Three teams last year finished in the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The title-winning Miami Heat was one of those teams. The runner-up San Antonio Spurs was another. The third team? The Los Angeles Clippers.
The Heat and Spurs will be remembered as two of the great teams of this era, but the Clippers, great as they were over 82 games, will be remembered for weaving a cautionary tale. This was a team of generalists in the heyday of specialists; a team that showed that simply being great isn’t always good enough.
Hunt for the scapegoat all you’d like, but the Clippers’ fatal flaw last year had to do more with what was missing rather than who was present on the court or sidelines. This was a great team, but it was a team without an identity or defined style of play. The Clippers often happily agreed to play the game exactly the way their opponents wanted to, sometimes to a baffling degree. Still, relying on being better from a talent perspective -- regardless of the terms of engagement – worked just fine most nights.
But in hindsight, the Clippers’ regular season success may have perpetuated the problem. When you win nearly 70 percent of your games, it can be awfully hard to see the flaws in your approach.
It took a playoff ouster to a very particular kind of opponent to make the problems more clear. The Memphis Grizzlies came in with an established, painfully slow style of play, backed by hundreds and thousands of hours of repetition in that particular setting. But instead of speeding the league’s slowest team up and knocking the train off the tracks, the Clippers allowed the Grizzlies to slow the game down to a crawl in a six game series that turned very ugly, very quickly.
The Grizzlies may have been a subpar offensive team in the regular season, but they lit up the Clippers defense to the tune of 109.7 points per 100 possessions compared to the 101 number the Clippers gave up on average during the season.
After putting that rough series behind them, the Clippers have made changes that should result in a more defined style of play this offseason. Doc Rivers and his staff fathered a defensive scheme in Boston that changed the NBA, and conscious decisions like completely abandoning the offensive glass for transition defensive purposes separated his teams from the pack.
For many years, the Celtics had a great team with a niche and identity that was a vision of their coaching staff, but it also mirrored the qualities of Kevin Garnett. Despite success and sustained growth during the last two years, the Clippers wholly failed to be a representation of their centerpiece, Chris Paul, as the laissez-faire approach of the previous regime only seemed to contrast with Paul’s control-freak nature.
As soon as Paul stepped off the court last year, the Clippers morphed into a completely different team. To that point, the Clippers two most used units were an all-starter and all-bench lineup. The Clippers first string played at a pace of 91.86, but the second unit sped things way up to 96.24. Both units were incredibly successful, but that two different lineups on the same team could be so drastically different on both ends of the court was telling.
Now, with Paul and Rivers both locked in long-term alongside Blake Griffin, the Clippers have an opportunity to develop a style of play through design on the sideline and through personnel development and acquisitions, all accomplished through the same lens.
Instead of providing an exhibition for the benefits of having really good players for 82 games, the Clippers can actually forge a team-wide identity and experiment to find what style best suits the roster this year. If the offseason acquisitions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley are any indicator of what that style will be, halfcourt basketball seems to be on the horizon -- and that’s just how Paul likes it. While Redick and Dudley are both deadly spot-up shooters and floor spacers, they might not combine for double-digit dunks on the season.
Of course, the Clippers front office knows that, and there’s probably a reason why Paul has always played on slow teams and been flanked by a very specific type of player throughout his entire career. In Redick and Dudley, Paul might have the most talent on the wing next to him he’s ever had. Perhaps more importantly, Redick and Dudley fit right in with Paul’s mistake-free, possession optimizing style better than anyone else has as well. These are limited players athletically who will struggle without structure, but Redick and Dudley both know who they are and what they do best. That kind of self-awareness is required in places like Miami and San Antonio, and there’s a reason for that.
Maybe there was a time when just being better was perfectly acceptable for the Clippers as a team and organization, but now the goals have advanced. It’s going to take time for the new-look roster and staff to forge an identity, but at least now the Clippers know that the playoffs can be a dangerous place without one.
Stats from NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com were used in this article.