TrueHoop: DeAndre Jordan
LOS ANGELES -- At some point, the NBA needs to care enough about its product to eliminate the loophole in the rules that allows games to degenerate into nine players standing around watching the league's worst free-throw shooters take foul shots, while draining the sport of all its athleticism, skill and entertainment value.
That's the only thing to take away from the Los Angeles Clippers' 118-105 victory over the Toronto Raptors. Well, you could also take away that Blake Griffin has gotten really good at basketball, but that should have been evident before tonight.
Jordan wound up taking 16 free throws in the quarter, making eight. The third period wound up taking 41 minutes to play, thanks to the constant stops to shoot free throws. When it ended, with Clippers coach Doc Rivers substituting for Jordan with 2:48 remaining in the quarter, the Clippers still led by 16 points.
"It changed the rhythm of the game, I will say that," Rivers said. "Because we had a great pace and we never got back to that."
Indeed, the Raptors quickly sliced the lead to nine points once Jordan left and normal basketball resumed. They had "junked the game up," as Jamal Crawford put it, but they still fared better by trying on defense, instead of allowing so many opportunities for Jordan to score.
Give even the worst free-throw shooters enough opportunities and they'll make some. The stops in play will also give the defense a chance to get set, thus making it harder for the team that's fouling to come back.
Speaking of defense, isn't that just as much a fundamental element of the game as making free throws? So spare the talk that better free-throw shooting would eliminate this. Better defense would do the job as well. (The Detroit Pistons and their ferocious defense won a championship in 2004 without resorting to gimmick fouls against O'Neal).
There are simple ways to eliminate this. Heck, the NBA already employs a deterrent in the final two minutes of games -- fouls away from the ball result in two shots plus possession. Put that rule in effect for all 48 minutes and watch the fun return.
Fouling a man without the ball is like walking someone who's sitting in the dugout.
- J.A. Adande
"I don't know where to go on it," Rivers said.
"Maybe go to three [free throws] to make two? I don't like that."
I'm not crazy about that either, but it's better than what we see teams try to do against the likes of Jordan and Dwight Howard.
Rivers compared intentional fouls to intentional walks in baseball. But intentional walks -- with four pitches and take your base -- don't drag games out as long as fouls do. And at least walks are a deterrent against someone who poses an actual threat, in the batter's box. Fouling a man without the ball is like walking someone who's sitting in the dugout.
You won't find anyone who enjoys this stain on basketball. Not the coaches who employ it, nor the players who execute it, nor the fans who watch it. What about the networks that broadcast it, and would like to have games fit into a 2 1/2 hour window and move onto the next program? The NBA should certainly take the high-paying broadcast partners into account.
Jordan tried to put a positive spin on it.
"If I'm going to go up there and practice my free throws, then that's fine too," Jordan said.
As if that's why people pay to watch NBA basketball.
• The Los Angeles Clippers don’t subscribe to the idea of moral victories, at least not vocally, but the vibe around the team after the 116-112 loss to Miami Heat was comparatively rosy for a team that lost on its home floor and didn’t have one of the four best records in the Western Conference for the first time in well over a month. The Clippers weren’t happy about the turnovers and the defense, but they’d wanted a tempo game against Miami and they’d accomplished that. They wanted to keep the ball moving against Miami’s pressure in the half court, and they nailed that task as well.
• When Chris Paul suffered an AC separation of his right shoulder, he said emphatically that he didn’t believe in silver linings. Serious injuries derail momentum and disrupt the season -- for player and team. So to honor CP, let’s call what the Clippers are seeing from Blake Griffin over the past month an unintended consequence rather than a silver lining. On Wednesday, 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, and as if that’s not a full demonstration of his dominance, consider this: 52 of the Clippers’ 98 possessions ended in a Blake Griffin field goal attempt, a Blake Griffin field goal attempt that resulted in a pair of fouls shots, a Blake Griffin assist or a Blake Griffin turnover.
• LeBron James turned in another “1-through-5” game, guarding every position on the floor for Miami. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron became an equal opportunity defender with the Heat, but we can look at a Sunday night in January 2011 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The Heat spent much of the game bogged down in the half court, at which point Erik Spoelstra unleased an early incarnation of Heat small ball. Miami went gangbusters as James found himself covering 7-footer Marcus Camby. Wednesday night, James matched up with DeAndre Jordan and Griffin for stretches and did his usual work on his perimeter counterparts. James loves to roam when his assignment is a secondary or forgotten option of the offense -- and Jordan snuck underneath a couple of times on LeBron -- but the multi-tasking was impressive as always.
• Only LeBron can avenge a technical foul call that clearly irritated him and set him off into a flurry of rage that materialized in … assists and facilitation. On the possession following the tech, LeBron pounded the ball upcourt and was met by Griffin at the 3-point arc. James then performed what might have been a pointed imitation of Griffin’s elaborate between-the-legs, eat-your-heart-out-Anthony Mason shtick. LeBron then orchestrated the prettiest half-court set of the night. In a five-second span, James dished the ball off to Ray Allen, moved into a screen for Allen, caught the pass from Allen while rolling hard to the rim, then stopped short to lob an alley-oop to Chris Andersen. One hockey assist and another basketball assist followed on the subsequent possession as the Heat capped a 6-0 run to build their lead back to 17 points.
• Griffin drew the assignment to guard James to start the game -- and for much of the finish while the Heat were still small. [We discussed the decision] this morning before shootaround,” Griffin said. “It was actually T-Lue, Tyronn Lue. I guarded him a couple of times when we played them in Miami.” Griffin did an adequate job as roadblock, and James spent most of the possessions opposite Griffin setting up Wade on some pretty cuts, and moving the ball to the weakside, which the Clippers routinely vacated or merely forgot about.
• Doc Rivers spoke pregame about the miracle of Allen’s shotmaking. Four hours later, he experienced it firsthand when Allen nailed the dagger as the third option on a play designed as a single-double for Mario Chalmers, with a contingency pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When nothing materialized off either action, Wade swung the ball to Allen, whose 3-pointer gave the Heat a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. “It was a little bit of a broken play,” Spoelstra said. “We had been running a little bit of an action to try to get some different matchups to take advantage of the switches. [The Clippers] switched, and Dwyane [Wade] was able to drive. Because they had switched and handed off so many things, sometimes defensively you lose sight of guys on the weak side, and that’s what happened.”
• Neither the Clippers nor the Heat did much to stop the other in the half court. Miami’s aggressive schemes left them vulnerable to weakside actions, cuts and duck-ins. The Heat were late to rotate when they trapped up top, and when they did, they’d end up with Mario Chalmers crashing on Griffin in the lane -- generally a bad idea for the guy who isn’t Griffin. The Clippers, meanwhile, “lost guys” all night in the words of Rivers. They switched everything for Griffin and the guards appeared confused as their counterparts breezed around screens. It was ugly on both ends defensively.
Of course, some of the talk is pure gamesmanship. While dribbling upcourt past the visitors’ bench, Paul has been known to tell an opposing coach that he’s already sniffed out the staff’s game strategy. And nobody works game officials like Paul, who can litigate a call like Clarence Darrow.
He directs almost all the talk at people, which makes sense because it is really just interpersonal communication. That's also what made it a little jarring when Paul yelled not at a person, but at the cosmos when he separated his shoulder in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ win at Dallas last Friday. He was mad at the world. Confining him to the sideline when there’s work to be done? Absurd.
With Paul in street clothes, the Clippers have to hold their ground in a conference of juggernauts without their conductor, which means someone has to take over the controls. The team is only three games into Paul’s three-to-five-week stint on the shelf, but the Clippers’ two leading big men, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, appear ready. Combined, they don’t project the vocal intensity of Paul, but what they lack in volume they can make up in expression, verbal or otherwise.
Paul’s greatest asset is his ability to assert control, and over the past couple of games, Griffin has assumed the role. He’s now the guy pressuring the defense, with and without the ball. Even when the Boston Celtics were denying entries to Griffin in the second quarter of a tight game Wednesday night, they were expending a lot of energy and resources doing it. Griffin ultimately found more than 20 quality shots and was the primary playmaker in another 15 or so. The Clippers scored a ton of points on these possessions, and Griffin preoccupied the C’s off the ball.
With Paul out, Griffin becomes the Clippers’ best playmaker, and the offense can’t move the ball without his help. Griffin has always been a capable and willing passer, but over the past week he’s taken on this responsibility as a personal imperative. When perched at the high post, Griffin surveys. He watches the pieces move, identifies where his shooters are and where he can lead them. In the Clippers’ two recent victories, he logged 14 assists in 65 minutes.
During the course of Wednesday’s win over Boston, various Celtics yapped at Griffin. In the second half, he took a charge from Jordan Crawford, which led to the pair getting tangled up. Crawford snarled at him. Griffin smiled wryly, then cooly dismissed him. Crawford played well Wednesday, but Griffin’s message was almost Paulian: Welcome to my game. Enjoy your time here.
While Griffin has taken charge on the offensive end, Jordan been assigned the critical role of back-line director and he’s embraced it. He talks on pick-and-rolls and ranks 12th in points yielded per possession among big men who’ve defended at least 100 such plays. When manning the interior or the weak side, he monitors ball, assignment and space simultaneously. In past seasons he was good for maybe two of the three.
The Clippers’ rim defense still needs work (27th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 26th in field goals surrendered in the restricted area), but the overall scheme is beginning to work; the Clippers have the NBA’s fifth-most efficient defense since Dec. 1.
More than anything, there’s an entirely different aura around him this season. Jordan has always been among the league’s more affable, good-natured guys, yet a little goofy -- totally harmless and often charming, but gravitas it wasn’t. He was sensitive to bad press, even if it was petty. He’d sometimes get down on himself, and former coach Vinny Del Negro did no favors for his confidence.
But people in their mid-20s grow up, and as we enter 2014, Jordan has blossomed. He’s the same likable guy, but you can see hints of that gravitas. He’s a more buttoned-up presence on the court, where his movements are more precise and his voice is louder. Among players averaging greater than 20 minutes per game, Jordan ranks second in total rebounding rate and fifth in block rate. “He’s playing his ass off,” said one general manager recently.
Last season, the Clippers would often open a game by feeding Jordan on the low block. The intent was to coax Jordan into playing defense. But that’s a decidedly non-Riversish tactic.
Coach Doc Rivers told Jordan up front that he’d have no entry in the playbook. The 7-footer would get his share of lobs in transition if he ran the floor and a handful of duck-ins and putbacks, but his number would be called in only rare instances. Jordan’s duty is singular: Anchor the Clippers by becoming one of the five best interior defenders in the NBA. Scoring isn't part of the job description because team basketball is about working each player’s strengths, and Jordan has some impressive ones.
“This strategy is more realistic,” Jordan said after Thursday’s practice. “There’s no sugarcoating or -- I’m not going to say ‘mind games,’ but [Rivers] just tells me what my role is. ... With Doc, my role is defense and that’s how I’m going to be supereffective on the floor.”
Jordan no longer looks over his shoulder to the bench worrying about seeing a hook. In 35 games this season, he’s logged 236 fourth-quarter minutes. He played every game in 2012-13, yet saw only 149 minutes in the fourth quarter -- and didn't see any action in the final frame of 52 games.
“Doc knows how to reach people,” Jordan says. “He’s good. [chuckles]. He’s goooood. And not like a sneaky good. He knows how to relate. He knows how to connect with all of us on a different level. He understands that there are so many personalities. There are egos on every team, and he knows how to control all of that. It’s honesty.”
Jordan describes Rivers as a guy who will call him out -- loudly -- but that will be the extent of the repercussion. Rivers will reiterate the task, tell Jordan he’s capable of crushing it, then give him a pat on the butt.
Rivers hasn’t solved every riddle, not as Clippers coach or as vice president of basketball operations. He’ll admit as much. Asked on Monday if he had a grasp yet on how Paul’s absence would affect the Clippers’ style of play, Rivers confessed, “I don’t know yet, honestly.” He explained that the Clippers’ offense was predicated on finding things only Paul could see.
One can imagine the reaction to Del Negro if he suggested he didn’t have a full sense of how the Clippers would operate offensively without his point guard. Somehow Rivers’ uncertainty inspires confidence, as if his sincerity alone could pull the Clippers through until Paul returns.
The Clippers are likely to lose a couple of games they would’ve won were Paul on the court, but the team seems to have enough confidence and accountability -- and a manageable schedule -- to withstand a slide. J.J. Redick will be back on the court soon, possibly Friday, an addition that will allow the Clippers to reignite the movement in the offense. Paul will still be missed, but it’s no longer quiet in his absence.
On his iPad, Griffin reviewed a catalog of defensive possessions from the game in Houston just hours before, a 107-94 Clippers win. Every two minutes or so, Griffin came across a snippet that either signaled progress or areas for improvement. He would pause the clip, rewind, then play it back for DeAndre Jordan, sometimes more than once. After the viewing, they’d exchange thoughts about the play. Were the two big men in the right spot as the play materialized? Was the timing of their rotation precise? And if not, was it because someone was late to anticipate the action, or was the mistake a result of bad communication, or was it just a busted play?
It’s not as if Griffin has never watched film on a team flight or bus ride, but studying occupies a more prominent place in the daily culture of the team this season. A botched defensive possession is now something that warrants the interruption of a card game for a quick chat.
“This is something that’s evolved,” Griffin said. “And we take a lot of pride in that.”
Virtually everyone around the Clippers readily admits that on the process-result continuum, the Clippers -- and Griffin, individually -- still sit squarely in the beginning of the process phase. When Doc Rivers’ Celtics assembled the Big Three in 2007, the defense jelled on opening night and never faltered. By New Year's, the Celtics had developed a distinct defensive choreography that would soon be appropriated by a third of the league.
The Clippers have experienced moments of perfection at their training facility, a glimpse of how the project is going to look when it comes to fruition.
“We do it sometimes in practice, and we get it exactly where we want it,” Griffin said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
But right now, the 2013-14 Clippers aren't the 2007-08 Celtics. This season's Clippers rank 28th in defensive efficiency, though the starting lineup is giving up only 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them 10th overall in the league.
Whether because he’s less rangy, less obsessive or a lot younger than Kevin Garnett (who was in his 13th season when he arrived in Boston), Griffin is simply going to need more time to master the system, and by many accounts the process is moving along. He's the power forward in that defensively sturdy starting lineup. Overall, the team is 14 points better defensively with him on the floor. While some of that might be an indictment on Byron Mullens or the team’s small-ball D when Griffin is on the bench, it isn't just that.
On the flip side, opponents are shooting 53.7 percent at the rim when Griffin is within five feet of the goal and within five feet of the player shooting the ball. The figure for the median starting big man is right about 50 percent. When he’s on the floor, players shoot 71 percent in the restricted area, a high total for a starting big man.
The full laugh track was in effect as Griffin made light of his reputation as a non-defender at the press conference after Monday night’s win over Minnesota. At the same time, the perception bothers Griffin, most notably because it’s often accompanied with the suggestion that he’s not fully vested in the craft of defense, or isn't willing to do the grunt work to become an elite defender. Preparation is a point of pride for Griffin. His workout schedule, nutrition, the amount of time he spends with shooting coach Bob Thate -- all of it is in service of doing this pro basketball thing the right way. So Griffin offers another theory.
"Honestly, I didn't know a lot of things I should’ve known during my first three years,” Griffin said. “I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.”
I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.
-- Blake Griffin
The aforementioned “beautiful thing” Griffin experienced in practice is the fluid, almost balletic way Rivers’ Tom Thibodeau-influenced, strong-side pressure defense appears when it’s firing on all cylinders. Most NBA defenses look to avoid rotations -- think San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana to a great extent -- because many open looks in the half court are the result of botched rotations.
In contrast, Rivers’ defense aims to exert more pressure on the strong side of the court, and is willing to absorb rotations to do it. This can be risky because it introduces another layer of decision-making into the defensive process. Applying pressure requires a guy to leave his primary assignment to overload, which means someone has to account for his man.
“If we overload one side and the ball gets swung, someone has to take off running,” Griffin said. “Then somebody else has to be there to contest the shot. A team might get a shot, but it’s hurried and they don’t get the shot they want. That’s what we’re going for.”
Being a help defender represents a far greater slice of a player’s overall responsibilities under Rivers. It’s a different kind of scheme for Griffin, but the vibe around the team is entirely different this season. There’s a sense that problems can be solved, which has produced an interesting combination of concern and optimism, with a strong leaning toward the latter.
“Almost everything feels completely different,” Griffin said. “Obviously it’s the same facility, the same Staples Center, the same jerseys. But the atmosphere in practice, walking into the arena, it’s way different.”
Griffin constantly returns to the idea of learning and learnedness. Idle conversations are much more likely to be shop talk, and even though the topics Rivers hits aren't necessarily new, the themes have more staying power and feel like part of a larger creed.
“It’s kind of a weird thing because [Rivers] is saying things I, most of the time, already know,” Griffin said. “But he puts it in a way where I completely, 100 percent understand -- and it sticks with you.”
One of the earliest conversations Griffin had with Rivers was about his offensive portfolio. Griffin’s size and speed are a matchup nightmare. He’s faster than most opposing power forwards, but can back down stretchy, new-era 4s. Give him space at mid-range and he’s increasingly comfortable taking that jumper. Soon after taking the job in Los Angeles, Rivers spoke to Griffin about being more selective with his game, specifically about identifying the nature of the mismatch.
“That was one of the first things [Rivers] talked to me about when he first got the job,” Griffin said. “I was in the facility one day working out and he said, 'I want you to keep shooting, and when you’re in the post, keep working on your post moves. But I want you to face guys up. I don’t think there are many guys who can guard you when you face up.'"
Last season, 35 percent of Griffin’s offensive possessions were classified as post-ups by Synergy. This season, that’s dropped to 23 percent. In place of those times when Griffin called out for the ball on the block are spot-up opportunities, middle pick-and-rolls and isolation sets in which Griffin hops on an island against a bulkier big man and does his thing.
"That’s something I’m trying to mix in a lot," Griffin said. "At the same time, it depends game to game. Like against the Rockets, when Dwight [Howard] or Omer Asik is on me, I’m going to face up. But when they put Omri Casspi on me, I’m going to try to back him down. It’s about learning to truly use the mismatches.”
The increased selectivity is bearing out in Griffin’s shooting numbers from the floor. His effective field goal percentage of 57.9 percent far exceeds his career best of 55 percent two seasons ago. His assist numbers are down a bit, but he’s also encountering fewer double-teams because J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley merit the defense’s attention behind the arc. The shooting wings have contributed to a slight drop in Griffin’s usage rate this season, but rebounding numbers are up while turnovers are down.
Tensions have existed in Griffin’s game and persona since he arrived in the league: force and finesse, irony and earnestness, monastic discipline off the floor versus showmanship on it. Imagining what Blake Griffin: The Final Product will look like is a fascinating exercise, one reason his evolution as a player never seems to be progressing quickly enough for many. It’s a subtle, slow reveal for an athlete who so often seems larger than life.
“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said last season after slicing up Chicago’s vaunted defense. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake [Griffin], and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”
For years, this is how Paul has defined his job. He’s the prototypical old-school point guard, a professional paid to distribute the basketball after leveraging the defense, something he does better than any point guard in the league.
Playing this way has always been a point of pride for Paul. It conveys savvy, selflessness -- and, to some extent, self-regard. Paul enjoys dictating the terms of the action for the other nine guys on the floor. He also likes that the defense has to respect this condition of the game. So it’s selfless, but it's also alpha.
Over the past several seasons, the league has gradually moved away from Paul's job description for those manning the 1. Chris Paul is a pure point guard. Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are scorers who happen to play the point, and their shoot-first style has radically influenced the NBA game -- and also helped their teams win a ton of games. Already you hear talking points from Orlando that the Magic have found their Westbrook in the dynamic Victor Oladipo.
Through the first five games of the Clippers’ season, Paul has defied his own doctrine and incorporated a little of that shoot-first mentality. His goal hasn’t been to make the other team think he’s trying to score. It's been to score.
This season, Paul is averaging 24.8 points per game (25.1 points per 36 minutes, good for fifth in the NBA). Per 36 minutes, he’s taking 3.8 more shots this season than last season and getting to the line significantly more (5.0 free throw attempts per game in 2012-13 versus 8.3 this season).
The book on Paul is that there’s always been a tension in his game between asserting himself as a scorer and maintaining his role as the pure distributor. The case for the latter has been predicated on the idea that if he were to look for his shot as a scorer, he’d be shelving his most rarefied skill as the commander of each possession, the point guard who can get a shot for anyone -- and people should work their strengths.
Paul’s performance in the early going suggests that the scorer-facilitator debate has always been a false choice. His usage rate so far this season is a career-high 29.2, and his assist rate of 35.8 is just a scant below last season (36.9), but considerably higher than his first season with the Clippers (32.1).
What’s going on? How can Paul up his shot attempts and individual production as a scorer without diminishing his role as the team’s facilitator?
Paul has come to realize the idea that the keeper of the ball, if he can shoot, is often the guy most equipped to get a quality look at the basket. And Paul can shoot. Last season, he drained greater than 48 percent of guarded and unguarded jump shots, which put him in the 92nd percentile in the league. This season, his effective field goal percentage from 10 feet and beyond is 54.5 percent. In his preferred range of 15 to 19 feet, he’s posting a sizzling shooting percentage of 57.9 percent. Paul is one of the relatively few players in the league for whom an open 15-foot jumper with no risk of a turnover is a smart bet.
This is high-percentage basketball for the Clippers in the half court, something Paul has embraced. Two-thirds of those 15-19-footers have been uncontested, because Paul can uncannily create a layer of space around him by bursting past or stepping back off a high pick -- and those picks from DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are sturdier this season. Truth is, Paul can create separation between himself and his defender out of nothing in traffic.
Naturally, Paul quickly turns any question about his heightened aggressiveness in looking for his shot into something else. After dropping 42 points on Golden State last week, he acknowledged that he looked for his shot off ball screens, then immediately moved into a talking point about how his aggressiveness truly materialized on the defensive end.
So far as maintaining his assist rate, there are a few factors at work. Paul’s starting small forward, Jared Dudley, doesn’t need to be fed the way Caron Butler did, and Butler frequently worked in isolation. More than half of Dudley’s makes have been assisted by Paul. Last season, only 39.7 percent of Butler’s were. The same pattern holds true for J.J. Redick, whose field goals have been assisted by Paul 63.3 percent of the time. In contrast, last season’s platoon of starting shooting guards -- Willie Green and Chauncey Billups -- had only 42.9 percent of their successful field goals assisted by Paul. Meanwhile, Griffin is making more shots, which helps Paul’s cause.
Paul’s willingness to score and his ability to deliver the ball where his teammates like it have never been mutually exclusive. By seizing this truth, the Clippers have never been more prolific offensively -- and Paul's never been a more complete player.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Somewhere below, a fan in a purple Tracy McGrady Raps jersey sways to the sounds of Everclear.
Las Vegas can be a disorienting place. Natural light is strictly forbidden in all the buildings, so any concept of time ceases to exist. Reality is questioned. Things get weird.
In that sense, summer league functions sort of like the totems used in the movie “Inception” -- you know you can only see these things in one place, and one place alone. This is how you know you’re at summer league.
Cargo shorts for general managers and capri pants for 7-footers
The leading executive of your favorite team typically wears expensive Italian suits to games and looks like a million bucks. But at summer league? Cargo shorts -- all day, every day. Some ride a little higher up the thigh than others, but everyone appreciates their practicality all the same.
In case you need help spotting the NBA players in attendance, fashion choices like DeAndre Jordan’s lime green capri pants are here to be your North Star.
Adventurous fast breaks
Outlet passes have about the same odds of success as the casinos. A summer league staple is the ambitious lead pass that sends a player sprinting at full speed into media row, sending diet cokes flying as terrified reporters clutch their laptops.
In the case of a successful deep pass, things get even more entertaining. Most of the guards in Vegas forget about the finish itself and focus more on flying into their defender and drawing whatever contact they can. It’s as if both the offense and defense embrace the “no easy layups” philosophy.
Blackjack with your favorite rookie
Making the wrong “hit” or “stay” at the blackjack table can draw the ire of your tablemates, but the fear of retribution grows exponentially when the person to your left is a 6-foot-10 scowling monster of an athlete.
It’s better to stick to the craps table, where you’ll see first-round draft picks take off their shoes (as if they were high heels, or something) and place them directly on the table for all to behold.
Yup, they’re still way too close to the action on the baseline. We have the technology, people. Move it back.
If you can imagine your closet from 2004 throwing up, that’s what the crowd at summer league looks like. The best throwback jerseys seen so far this year, ranked from why do you have that? to how did you get that?!:
Mike Bibby, Grizzlies; Bobby Jackson, Kings; Corey Maggette, Clippers; Rory Sparrow, Lakers; Jason Williams, Kings; Tracy McGrady, Raptors; Arvydas Sabonis, Blazers, and the best of them all, a Dennis Rodman jersey ... from when he was with the Lakers! What a glorious 23 games those were.
Also, a retroactive shout-out to Wally Szczerbiak for wearing a Wally Szczerbiak jersey at last year's summer league.
Players of Unusual Size inhabit the desert every July. The favorite from this year’s crop? Hawks 7-foot-3, 271 pound center Boban Marjanovic. Analysis of the giant big man on press row was as thorough as it gets, “I think his ears are as big as my face.”
Revived pop music
Both arenas played some personal favorites brought back from the dead, or possibly from someone’s expansive “Now That’s What I Call Music!" collection: Everclear’s “I Will Buy You A New Life”, Usher’s “Caught Up” and Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy With It”
No instant replays
Unless you’re a high school basketball aficionado, there’s a pretty good chance you haven’t caught a live game without the benefits (and perils) of instant replay. Missing a huge block or a big time dunk can kind of stink, but the constant pace of the game and the lack of stoppages are a sight for sore eyes.
In the Orlando Pro Summer league, TrueHoop Network member Jordan White saw a player switch teams to help the opponent amass the requisite amount of players needed to start the game. He also saw a player wear a jersey with a name that was not his, and best of all, the use of duct tape to alter a jersey.
That hasn’t quite happened yet in Las Vegas, but you will occasionally see players switch teams -- or disappear altogether. Jonny Flynn was on the Clippers roster for a game, played third-string point guard for four minutes and then disappeared into the night to save some face.
Warren LeGarie logging miles
The Sport VU Tracking system has not yet found its way to summer league, but a test run with Warren LeGarie might reveal some Ray Allen-type movement around the arena. LeGarie is the founding father of Las Vegas Summer League, and he treats it just like he would an infant child. He’s everywhere at once, always moving, schmoozing and checking to make sure that everything is in line, that VIPs are taken care of, and that the event is running smoother than a baby’s bottom.
Legends stay legends
The mere mention of Anthony Randolph’s name evokes mental images of his 42-point performance. In Las Vegas, he is preserved in time as the 6-foot-11 dominant point forward, and nothing else.
Chance encounters with World Peace
At 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Metta World Peace and a group of friends took a hotel and casino tour courtesy of a hotel employee. A few hours later, word came out that he had signed with the New York Knicks. Tip your waiters, waitresses and concierge, Knicks fans.
A crippling fear of overtime
Overtime is usually dreaded by reporters because of deadlines and whatnot, but add the awaiting splendors of Las Vegas to that equation, and you have rows of media with fingers crossed at the end of games.
It hasn’t happened yet, but if a game isn’t decided after one overtime, summer league has sudden death basketball for the second overtime period -- first team to break the tie wins.
Creative trash talk
Since the rules are made up and the points don’t matter, guys have to get a little creative with their trash talk.
When one player asked an opponent on the bench in a sassy tone why he wasn’t playing, the player on the bench simply replied, “Because I’m too [expletive] good.”
Taking a limo to in-and-out burger
Because let’s be honest -- you would too.
Mayweather finding a way
What’s Floyd Mayweather doing on a Sunday afternoon? Catching some summer league action, obviously. Mayweather and some very large friends stuck around for a few hours to take in some hoops and, presumably, do some off-the-books gambling on the game -- which is simultaneously awesome and depressing, kind of like Las Vegas itself.
The Clippers scored, but for a segment of their fans, Bledsoe’s departure to Phoenix comes with a tinge of sadness. Bledsoe was a cult hero in Los Angeles and for hoop junkies everywhere. He elevated risk to an art form and was the most entertaining sideshow at Staples Center. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will always provide thrills, but we come to expect transcendence from superstars.
Bledsoe was another thing entirely -- a sinewy bundle of chaos whose whole game was predicated on the element of surprise. Already, Bledsoe is a top five on-ball perimeter defender, a one-man press who can slice a 24-second possession in half. He’s the most dangerous shot-blocking guard since Dwyane Wade, and with a few more reps could become one of the fastest end-to-end guards in the league with the ball.
Bledsoe isn’t without imperfections. Although he improved both his 3-point shot and turnover rates considerably last season, he’s still not a player you want to see rise and shoot off the bounce -- or even the catch most nights -- nor is he a born distributor. The ball pressure is nasty, but Bledsoe’s aggression can occasionally cost him defensively off the ball.
For Bledsoe’s cultists, these shortcomings were merely a byproduct of Bledsoe’s unruly style, collateral damage that could be easily tolerated. His trajectory was too promising, his game too infectious to be bothered all that much. Teammates named him “Mini LeBron,” and Chris Paul’s dad called him “Little Hercules.” He’s one of those head-and-heart players who appeals to both stat geeks and the aesthetes.
Bledsoe’s skill set has never conformed to classic standards, and he could never earn the complete trust of Vinny Del Negro, a coach with conventional definitions of what it means to be an NBA shooting guard. Bledsoe doesn’t space like a traditional 2, but he and Paul were wildly successful as a tandem last season, scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions while giving up 104.7.
This is why there remains a segment of Bledsoe devotees who believe that the team’s shooting-guard-of-the-future has been wearing a Clippers jersey since he was drafted No. 18 overall in the 2010 draft.
In the end, Bledsoe was set free. This is what he’s wanted for the past nine months and it's easy to understand why. When the Clippers and Paul consummated their future plans on Monday, it signaled Bledsoe’s inevitable goodbye.
By liberating Bledsoe, the Clippers land their starting shooting guard and small forward in one stroke. The Clippers ranked fourth in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, so it’s easy to overstate the problems, but spacing in the half court remained an issue. Center DeAndre Jordan has no range away from the hoop, while Griffin works best as an attacker, even as he has improved his midrange shot.
With Redick and Dudley, Paul has two proficient targets on a drive-and-kick. By extending the floor, Redick and Dudley give Griffin more room to operate down low and make life tougher for defenses that want to slough off Jordan. Dudley and Redick are solid system defenders and two players who invite accountability. Both want their minutes, but those calls aren't disruptive demands so much as expressions of confidence. Shooters can be like that.
The renovation isn’t cheap for the Clippers. The move places them up against a hard cap, with only a midlevel exception, a $1.6 million trade exception and minimum offers remaining in their quiver. But that’s the price of contention, and the Clippers are clearly serious.
For the Benevolent Order of Bledsoe in Los Angeles, the price is more psychic: They’ll never experience the magic of a full-time Paul-Bledsoe backcourt.
How could the Los Angeles Clippers possibly walk away from a negotiation that would’ve yielded them Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers for a relatively unproven young center, a couple of first-round draft picks and the relatively small burden of taking on one or two mid-level contracts?
That’s the question gnawing at some Clipper fans and many Clipper skeptics on Tuesday, but however ineffectual the organization appears on the surface for folding up their tent, the Clippers made a sound decision.
Two key points:
What’s the hurry?
The Celtics’ situation is in flux and they’ve signaled to the world that they’re ready to pursue the wise course of rebuilding. If they buy out Paul Pierce’s contract on or before June 30, where does that leave Garnett and Rivers? Neither is wild about the idea of being part of the reconstruction process without their comrade, and both would prefer they join forces with a team driving for a title, a team like the Los Angeles Clippers.
In other words, if the Clippers want to acquire Kevin Garnett for DeAndre Jordan, they can do so after July 1. The only complication there is the report that Garnett isn’t interested in playing for any coach other than Rivers, a primary reason this whole drama started.
That’s why if I’m the Clippers, I hold off on hiring a coach until after the Pierce situation is resolved. Apart from the Clippers, the only remaining coaching vacancies are Memphis, Philadelphia and Denver. There’s virtually no overlap between the Clippers’ short list and that of 76ers president of basketball operations and general manager Sam Hinkie. Memphis will likely hire current assistant Dave Joerger. At worst, the Clippers lose one of their top three choices (most likely Lionel Hollins or Brian Shaw) to Denver while they wait. In exchange, they maintain the possibility that Rivers could join them after July 1. Boston will have no more impetus to pay Rivers $7 million to coach a bubble team than they do now. Ditto for Garnett’s $18 million guaranteed, assuming KG would return to a Pierce-less Celtics team.
There’s some worry that the Clippers’ inability to strike a deal with Boston might prompt Chris Paul to look elsewhere, but the concern has been overblown. If the Celtics are truly moving into rebuilding mode, time is on the Clippers’ side. If the Celtics decide to fire up the wagon for another run, then so be it.
Was the deal worth it?
Few veterans in the league bring Garnett’s gravitas, pedigree and presence and it’s easy to be charmed by the prospect of Garnett’s taking Blake Griffin under his wing and teaching him the dark arts of defending the pick-and-roll and becoming a championship power forward.
But Garnett is 37 and isn’t good for more than 26-28 minutes per game going forward. As transformative as he is as a minister of culture, Garnett’s past performance isn’t a reliable indicator of what kind of production he’d give the Clippers next season -- and the season after if the team decided to pick up his $12 million option for 2014-15.
So far as the leadership, Garnett is regarded as one of the league’s best teammates and mentors, but the Clippers went down that path last offseason when they brought back Chauncey Billups, signed Grant Hill and loaded up on good-guy vets to add to the collection they already had. Veteran leadership wasn’t the problem when the Clippers lost four straight to Memphis in the first round.
If anything, the Clippers need to get younger and establish a sustainable core around Paul and Griffin. Truth be told, Jordan probably isn’t the best frontcourt counterpart to Griffin since both are most dangerous in the basket area. And although Garnett would offer the midrange stretch that would best complement Griffin and is still a very steady defender, is 2,000 minutes of Garnett the best the Clippers can do for Jordan, whose athleticism and talent have many admirers around the league?
We don’t know the answer to this question, but a team like the Clippers that desperately needs a couple of wings who can defend and shoot from distance has an obligation to listen to offers -- and they’re out there for Jordan, both in the form of talent and picks.
Rivers is one of the five best coaches in the game and clearly has the respect of NBA players. But there’s a reason teams don’t trade assets for coaches. Doc Rivers can’t guard Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, James Harden and Stephen Curry. A few front office execs who were asked about the idea of handing over a pair of first-round picks for the privilege of paying a coach $7 million per season found the proposition absurd. While there was almost unanimous respect for Rivers’ acumen, the transaction was seen more as a salary dump than anything else.
The notion that a pair of first-round draft picks is a paltry sum to pay for Garnett and Rivers is short-sighted. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, first-round picks have never been more valuable. They are the mother’s milk of the NBA trade market. With the exception of a few superstar max contacts, rookie-scale contracts represent the best values in the game. All across the league, there are young executives who know how to turn post-lottery picks into Chandler Parsons, Serge Ibaka and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
Teams value these picks and will offer the Clippers quality, on-court talent for them. A first-round pick is the kind of asset that could get a team to swallow the final year of Caron Butler’s contract, and could accompany Eric Bledsoe to get a top-line starter in exchange.
The Celtics also wanted the Clippers to take on additional payroll in the form of Jason Terry and/or Courtney Lee (this in addition to the $1.5 million that would’ve been added to the Clippers' salary number in a Jordan-for-Garnett swap). With only Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Jamal Crawford and Bledsoe locked in for next season, and Paul due a maximum salary, the Clippers need to preserve all their available exceptions. But adding Terry and/or Lee would’ve brought the Clippers precariously close to a place where they’d lose one or more of those slots, which are going to be vital in filling out their depleted roster.
It’s entirely possible the Clippers blew it big time by turning down an opportunity to sign a Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career and one of the most respected coaches in the game. Acquiring Garnett and Rivers would’ve made Paul ecstatic and endeared the team to the local media that have been pounding them in recent weeks.
But in forfeiting one option, the Clippers open themselves up to many others, including several that might actually address the team’s needs beyond 2014. In the meantime, Garnett and Rivers are still in Boston awaiting word on the direction of their team. If and when the Celtics decide to break up their current core, Garnett and/or Rivers will be looking for life rafts -- and the Clippers still have one.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesVinny Del Negro: When affability isn't enough.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost the most successful coach by winning percentage in the franchise’s history when they dismissed Vinny Del Negro, whose contract was due to expire June 30. Del Negro compiled a 128-102 record during his three seasons with the Clippers and for the better part of the past 14 months, had a strong case for a long-term extension, at least ostensibly. The Clippers beat the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, then finished with a club-record 56 wins this season. No locker room outside of Bexar County, Texas, is perfect, and there were certainly frictional elements in the Clippers’ camp, but the overall culture was decent.
Del Negro was confident in what he was building, and turned down a one-year extension from the team last October. Yet despite the regular-season success, Del Negro could never shake the perception that he lacked the tactical feel for the game required to become an NBA championship-level head coach. Del Negro’s biggest fans during his five-year career have been owners, Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago and Donald T. Sterling in Los Angeles. Basketball operations people have always been more skeptical of him.
Del Negro is charismatic away from the microphone and well-liked personally. He charmed Sterling at a dinner with the Clippers' brass at the Montage Beverly Hills in late June of 2010. The mood at the table was festive; Del Negro was a pleasure to be around and the spouses had a nice rapport. Del Negro exuded exactly what the Clippers felt they needed to fumigate the place after the final tumultuous seasons of the Mike Dunleavy era -- a happy warrior, both confident and communicative. Charm is infectious, but if it's a person's No. 1 personal attribute, it can also raise suspicions if not accompanied by success.
When Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, expectations soared far more quickly than either the Clippers or Del Negro anticipated. The bar was set at contender, and Del Negro would have to prove himself as not only a morale booster but as a coach who could design a plan that delivered.
Del Negro never claimed to be a tactician. He maintained that everyone in the league ran the same basic stuff. He summed up his philosophy best during the winter of 2012 when the Clippers were playing well. "I think it's important for guys to go out there and play off instinct instead of, 'Go here, go there,' or whatever," he said. "I like guys to play. I like guys to get a feel for what we're doing and how we're doing it and work off the instinct and play. I think guys enjoy the game that way a little bit better.”
Paul certainly appreciated his coach’s sentiment, as Del Negro happily ceded most of the play calling. It was also nice to have Del Negro go to bat for Paul’s personnel causes -- free-agent signings, potential trades and the like. But having never reached a conference finals eight years into a Hall of Fame career, even Paul realizes he needs a little help in the final five minutes of a basketball game.
Del Negro’s approval rating has privately been described by those in the locker room as running about 50-50. He had his loyalists, players like Matt Barnes who were grateful for Del Negro’s faith. There were also a few players who felt his strategic shortcomings were tolerable given his affable demeanor. For others, those flaws ran too deep. Then there were the detractors, guys who not only didn’t care to have their minutes reduced, but felt Del Negro was disingenuous in his management and inconsistent in his willingness to communicate. Ballplayers also don’t react kindly when they learn their head coaches advocated trading them midseason. That was one of the unintended consequences of Del Negro assuming a spot at the table as a member of the management team last summer.
Despite falling short in the first round and a desperate coaching performance in Game 6 of the first-round series loss to Memphis, Del Negro still looked as if he might survive. The Clippers aren’t an organization predisposed to spend huge money on a head coach, and as decision-makers took an early survey of the coaching pool, they didn’t find many candidates they considered a dramatic upgrade from Del Negro. For all his imperfections, Del Negro was a known quantity.
Still, the series loss to Memphis confirmed all the lingering doubts that Del Negro was a schematic lightweight. He got better this past season, but the growth trajectory wasn't steep enough, and fell off when it mattered most. Ultimately, the Clippers decided risk aversion carried its own risks. Opportunities are precarious in the NBA, and conservatism doesn’t have a strong track record. Better to explore possibility than embrace certainty.
The Clippers will now have to set a budget, one that will determine the direction of their search. Stan Van Gundy is the best available coach on the market, but he’d give the Clippers sticker shock, assuming he’s even interested. Sterling is currently in San Antonio, scouting Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, the hottest candidate on the coaching market. The Clippers could win the news conference with a Hollins hire, the man who outwitted them in the first round, and someone who’d likely meet Paul’s approval. But Hollins has coached his way into some serious money. Given the number of suitors for his services, he would figure to earn in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, and the Clippers won’t be a favorite in any bidding war. Alvin Gentry would bring the right temperament, along with whiteboard skills and, most importantly, a solid quality-price ratio for a coach with that experience.
Whoever lands the job will encounter a bar even higher than the one Del Negro failed to clear. The Clippers’ job might be desirable, but it’s fraught with pitfalls. The most treacherous of those used to be history. Now it’s expectations.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.
The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.
This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.
This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.
Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.
Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.
On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.
Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.
Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers: When very, very good might not be good enough?
When the Clippers were plowing through an undefeated December, there were a number of popular points in favor of calling them contenders. For a while, they were the only team in the league that had both a top-5 efficient offense and a top-5 efficient defense. The Clippers’ locker room was the happiest place on earth, with players’ sons trading a little trash talk with Blake Griffin and generally being endearing and hilarious. There were two well-defined five-man units, each thriving and learning each other’s tendencies. The team’s flaws were very manageable, and its combination of athleticism and confidence intimidated opponents.
The Clippers haven’t experienced a crash of any kind since the halcyon days of December. They’ve won 10 of their past 13 games, the majority of them handily. Although there are certainly players who’d like to be seeing the court a little more consistently, the roster is still populated by guys who are well-versed in the art of being a quality teammate. On Sunday night, the locker room was celebrating DeAndre Jordan’s theatrical dunk. It was a nice emotional boost for Jordan, one of those with a legitimate case for additional minutes. On the heels of the two-man stunt Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford performed Wednesday against Milwaukee, Jordan’s dunk was a reminder that the Clippers offer an energy not too many teams in the NBA can deliver a nightly basis.
Still, there’s a certain restlessness around the Clippers. For weeks, they were regarded as a lock for the No. 3 seed, but they’re now fending off Memphis, who has lost once since the All-Star break (a well-played nail-biter at Miami). The high-grade product the Clippers showcased during their 17-game winning streak is still there most nights against most opponents, but there are a few teams who play better basketball more often. Vinny Del Negro conceded as much pregame Sunday, and it speaks highly of a team when it acknowledges underperformance, even while it’s winning most of its games.
The electricity generated from the collective buzz is important for a team’s psyche, but you can take only so much satisfaction from the drubbing of a lottery-bound team ranked in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. A win over Memphis on Wednesday night would be a helpful salve, but the shadows of recent home losses to San Antonio and Oklahoma City will recede only so far. That’s when the whispers started that the Clippers are just shy of elite, that there’s no shame in being the fourth- or fifth-best team in basketball, but that might not get you past a conference semifinals.
This is what begins to happen in March -- the range of possibility narrows, and the road becomes better lit. The doubt that results from big home losses is more dangerous because identities are harder to shake when March and April arrive. A team can grow in the playoffs (e.g. Dallas in 2010-11, when they entered the postseason with 57 wins and a No. 3 seed), but an 82-game regular season has historically been a reliable predictor of how far a team can advance in the playoffs.
That’s the pressure that hangs over the Clippers now, even as they win three out of every four games. Barring a collapse by San Antonio (which will be without Tony Parker for another three weeks) or Oklahoma City, the Clippers will have to outperform their seeding and pull off an upset against an elite opponent to exceed what they achieved in the 2012 postseason.
There’s a higher threshold for progress these days for the Clippers. Not clearing it will introduce uncertainty about the futures of Chris Paul, Del Negro and the team's young players into an organization that's this close to relative stability. Promising futures are precarious in the NBA, something the Clippers understand better than anyone.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesEric Bledsoe and Chris Paul: The Clippers' embarrassment of riches at the point.
Momentum is a precarious thing in the NBA.
Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were romping through their schedule, dispatching teams with brutal efficiency en route to a 28-8 record. The Chris Paul system was flourishing. Blake Griffin’s expanded offensive repertoire was blossoming, and his defense was coming along very nicely, thank you. The second unit was scaring the bejeezus out of the league, and the depth -- a rotation 11 deep with Grant Hill’s return -- allowed the team to send a wave of reinforcements at opportune times.
Then bodies started to fall. Paul bumped knees with J.J. Redick on Jan. 12, suffering a bone bruise. Griffin picked up the slack, carrying the load as the featured player in the Paul-less offense, but then tweaked his hamstring earlier this week. He has missed the Clippers’ past two games. Supersub Jamal Crawford is day-to-day with a sore shoulder. Since Paul’s collision with Redick, the Clippers are 7-8.
Despite the bumpy ride, the Clippers aren’t overly concerned. They feel the healthy version of their team can make a rightful claim as one of the league’s elite powers, and are confident they're a top-three seed in the West. When intact, the Clippers’ starting unit thrives. Their bench squad is gangbusters. All the permutations of their closing lineup -- whether it’s Lamar Odom or DeAndre Jordan at center, or whichever combination of Crawford, Matt Barnes and Caron Butler at the wings -- kill the competition. Well aware of this, the Clippers have exercised caution with their stars’ nicks and bruises, and now the returns of Paul, Chauncey Billups, Griffin and Crawford are imminent.
Once they're restored to full strength, the Clippers are presented with a dilemma:
Do they stand pat, faithful that the on-court efficiency and locker room chemistry is enough to put them on equal footing with San Antonio and Oklahoma City? Or does the tough competition from these seasoned rivals out West necessitate upgrading the roster if the right opportunities present themselves?
This is a tough proposition for the Clippers. If you’re Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, you can roll the dice with impunity because you have little to lose at this point. For an organization adrift, change, in and of itself, can take the pressure off a beleaguered front office and buy it some time. But the Clippers have a far more delicate balance to maintain. Every team wants to improve, but there are no guarantees that any deal, no matter how attractive it appears in the Trade Machine, will do that. The risk of upsetting a winning formula is real, but so is the risk of not capitalizing on a chance to improve.
The situation in Los Angeles contains a series of intriguing variables and conflicting agendas. For instance, if you’re in management -- a custodian of the future well-being of the franchise -- trading away a young player on a value deal isn’t something you do lightly. Adding savvy veterans is always nice, but at what burden to the spreadsheet and at what cost to the current chemistry?
But if you’re a coach or a star player whose contractual relationship with the Clippers expires on June 30, you have all the motivation in the world to push all-in for a chance to win the big prize in June. That’s especially true if you’re a head coach who values reliable vets with championship pedigrees more than younger players with raw, unrefined talent.
Specifically, Eric Bledsoe is the Clippers’ most compelling case study. If Chris Paul returns to Los Angeles next season on a long-term deal, Bledsoe is somewhat (not entirely) expendable. At the very least, he becomes less valuable to the Clippers than to a team in desperate need of a point guard of the future. The best way to ensure Paul returns is to win now, and if Bledsoe can fetch a piece that can aid that effort, as our Kevin Pelton has outlined, does it make sense to move the young point guard?
The counter-argument goes that Bledsoe is not only insurance for Paul, but he’s helping the Clippers now as the catalyst of the league’s most successful second unit and as the team’s best on-ball defender. Deal him at your own peril. Management understands this, which is why Bledsoe will more than likely be a Los Angeles Clipper in two weeks.
Jordan is a more complicated matter. He isn't likely to go anywhere, but his situation prompts some interesting questions. Vinny Del Negro puts a premium on experience, and he has been reluctant to place Jordan on the floor in big spots on a consistent basis, particularly now with Odom at his disposal. Moving Jordan could make sense for a couple of reasons. We can debate the validity of Del Negro’s skittishness with Jordan, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides. But the fact remains that the confidence from the staff isn’t there, so why not equip the roster with a big man whom they can trust, provided such a player is available at a reasonable price?
Then there’s the issue of Jordan’s contract, which he signed during the 2011 offseason -- another two years and $22.4 million after this season. This isn’t a horrible deal because big men with Jordan’s athleticism who can protect the rim are in short supply. But if they’re riding the pine during crunch time, that salary is a bit more burdensome. The Clippers could try to deal Jordan, much like what the Nuggets did when they developed buyer's remorse over Nene soon after signing him to a slightly overvalued deal. Truth be told, landing in a place where Jordan is handed the center spot without reservation might be a welcome change for the big man, who has worked diligently over the past few seasons to polish his game. Jordan has maintained a stiff upper lip, but can get frustrated with his role, even as he loves being part of the tight-knit group that exists with the Clippers.
All of which brings us back to that delicate balance for this organization enraptured by its current success after eons of futility. Do the Clippers stick with a program that has yielded the best results in the franchise’s history, or do they adopt the one move away plan, and act on the irresistible temptation to get over the hump, even if it comes at the expense of future success?
It was a riveting, but odd game. Chris Paul spent much of the night pinned against the left sideline by Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder’s troop of big men. As a result, Paul logged one of the worst statistical nights of his career.
Blake Griffin battled foul trouble, which disrupted the Clippers’ rotation, as did the absence of Caron Butler. Both teams had prolific spurts when they scored at will, yet there were lengthy stretches when the game became an offensive slog. And neither team put together many big runs. Yet when it was all over, the Clippers and Thunder had played an instant regular-season classic. On Tuesday night, the two teams will face off again, and the winner will leave Staples Center with the best record in the NBA.
It’s still early and the San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in assembling the Western Conference playoff bracket, but the way the standings have started to settle, a Thunder-Clippers matchup with high stakes is highly likely. The Clippers feel they match up well with the Thunder. They’re 3-2 against the Thunder in the Chris Paul era (three of those five games played in Oklahoma City), and one of those losses came in that overtime game. The Clippers' primary worry about a potential matchup with the Thunder -- no wing to match up with Kevin Durant -- was addressed in the offseason when they signed Matt Barnes. No team in the West truly matches up well with the Thunder -- there are only degrees of desperation trying to guard them -- but Barnes helps, as presumably will Grant Hill who has returned from injury.
A faceoff between the Thunder and Clippers presents each team with a series of tough riddles, starting with how to deal with the opposing superstars. Interestingly, the two teams will employ similar strategies against Paul and Durant respectively, largely because they have similar attributes defensively.
The Thunder locked up Paul in the first meeting, and Sefolosha deserves much of the credit. Paul finished with nine points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field with four turnovers and nine assists. On the Clippers' pick-and-rolls, Sefolosha glued himself to Paul’s right shoulder while Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins forced Paul miles from the paint. When Paul was able to get some middle, he would run into a third defender pretty quickly. As far as shooting over Sefolosha, Paul struggled with that, as well.
The Thunder have improved their team defense this season. They rank sixth in the league overall in efficiency (points surrendered per possession). More important, the Thunder are learning some important truths about themselves. They’re beginning to recognize that they have the length and speed to do some very cool stuff defensively. Ibaka and Russell Westbrook would have to break character to thrive in a strict Tom Thibodeau-style defense, but the Thunder are starting to understand they can still apply some of its main principles. Against the Pauls and Tony Parkers of the league, they can afford to load up the strong side of the floor because guys such as Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have the length and speed to zone up the weak side while Sefolosha and the other big man are harassing the ball.
As dynamic and crafty as Paul is with the ball, he’s a point guard who thrives most when his big man provides him with a solid screen. That means Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom need to give Sefolosha a harder time, give him the right tackle treatment that will allow Paul to split the defenders and get to the middle with a layer of space around him. You can send a third man at Paul once he clears the two pick-and-roll defenders, but with momentum and control, Paul will find a way to make a play for himself (floater, pull-up jumper, little scoop shot or just draw contact for three freebies).
No doubt Paul will spend some time today thinking about how to adjust his strategy against Sefolosha and the Thunder’s defense, and he's unlikely to go 2-for-14 from the floor again Tuesday.
The Clippers’ defense has seen an even more dramatic improvement than the Thunder's, jumping from 18th to fifth in defensive efficiency. The defense had plenty of flaws last season, but a central one was the absence of anyone on the Clippers who could lock down a bigger wing (Eric Bledsoe can pressure the life out of smaller guards, but, at 6-foot-1, you can’t assign him to Durant).
This season, Barnes wasn’t explicitly brought in for the veteran minimum to be the designated stopper, but it’s a job he can handle more than adequately. Durant scored 35 points in 47 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting from the field. Nineteen of those 35 points came at the line, although Barnes was responsible for only three of the nine fouls committed on Durant.
Barnes did a good job of forcing Durant to his left. A gambler by nature, Barnes roamed very selectively as he devoted careful attention to Durant at all times. Jump shots were contested aggressively. Durant turned the ball over six times, four of which can be credited to Barnes on strips and deflections.
There’s no such thing as a Durant-stopper and likely never will be -- and 35 points is 35 points -- but Durant used a ton of possessions to get there. It will be curious to see how Vinny Del Negro assigns the task of covering Durant, especially with Butler in action, but the Clippers have a very nice option in Barnes, something that wasn’t available to them last season.
How the Thunder contend with Paul and how the Clippers contend with Durant are just two facets of a matchup with an endless number of facets. Both teams will be tempted to go small, as they did in the first meeting, but it’s unclear who has the advantage in that scenario. The Clippers are a paint team defensively, more focused on the rim than the arc. Can they find a balance? The Thunder turn the ball over excessively, something that will kill a team against the Clippers. If Bledsoe is the Clippers' best option on Westbrook, someone else has to surrender minutes.
However these questions get answered and regardless of the new ones that surface, one thing is certain: A playoff series between these two teams would be spectacular.
Harry How/NBAE/Getty Images
The Clippers' once-mediocre defense now ranks among the NBA's best. What happened?
Defense is the NBA’s dark art, the great unknown, a phenomenon whose essence we can’t fully quantify with a simple measuring stick. We think we know good defense when we see it, and we can factor how many points a team surrenders per possession to confirm the eye test. But analyzing defense is still an exercise fraught with assumptions about coverage schemes, who was supposed to do what, and whether the process produced the intended results.
On the results side, we know one thing about the Los Angeles Clippers through 33 games -- only two defenses in the NBA have been better statistically, something not even those most optimistic about the Clippers’ prospects three months ago would’ve put good money on.
Those less bullish on the Clippers prior to the season often cited defense as the most obvious shortcoming. No matter how potent its offense, a team with a league-average defense usually doesn’t finish much higher than third or fourth in a deep conference, and there weren’t a lot of reasons to believe the Clippers’ defense would be much better than that. The Clippers finished 2011-12 with the league’s 18th most efficient defense, and didn’t add anyone to the roster in the offseason who could fairly be characterized as a stopper, 40-year-old Grant Hill the possible exception.
Acquiring solid defenders is probably the surest way to fortify a defense, but there are other means -- the implementation of a smart system and/or significant individual improvement from key players. This isn’t easy because systems need time before they’re perfected, just as younger guys with only a few NBA seasons under their belts need time to refine their instincts. For the Clippers to make a leap, they’d have to craft a more systematic defense that could be mastered quickly, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan made significant progress.
By and large, most of those variables have fallen in the Clippers’ favor. Much like their productive offense, the Clippers’ defense isn’t anything fancy. It doesn’t employ any defensive aces who can make life difficult for a decent-sized wing scorer. Griffin has improved a good deal, but can still get into a little trouble when he’s extended beyond the foul line. Same goes for Jordan, who is more disciplined in his movements and precise in his timing, but still hasn’t grasped every nuance.
So how have the Clippers taken a mediocre defense, swapped Randy Foye, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans for Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf and climbed 15 spots in the defensive rankings?
The second unit
The Clippers’ starting lineup has been adequate defensively, but much of the statistical improvement has been accumulated while the team’s second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes, Turiaf and Odom has been on the floor. In 230 minutes on the floor together, these five give up only 87.2 points per 100 possessions -- that’s tops among the 60 most used lineups in the NBA.
Pressure has been a bedrock principle of the defense this season, and when this unit is in the game, it looks positively Grizzly. Bledsoe is a relentless ball hawk. Consider this for a second: The Clippers' two point guards combine for eight steals per 48 minutes, with Bledsoe and Paul ranking one and two in the NBA in that category. The entire unit has license to trap the ball just about anywhere on the floor. Barnes and Odom make particularly smart reads defensively and know just when to release that pressure to relieve the back side of the defense.
For opposing reserves, it has been a nightmare. Every fifth possession ends in a turnover (the third-best rate among those 60 units that have logged the most minutes in the league), and if a shot does materialize it’s generally contested. All this despite the fact that Bledsoe roves a bit too freely and Crawford has been known to die on a screen away from the ball. Meanwhile, Turiaf is undersized, Barnes a bit foul-prone and Odom still off his fighting weight.
Let the big men use their speed
Neither Griffin nor Jordan has the experience of Kevin Garnett, the instincts of Joakim Noah or the presence of Tyson Chandler. But they’re faster than all those guys, and this season Griffin and Jordan have been empowered to unleash that speed more aggressively.
Last season Griffin and Jordan spent much of their time on defense trying to hold their ground in a flat scheme. This year, Vinny Del Negro and assistant coach Bob Ociepka are asking more of Griffin and Jordan -- and they’re getting more. Griffin and Jordan are blitzing selectively (e.g. step-up screens, last third of the shot clock) and are frequently showing high on ball screens to force the ball as far away from the paint as possible. Because they’re finding themselves higher up in the half court than last season, they have farther to travel when it’s time to recover. But that’s OK because both Griffin and Jordan can fly, so long as they know where they’re going, they're more than capable of getting back.
In short, the Clippers have decided this season to double down on their athleticism, even if it means absorbing a few mistakes here and there. Are Griffin and Jordan fluent yet? No, but they’re increasingly proficient and that footspeed affords them a little more time than most big men. They have a coaching staff who trusts them to take aggressive measures to defend, then use that speed to mitigate any potential mistakes.
Elite teams often characterize the seamlessness of their defense as being “on a string.” A movement by one defender instantaneously triggers another defender to rotate into his place, and so on. The fibers that make up the Clippers’ string are getting stronger, but the cord isn’t completely taut, at least not yet.
In the meantime, the Clippers maintain order by communicating. You can hear Jordan and Griffin confidently calling out screens so that Chris Paul doesn’t plow into an opposing big man. On high ball screens, Jordan has gotten especially good at letting Paul know when he’s dropping back into the paint, so Paul can push the ball handler down the sideline. That’s crucial because Paul can’t let a guy get low unless there’s a plan to cut off the ball.
When Barnes wants to join Bledsoe in pinning a guard along the sideline, he’ll call out to Odom to take momentary responsibility for the man left open. And when Paul finds himself away from the ball on the weakside, he’s constantly barking directions to teammates to close the back door or cut off an obvious pass to the middle.
We knew the Clippers would be an efficient offensive unit -- Paul virtually guarantees that. We knew they'd be deep, and would have the flexibility as a team to bang with the brawlers, run with the gazelles, protect the basketball, scramble defenses with Paul's probing, exploit double-teams with Griffin on the block, and wreak havoc with a second unit that can pressure opponents and move the ball.
Yet we had no inkling the Clippers would post these kinds of defensive numbers this deep into the season. We're beyond the point (40 percent of the regular season in the books) at which we can talk about the sustainability of that success. That's not to say there won't be retrograde, early 2012-ish defensive outings like Wednesday night in Oakland when the Warriors shredded the Clippers on the perimeter, in transition, on pick-and-pops for David Lee. We'll learn a lot more about the Clippers on Saturday night when they get another crack at Golden State and make their adjustments.
But if the Clippers have figured out the defensive piece, if they've truly accomplished what elite defenses do -- maximize their individual strengths and mitigate those weaknesses -- and if they continue to post overall offensive and defensive ratings that rank in the NBA's top five overall, it's mathematically impossible to dismiss them as legitimate competition to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and anyone else in the West who stakes a claim.
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