Barring a catastrophic late season collapse, the Los Angeles Clippers should return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-2006 season. Making the postseason will be an important step for a franchise that’s seen the playoffs just four times in 28 seasons in Los Angeles, but the Clippers could stand do some damage in their return. With Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s contracts coming up relatively soon (not to mention Vinny Del Negro’s), the Clippers need to put up a good showing in the playoffs to keep the vultures from swarming.
Although the Clippers don’t follow the mold of your traditional contender due to their lackluster defense (20th in defensive efficiency), they are a team with very specific strengths that could overwhelm an opponent in the right matchup. Although their first round draw will likely be out of their hands, here’s what the Clippers should be rooting for as the Western Conference playoff picture shakes out.
It’s the bread-and-butter play for the Clippers, and despite its predictability, defenses as a whole have failed to stop it with any sort of consistency. The Clippers rank first in the league in points per possession (PPP) on shots the ballhandler takes in the pick-and-roll, while Paul ranks sixth among all players. Point being, if Paul gets a favorable switch or the space to operate coming off a screen, he’s one of the best point producers in the league.
To properly blow up a pick-and-roll, you need to have mobile, intelligent big men. The Lakers are a perfect example of this. Pau Gasol is one of the best in the business at showing hard on a screen, then recovering properly. He’s a big reason the Lakers rank 9th in pick-and-roll ballhandler defense, even with the molasses-like duo of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake covering the ball most of the year.
Although they probably won’t meet in the first round, offensively the Clippers would love a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs, who rank as the league’s worst defensive team in PPP allowed to ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll. The Spurs have immobile bigs and lack the ability to switch their bigs on to guards -- a huge reason why the previous meetings between these two teams have been so high scoring.
If the regular season has been any indicator, the Clippers are going to rely heavily on Paul’s scoring and the pick-and-roll come playoff time. As long as they avoid the Dallas Mavericks (2nd in the league) and the Lakers, they should be able to ride that play to plenty of success.
Best case: San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz
Worst case: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Clippers’ 6th ranked offense in terms of efficiency isn’t really the concern going into the playoffs -- it’s the defense instead. The Clippers are mediocre in just about every category imaginable defensively, but their Achilles’ heel has been defending against spot-up shooters -- particularly 3-point shooters. The Clippers rank 20th in the league in defending spot-up shooters and are next to dead last in 3-point percentage defense, allowing their opponents to shoot a whopping 37.2 percent from behind the arc on average.
Remember those Spurs? They may represent the best matchup for the Clippers offense, but they’re the worst matchup defensively. The Spurs are the 2nd best team in PPP in spot-up situations, and are the best 3-point shooting team in the league at 38.9 percent. This isn’t exactly revelatory, but Oklahoma City (6th in spot-up PPP, 11th in 3-point percentage) is another team that could easily expose a Clippers’ defense that is often a step slow with their rotations.
Given the interior defensive issues of Griffin, the Clippers will gladly let a few teams chuck away from distance instead of getting to the rim and getting their star forward in foul trouble. A team like Memphis, who is 19th in spot up opportunities and 26th in 3-point percentage, would be a great matchup defensively. The Clippers could double down in the post and take away Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol and let the perimeter shooting of Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo decide things instead.
The Denver Nuggets would be another favorable matchup, as they check in as the 20th best team in spot-up PPP, and 23rd in 3-point percentage. However, both the Grizzlies and Nuggets pale in comparison to one of the best matchups for the Clippers and one of the worst shooting teams in the league -- the Utah Jazz. The Jazz are 28th in the league in spot-up opportunities and 29th in 3-point shooting at a woeful 30.7 percent, which is almost ten percentage points lower than the first place Spurs. The Jazz are on the outside looking in at this point, but the Clippers would love to somehow see them in the first round.
Best case: Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets
Worst Case: San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets
The Clippers have established a formula: Keep the game tight for three quarters, and then give the ball to Paul to take it home. Often times in the clutch the Clippers will go to a simple 1-4 isolation play with Paul at the top of the key, looking to break down his defender for a bucket.
No one man is going to shut down Paul, but a great isolation defender can make him work harder for his shots.
Heading the list of terrifying on-ball defenders is Tony Allen for Memphis. Allen is the basketball equivalent of a shutdown cornerback in football -- there’s bound to be a turnover if you go at him. Although great offense usually beats great perimeter defense because of the no handcheck rule, Allen can completely take a player out of the game, evidenced by his paltry .58 PPP allowed to pick-and-roll ballhandlers this year.
Next on the list is Shawn Marion for Dallas. With his length and lateral quickness, Marion can stay in front of guards and routinely contest shots, something we saw in the Finals last year against two of the best perimeter scorers in the league -- Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league at developing smart defensive schemes, and Marion provides the versatility to fill almost any conceivable role.
The Lakers’ Metta World Peace isn’t the overall defender he once was, but when directly challenged, he steps up his game. MWP has been the league’s 24th best PPP defender in isolation so far this year, and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t rise to the occasion in a playoff setting.
After that, the West’s defensive stoppers all come with question marks. Will Thabo Seflosha (the league’s top pick-and-roll defender) be on the floor for Oklahoma City instead of James Harden in crunch time? What about Courtney Lee over Kevin Martin for Houston? Can Arron Afflalo convert back to the defensive stopper he once was? Can San Antonio get Stephen Jackson back to his ballhounding ways? Can the miracle workers in the Suns’ training department get Grant Hill ready by playoff time?
Those questions are out there, but there is no questioning that the Clippers playoff hopes ride on Paul’s shoulders. If he gets matched up with a team ill-equipped to contain him, the Clippers could easily make some noise in the playoffs.
Best case: Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs
Worst Case: Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers