After an impressive offseason, the Los Angeles Clippers have established themselves as one of the handful of teams with realistic championship aspirations heading into the 2013-14 season.
The general benchmark for contention is that a team must rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency; it’s simply too difficult to survive four grueling playoff rounds with a significant flaw on either end of the floor.
Over the past two seasons, the Clippers have produced at a top-five level offensively but fell short on the defensive end. They ranked 18th in defensive efficiency two seasons ago and just made the cut at ninth last season but were 21st after Feb. 1.
Their defensive shortcomings have resulted in them essentially being swept out of the past two postseasons, as the San Antonio Spurs (110.3 offensive rating) and Memphis Grizzlies (109.7 offensive rating) scored at extremely efficient rates in their respective eliminations of the Clippers.
To shore up the defense, the Clippers went through a great deal of effort to acquire coach Doc Rivers. The challenge of improving a shaky defense will be far greater than merely implementing his lauded strongside defensive system, though.
Not only does the Clippers’ roster not match the typical profile of a defensive stalwart, but the team also is clearly invested in the risky proposition that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will make tremendous defensive strides under Rivers' guidance.
Which brings us to the most intriguing non-Griffin storyline surrounding the Clippers’ 2013-14 season: Can Rivers and his system turn a relatively average group of defenders into an elite defensive unit?
Rivers’ pedigree suggests his presence alone will make the Clippers a better defensive team -- his Big Three-era Boston squads never ranked lower than sixth in defensive efficiency and finished in the top two on four occasions -- but it’s unclear to what extent he’ll have an impact.
More important, Griffin and Jordan have yet to learn a coherent defensive system, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that each player has plenty of room to grow defensively. Rivers’ coaching style suggests he’ll get along better with both players than the old regime did, making the adjustment process easier for the young bigs.
Still, there are considerable drawbacks to the gamble of relying on inexperienced and unproven young big men to command a championship-level defense.
Though Rivers’ system has thrived with two franchises -- in Boston, under Rivers, and in Chicago, under Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau -- it featured elite defensive big men in both cases.
Despite his physical gifts, Jordan has yet to consistently show he can anchor a defense the way Kevin Garnett did in Boston or Joakim Noah does in Chicago. It’s telling that in four of Jordan’s five seasons the Clippers have posted a better defensive rating with him on the bench. He has the length and athleticism to be a defensive game-changer, but he has yet to master the nuances and understand the patience that defensive rotations demand.
Rivers will try to squeeze every ounce of potential out of Jordan, of course, and building up his confidence through public displays of support -- last month, Rivers claimed Jordan should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season -- is a good place to start.
Nonetheless, it’s far from a given Jordan will produce at the rate the Clippers need him to, and if he doesn’t meet their expectations, the Clippers’ defense will struggle to remain above average because there simply aren’t any adequate replacement options behind him.
Griffin’s defensive struggles are well chronicled, and it’s obvious that’s the end of the floor he needs to improve the most. Chris Paul is a good on-ball defender when engaged and plays passing lanes beautifully, but point guards have less of an overall defensive impact than big men since they’re usually so far from the basket.
Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley are capable of defending most scoring wings suitably, but both function better as supplementary defensive pieces, not as the defensive focal point. With Eric Bledsoe’s departure, the Clippers don’t have a premier lockdown defender on the perimeter.
The defense of their backup big men, Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens, raises even more questions. Hollins (hustle, physical play, screen-setting) and Mullens (sneaky athleticism, long-range shooting) present unique skills that will help L.A.’s bench at times, but neither is the defender or the rebounder that Rivers’ system covets.
It seems as if the Clippers are still missing that third piece that can function in a larger bench role, though it’s unclear whom they could sign (Lamar Odom?). Ideally, the Clippers find a backup big man through free agency or trade that’s a better player and fit capable of soaking up 15 to 20 minutes a night, which would leave the rest of the backup minutes to Hollins and Mullens, depending on the matchup.
In the meantime, to make up for their lack of depth, Griffin or Jordan will likely have to be on the floor at all times, and the Clippers will have no choice but to experiment with Barnes or Dudley at small ball power forward for 10 or so minutes a night.
Rivers has traditionally refrained from using small lineups -- using them the past two seasons only because the Celtics lacked size -- so it’ll be interesting to see how much he uses that option.
The strength of last season’s Clippers defense came from the bench, though, as Barnes, Bledsoe, Odom and Ronny Turiaf were key cogs in an impressively disruptive second-unit defense. All but Barnes are gone, putting much more of a burden on the starting lineup to shoulder more of a defensive load.
That isn’t necessarily a beneficial trade-off, as the three-man lineup of Paul, Griffin and Jordan -- the foundation of the Clippers’ starting lineup and supposed core moving forward -- posted a 103.5 defensive rating last season, which would have tied for 16th-best in the league.
With limited financial means to make significant additions outside of re-signing their own free agents or striking a trade, the Clippers weren’t able to add a key defensive piece, and it may eventually cost them.
They’re rolling the dice and hoping that Griffin and Jordan have been in need of a system all along and that Rivers can coax the defensive potential he gushed about at his news conference in late June.
Regardless of the glitz of the roster, the high-octane offense and the sky-high expectations, the Clippers will go only as far as their defense takes them. Without a slew of good individual defenders, the Clippers will have to take a more team-centric approach and ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That responsibility falls on Rivers, and it’s his greatest challenge yet.
Ultimately, the Clippers’ ability to foster an elite defensive unit -- and thus having a legitimate shot at contending for a championship -- will come down to the roster’s ability to comprehend and execute Rivers’ defensive system. Subtle improvements would help, but chances are the Clippers’ defense needs a major upgrade to compete with the likes of the Spurs and Thunder.
That, by and large, will be determined by Griffin and Jordan’s development as aware and precise defenders.
Time will tell if the gamble, and the time invested in the big men as the franchise’s interior duo, was worth it.
Stats used in this piece are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.