Coming into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers subscribed to the belief that an elite defense can spring from a smart defensive system. This is a long-standing debate in the NBA, one that’s gotten more interesting since defenses really started to systematize in the mid-1990s. Defensive stoppers are nice, but only a handful of players big and small can change the game when the other team has the ball. A stopper is a luxury, and if you’re not in possession of at least one, you better come up with a strategic way to defend the half court.
Doc Rivers has a way, one crafted and refined during the Boston Celtics’ recent championship era. The Celtics routinely led the league in defense, and in the process they provided further evidence that, in the NBA, systems matter. Deploy a tight one and good defenders can become great ones; the identity of your wing defenders won’t necessarily matter.
The Clippers figured to benefit from Rivers’ implementation of this system. They finished a respectable ninth in defensive efficiency last season, and it was reasonable to believe Doc's system would make them better -- and certainly no worse.
Installing a complicated system takes time, though, especially for a unit with two new starting wings and a retooled second unit. But for even the most patient, the early returns haven’t been promising for the Clippers, who rank 27th overall in defensive efficiency. That’s their high-water mark for the season thanks to a solid effort in a 102-98 win at Minnesota on Wednesday night, only one of two times in 12 games this season that the Clippers have held their opponent to less than a point per possession. For a frame of reference, the Pacers’ No. 1-ranked defense has allowed more than a point per possession in only one game so far -- and barely.
Those ugly numbers suggest that if you tuned in to watch the Clippers, you’d get a whiff of that rotten defense the second the ball was tipped. J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley must be the Belmonte and Joselito of NBA wing defenders, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing the role of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. After all, a team can’t give up 105.3 points per 100 possessions unless their starters are utterly clueless, right?
That’s the crazy thing about the Clippers -- not only are the starters not terrible, they’re actually very good. The starting lineup of Chris Paul, Redick, Dudley, Griffin and Jordan has played together for almost 40 percent of the team’s total minutes this season. As a unit, the starters surrender only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank sixth in the NBA.
Take one Clippers starter off the floor and the Clippers still give up considerably less than the league average. For instance, the Clippers’ top four performers -- Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan -- maintain that 99.3 defensive rating, and they’ve been on the floor for almost exactly one-half the action this season. When those four guys aren’t on the floor, that rating drops to 111.3 -- beyond awful, like 2005-06 Sonics, worst-of-all-time awful.
Put two Clippers starters on the bench, and the team defense is still strong -- if Redick is one of the three remaining starters on the court. So long as a lineup has a strong, starter-heavy DNA, the Clippers are essentially OK.
In other words, if you want to experience a full frontal view of the Clippers’ unsightly defense, you’ll generally have to wait until the beginning of the second quarter or the end of the third quarter. That’s when the team defense hemorrhages:
When Byron Mullens is on the floor, the Clippers are 18.2 points worse defensively. His defensive rating of 120.7 is far and away the worse this season for any player who sees the court regularly, with Jordan Hamilton a very distant second at 116.4. In fact, even though Mullens plays only 20 percent of the Clippers’ minutes, if he’s on the bench at a given moment, the team goes from a 27th-ranked defense to one that would be ranked 17th, just behind the Rockets. It’s virtually unheard of for a fringe rotation player to have such an adverse effect on a team’s overall defensive numbers.
The Clippers desperately miss Eric Bledsoe, whose bench units last season paced the team defensively. The Clippers forced a turnover on more than one-sixth of the possessions when Bledsoe was on the floor while giving up only 97.5 points per 100 possessions. The “Tribe Called Bench” unit spearheaded by Bledsoe was one of the league’s stingiest, but this season, the gnats off the bench have been replaced by the nots.
It’s early in the season, but among the 10 most commonly used lineups by the Clippers, five would qualify as the league’s worst defense. Four of those five units are led by a backcourt of Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford.
Coming into the season, Rivers knew he’d be without the kind of legitimate ball-pressuring point guard who presides as the head of the snake of his defensive system -- a Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley or Bledsoe. Rivers also knew that he wouldn’t have the services of a circa 2008 Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins, nor would the Clippers have a sinewy wing defender like James Posey or Tony Allen at their disposal.
At some point, Rivers will have to decide whether a team with championship aspirations can afford to give Mullens meaningful minutes. Rivers will also have to monitor Collison and Crawford -- or figure out who else on the roster can best mitigate their weaknesses. The Clippers should probably dig through the bargain bin to see if there’s a big man on the market who can give them 8 to 10 minutes a night of defensive relief, because the points are there. One such big man happens to reside about a 20-minute drive from their practice facility and has played in Rivers’ system before.
But for all the defensive shortcomings of the Clippers’ roster, the performance of those who play the big minutes has been at least average, and often very good. We saw it during the first quarter in Minneapolis on Wednesday night against a Wolves team that features two potent big men who force defenses into tricky big-to-big rotations. Griffin and Jordan were well-synced, while Paul capably kept Ricky Rubio pinned against the sideline for much of the night coming off pick-and-rolls. The wings performed admirably, if a little foul-happy. Redick chased Kevin Martin while Dudley was an ace in transition while he was on the floor.
An NBA team is a complex organism, and the sum of its overall record is the aggregate performances of different units and combinations. The Clippers’ No. 27 defensive ranking doesn’t lie, but it also requires some digging because context matters in basketball.