shots available from the post. As the shot chart above reveals, Griffin has only taken 59 shots between eight and 16 feet so far this season, much less than the 363 shots he has taken inside of eight feet. And even within those eight feet, just over a quarter of Griffin’s paint shots come from outside of the restricted area, while the rest come from the restricted are where Griffin is shooting an amazing 69 percent.
Doc Rivers also does a good job of making sure the paint is clear for Griffin to get those shots at the rim from the post, while also providing great passing lanes for Griffin to distribute to from the post at the same time. In general, the floor remains spread around Griffin, and there are usually two or three shooters for Griffin to kick it out to, if the defense collapses on him in the post. They also use a Laker cut from the guard who throws the post entry to Griffin to prevent quick double teams on Griffin early in his post up. Most of the time that cut is along the baseline, and is solely for the purpose of creating space. But occasionally the Clippers will mix in some “double cut” action that allows Deandre Jordan to cut into the lane and provide another passing option for Griffin:
It seems like a very simple thing — and it is not even successful on this play — but one of the marks of a dynamic offense is the way they post up their best players and just how they use those post ups within their offense. The more basic offenses will typically have the other four players standing around with no real purpose, while their post player goes one on one trying to score. The more dynamic offenses — think San Antonio and Miami — will almost always send a cutter to the rim, and also spread the floor, creating plenty of passing options, so their post player has options to create a shot for either himself or his teammates.
Griffin obviously has the ability to score in these situations, but also is a very good passer out of these spots as well. Griffin’ assist percentage (15.5) is very good for a big man, and while it is not necessarily elite, it is perfectly acceptable considering how much Chris Paul commands possession for the Clippers. He is perfectly capable of finding DeAndre Jordan off of cuts like the one of above, and is equally able to find open shooters out of his post up attempts. In general, Griffin is having an amazing season so far, and his abilities on offense is a big reason why the Clippers have been so good offensively.
So, Is Anything Holding The Clippers Back?
To start the season, the Clippers were deplorable on the defensive end. They were scoring the ball at an amazing rate but seemed content to let the opposition score just as easily, while they engaged in barn burners with their early season opponents. Over the course of the season they have steadily improved, though, and they are now at a point where they are one of the better defensive teams in basketball. They held the seventh highest defensive rating heading into Wednesday’s games (100.1), and more impressive, since December 1st they are holding opponents to 98.2 points per 100 possessions — which ranks only behind the Indiana Pacers.
Similar to the offensive end, there is not a whole that stands out about how they are accomplishing their success on defense. The shot distribution of their opponents lines up pretty well with league averages, and they do not necessarily do a great job defending at the rim. They are defending against the jump shot really well, though. Teams are only shooting 36.7 percent on mid-range shots since December 1st against the Clippers — which ranks 1st in the NBA over that stretch — and teams are only shooting 32.5 percent from three against the Clippers over that stretch (4th).
But there are still reasons for concern for the Clippers on the defensive end. There are a few different types of teams and lineups that can give them serious problems, and they could very easily see those scenarios come playoff time. Specifically, the Clippers can really struggle against smaller units, or units that can spread the floor with four shooters — think Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat and even the Oklahoma City Thunder in some lineups. Most of the top defenses in basketball have ways to combat smaller lineups that can spread the floor: the Spurs, Warriors, Heat and Thunder can match with small ball units that do not fall off too much defensively; the Chicago Bulls schemes still hold up well, especially with a more athletic Taj Gibson playing at power forward; and Indiana and Memphis can rely on their big men — Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol — to hold down the paint without much help, so the other defenders can play closer to the shooters.
The Clippers do not really have a small unit that can match up with a team like Portland 1-4 — and any lineup that can threaten to do so would sacrifice Blake Griffin — and DeAndre Jordan does not have the ability to hold down the paint on his own without a lot of support from his perimeter defenders. Out of the 67 players that contest at least five shots at the rim per game, Jordan ranks 45th in opponents field goal percentage — he is allowing opponents to shot 51.7 percent at the rim. And in general, even though he is a very good shot blocker, it seems like Jordan will never be able to grasp the finer points of interior defense, and be able to defend the paint at the elite level. Here is a play from last week’s game against the Boston Celtics:
It seems like a really small misstep — hanging around the pick and roll too long, causing an unnecessary switch with Jared Dudley that leads to a plethora of problems for the Clippers on the play that results in a fairly easy Brandon Bass finish — but these are the types of the mistakes that plague the Clippers defensively, and it could be the death of them when things tighten up come playoff time. It is the reason even a team like Memphis can still give them problems if they match up in the playoffs for the third time. Their defense is much improved, and it could definitely continue improve as the season progresses. But as it stands now, there may still be a few too many holes to call them a contender at this point.