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Clippers’ Shaky Interior Defense Raises Questions

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

How good are the 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers?

The statistics speak highly of them. Chris Paul‘s recent absence hasn’t stopped them from maintaining the third-best offensive efficiency in the NBA, and they’ve boasted a top ten defense for most of the season. Both their point differential and SRS on Basketball-Reference place them fourth in the league. The Clippers also boast the league’s fourth best win-loss record, at 35-17.

But embedded within these shiny statistical marks lies fools gold.

Last year, the Clippers had a highly successful regular season, winning a franchise-best 56 games. In the playoffs they got stuck in a rut for the second consecutive year, and with people around the organization demanding better results, Vinny Del Negro was relieved of his duties. Enter Doc Rivers, accompanied by a great offensive mind in Alvin Gentry – a duo who inspired much hope about seeing the organization reach the next level.

Under this new coaching staff, the Clippers have re-calibrated their approach on both sides of the ball, and they play a smarter, more tactically sound game. Doc has instilled faith in his players, and they’ve grown in the process. Rivers, however, has been unable to erase the fundamental flaw that has existed throughout the years — poor interior defense.

TeamRankings.com states that the Clippers give up 44.2 points in the paint per game, which is good for 7th worst in the league. Not enough to cause concern?

Consider that in this season which has just passed the halfway point, the Clippers are now responsible for the following:

This all went down with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan bearing primary responsibility for interior defense. So how have these opposing big men scored with such ease? Rim protection statistics suggest that Clippers’ poor shot contesting — a decent chunk of big man defense — is contributing to the issue. Courtesy of Seth Partnow’s manipulation of SportVU data at Where Offense Happens, we find that DeAndre Jordan allows 51.5% at the rim (rank 84 of 135), and contests 44.3% of available shots (average of 42.1% for centers); Blake Griffin allows 51.9% at the rim (rank 88 of 135), and contests just 26.5% of shots (average of 32.4% for power forwards). In other words, Jordan contests a few shots more than average; Griffin considerably less than average, and the quality of contesting by both guys is poor.

There’s plenty of other evidence of the Clippers’ bigs’ defensive struggles. The league’s best big men this year — an arbitrary label of sorts, but a group inspired by marks in PER and WS/48 — tend to excel at scoring versus the Clippers. Versus an average team, these big men average 19.3 points on 56.2 TS% in 33.4 minutes of play. Versus the Clippers, they score more often and do so at a higher rate, with a 21.9 point, 58.4 TS% average:

vs lac avg

But we don’t have to focus on merely point allowance and shooting efficiency, as that isn’t everything that defense entails. Is it that Jordan and Griffin are working to disallow passes, snatch rebounds, or force turnovers at the expense of a couple points? 82games.com‘s Opponent Production by Position (PER) illustrates that such is probably not the case:

PER allow

Keep in mind that the Clippers are 10th in overall defensive efficiency. Yet 18 teams hold bigs to a lower combined PER (power forward and center) than the Clippers; most of the other 11 teams comprise the league’s worst defenses. We can also see in the above chart that the Clippers allow opposing centers to produce the 4th highest PER in the league.

As a collective duo, Griffin and Jordan do in fact possess highly desirable traits as defenders — they are the highest jumping PF-C duo in the NBA, and are stronger than most; Jordan is exceptionally long, and Blake is highly mobile. Though their effort will still waver, their energy output has improved noticeably this season — you’ll see quicker rotations, harder hedges on the pick-and-roll and better overall involvement. But despite any desirable traits and improvements, this defensive duo lacks defensive IQ (Jordan especially). They don’t have a great “feel” for that side of the ball. It’s the little things that get Jordan and Griffin tripped up — knowing when to hedge, and when to hang back. When to commit to a ball-handler. How to properly read and react to movements in a timely fashion. Where to watch so that screens and cuts don’t catch them off-guard. Examples of these troubles were visible in their recent loss to Denver, and were documented in previous High-Low episodes:

On the surface, this team’s overall defense is doing okay for itself. The current Clippers may very well be the best in franchise history, and their offensive game looks to be better suited for the playoffs come April. But the playoffs are also a time when opponents key in on defenses and exploit their weaknesses. In the past when DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin were asked to get stops, they were unable — Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tim Duncan had their way and the Clippers’ interior defense was dissected by opposing wing players.

Judging from the Clippers’ play this season, it’s certainly hard to envision a different result.

  • Andrew Johnson

    Just looked at opponent fast break points, the Clippers allow the second least in the NBA. Since fast break points are well correlated with points in the paint, that’s even more damning of the Clip’s interior half court defense..

    • KOTC

      that’s interesting, andrew. all signs point.

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