The Clippers underappreciated defense

Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE

These Clippers are known as "Lob City" and widely presumed to have raced to a league-best record on the strength of their high-flying offensive attack. But the Clippers are just as good on defense, which is the real reason that they are the best team in the NBA right now.

We know at this point that the Los Angeles Clippers have the best record in the NBA at 22-6. We know that they have the league's best average margin of victory at a whopping 9.7, more than a point better than the second place Thunder. We know that they have won 14 games in a row, a franchise record, the longest winning streak in the league this season and tied for the longest winning streak in four seasons.

We even know, or at least we've seen it written many times, that the Clippers are the only team in the league in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But on this last point, it seems like few people have really assimilated the impact of the team's improvement on the defensive end. When Magic Johnson compared the Clippers to his own Showtime Lakers of the 80s that was great, but that impression of the Clippers as a high-flying, fast-breaking, offensive juggernaut doesn't really tell the story. This team is winning by locking people down, and more often than not, it is the defense that is fueling the fast break dunks.

The "Lob City" nickname and the athletes on the team give the Clippers the reputation for playing playground basketball, running and dunking and not doing much else. And certainly the Clippers are running more this year than they did last year. They are currently third in the NBA in fast break points at 17.8 points per game, compared to last season when they scored just 11 fast break points per game and ranked 23rd in the league. But once again much of that increase in transition scoring comes from their defense, not from a pure "push-the-ball" mentality, which will never really be Chris Paul's style.

The Clippers this season have been just as good on defense, as compared to the league average, as they have been on offense. There's probably a better statistical case to be made for calling them "Steal City" than calling them "Lob City". Sure, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are each in the top five in the league in dunks this season -- but Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe are first and second in steals per minute, a stat that gets mentioned far less frequently if at all, despite the fact that it is perhaps more integral to the team's success.

Consider the case of last season's Memphis Grizzlies. Clippers fans remember well how the Grizzlies were considered "the team that no one wanted to play" in the Western Conference playoffs. This fear was engendered almost entirely by the relentless Memphis defense, which led the league last season in steals and forced turnovers. After all, it wasn't Memphis' below average, 19th ranked offensive efficiency that had potential opponents quaking in their Jordans.

The 2011-2012 Grizzlies averaged about nine and half steals per game and forced a little over 17 turnovers per game, league best numbers in both cases. Well guess what? The 2012-2013 Clippers are better on both counts, averaging over 11 steals per game and forcing close to 17.5 turnovers, once again league-best marks. But because the Clippers are also well above average on the offensive end of the floor, people apparently feel less compelled to talk about their formidable defense. Why are these not the "grit and grind" Clippers?

According to basketball-reference.com, the Clippers are 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than the league average on offense -- and 5.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense. No team in the league comes close to being that good on both sides of the ball.

The Clippers like running and dunking, there's little question about that. But they also seem to know what is winning games for them, and most of the time it is their defense. They don't have the same level of defensive intensity for all 48 minutes of every game (no one does) but invariably they take control of their wins with a series of defensive stops that lead to a decisive run. And in interviews after the game, the players tend to talk first about defense. Some of that is players saying what they are supposed to say -- "defense wins rings" so always talk about the defense first. But the fact is that the team is playing defense at a championship level, even if very few people are noticing.

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