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Monday, October 28, 2013
What have we learned so far?

By Jovan Buha


The Los Angeles Clippers finished the preseason 5-3, the same record as last year. Head coach Doc Rivers heavily experimented with his lineups and rotation, and several players shuffled in and out of the lineup because of injury or rest, so it’s difficult to say just how well the Clippers played in that eight-game span.


“It’s tough to evaluate,” Rivers said. “Preseasons are so difficult to evaluate. I like where we are in some areas and we’re behind in some areas. We’re behind offensively . . . defensively we’re ahead of schedule and that’s unusual. Usually it’s the exact opposite.”


The full roster has yet to play together, but Rivers expects he’ll have everyone available on opening night against the Lakers. So, what did we learn about the 2013-14 Clippers during the preseason?


Here are 10 takeaways:

1. DeAndre Jordan is thriving under Rivers’ guidance.


For the second straight year, DeAndre Jordan’s development has been the buzz of the preseason. Last season, it was his burgeoning post game. This season, it’s been his defensive maturation under Rivers.


While it’s easy to get carried away with Jordan’s gaudy block numbers (3.4 per game), his biggest improvement has been his consistency. He’s making the proper reads and rotations, vocally quarterbacking the back line of the defense, and has cut down on his bad habit of jumping at shot fakes.


Jordan has hinted at his full potential before, but never this frequently. He’s finally beginning to resemble the game-changing defensive piece the Clippers heavily invested in two summers ago, and his continued progression will go a long way toward determining whether L.A. can play defense at a championship level.

2. The Clippers have bought into Rivers’ defensive system.


Ever since his introductory press conference, Rivers’ primary goal has been implementing his defensive system. Jordan is undoubtedly the most important piece, but the rest of the team, including Blake Griffin, has had to buy into the message as well.


“I think a reason we are [ahead of schedule defensively] is because D.J. and Blake have bought in,” Rivers said. “When you get your 4 and your 5 to buy in, pretty much everybody follows.”


The starters seem to have picked up the foundation of Rivers’ system. The second unit has struggled with defending the pick-and-roll and helping when necessary, but Rivers said he’ll almost always have one or two starters on the floor with the bench, which should help minimize the damage.


After starting the preseason strong, the Clippers’ defensive effort tapered off in their final two games against the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings. Rivers isn’t concerned, however, and just chalked it up to the team losing focus in anticipation for the start of the regular season.

3. Despite their defensive improvements, the Clippers are still going to struggle on the glass.


Even if the Clippers’ new defensive schemes somehow address their two biggest defensive issues from last season -- defending 3s and transition, according to Rivers -- L.A. still projects to be a below-average rebounding team, which could be a major problem.


The Clippers were outrebounded in six of their eight preseason games, including a rebounding difference of eight or more rebounds on five occasions. Overall, their opponents outrebounded them by 71 rebounds, good for a 8.8-rebound deficit per game (they averaged just 39.3 rebounds per game, compared to 48.1 for their opponents).

4. The Alvin Gentry-led offense features more movement and screening.


Despite their impressive mark as the fourth-most efficient offense last season, the Clippers’ offense was rather basic and predictable. They ran a lot of simple pick-and-roll sets and isolation plays, and the team’s off-ball movement became stagnant whenever Paul, Griffin or Jamal Crawford couldn’t find a shot.


In the preseason, however, the Clippers have often incorporated a handful of subtleties that last season’s playbook lacked: double-screens at the top of the key, drag screens (an improvisational screen in transition) and cross-screens that create mid-range jumpers for curling wing players or dunks and layups for diving big men, to name a few.


Essentially, the players are in constant motion; they’re never standing still. It sounds simple, but it’s a level of nuance that was missing last season.

5. The newfound spacing will allow Chris Paul more freedom to attack and score.


Chris Paul’s 40-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets two weeks ago was one of his most aggressive performances as a Clipper. Coming off a series of drag screens and high pick-and-rolls, Paul forced his way to the middle of the floor, where he could either shoot, pass or drive. The Nuggets had no way to stop him and it showed in the half-dozen open mid-range jumpers Paul created.


That has happened all preseason. It’s almost impossible to help off of elite shooters (J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley) and finishers (Griffin and Jordan), so Paul is bound to have more one-on-one opportunities, which spells trouble for opposing defenses. Add in an uptick in minutes and Paul should post his best individual offensive season in L.A. yet.

6. Blake Griffin has adjusted well to his new offensive role.


At media day, Rivers and Griffin both expressed optimism about his new role: more facing up and attacking defenses off the dribble, and less posting up and playing with his back to the basket.


Griffin now plays at the elbow and on the perimeter more, which has allowed him to use his athleticism to penetrate and either drive and score, kick out to open 3-point shooters or throw a lob to Jordan. He’s also setting a lot more screens, which will naturally create opportunities to slip the defense or roll to the rim. His shot looks refined, too, and he has had little hesitation taking it.


Though Griffin hasn’t had as many dunks or highlight-reel plays as we’re accustomed to, his new placement on the floor helps free up the paint with Jordan already down there and Paul needing room to probe.

7. The Clippers eventually need to address their backup big men issue.


The Clippers’ most glaring deficiency has been their backup big men. Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison and Ryan Hollins all have significant weaknesses -- mainly on defense and the defensive glass -- that would likely prevent them from playing on another contender. With limited means to find an upgrade, the Clippers are stuck with their current rotation.


One potential solution is to simply play more small ball with Matt Barnes or Dudley at power forward. Another option is finding a veteran big man via free agency at the midway point of the season or, potentially, through a trade. Either way, this is the Clippers’ most pressing issue, and one they’ll certainly need to address.

8. The Darren Collison signing is a steal.


Collison is overqualified to play as a backup point guard for 15 to 20 minutes a night. He’s rededicated himself to playing to his strengths -- using his speed to attack the rim and get out in transition -- and limiting his weaknesses (playing one-on-one and taking contested jumpers). No one in the league is faster with the ball in their hands, which allows Collison to ignite a one-man fastbreak anytime a defense isn’t set.


He gambles for steals too much defensively and has been blown by a few times, but his stellar offensive production (16.4 points and 5.4 assists on 51.4 percent shooting) made up for any deficiencies on that end.

9. Jamal Crawford’s role will be affected most by the newcomers.


With Redick, Dudley and Barnes firmly entrenched in the wing rotation as two-way contributors and Collison emerging as a capable scorer, Crawford’s playing time and touches are likely going to decrease. His role in the offense already looks much different, as the Clippers have used Collison as the primary second unit playmaker and ran Crawford off of screens.


Rivers has traditionally favored defensive-minded wings, and that’s clearly not Crawford’s strength. Unless he’s having an unconscious shooting night, it’s difficult to see how he’ll replicate last season’s averages of 29.3 minutes and 16.5 points per game.

10. The Clippers’ small-ball lineup will be effective.


The Clippers weren’t able to play a lot of small ball with Barnes out for all but one preseason game, but they had a solid plus-minus in the two games they used either Dudley or Barnes at power forward (they outscored the Suns 27-16 in nine minute span with Dudley at the 4).


Rivers stated that he won’t use Paul and Collison together in the backcourt, or move a shooting guard up to small forward. Instead, he wants Paul at point guard, Redick or Crawford at shooting guard, Barnes and Dudley at the forward spots, and Griffin or Jordan at center. Dudley, who previously played for assistant coach Alvin Gentry, believes the ability to play small-ball effectively will be a considerable advantage for the Clippers.


“Defensively, you’re a lot more active,” Dudley said. “You can switch a lot of ball screens. It adds another shooter on the floor. … It puts a lot of pressure of defenses. As you see Miami last year and how they had [Shane] Battier on the floor. Teams are starting to go with that, especially when you have a good creator [like Chris Paul] and a good roller [like Blake Griffin].”

Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com.