A Major Issue for the Clippers - You Can't Score If You Can't Shoot

The Los Angeles Clippers have lots of issues at the present time. They've been a poor defensive team all season, and after a minor defensive improvement in late January and early February, they've regressed in a big way. The defense is clearly the single biggest issue with this team. Coaching is the current focus of a lot of attention as well, and understandably so. Bad defense, bad offense, bad motivation -- it can all be easily blamed on coaching, even if it may or may not be the root cause. One thing's for certain though -- it's easier to change the coach than to change the players.

But there's another pretty simple explanation for why the Clippers have been so much worse in the middle third of the season than they were in the first third -- they stopped making shots.

Take a look at this list of games in which the Clippers have shot 41% or worse this season.

Team
Rk Date Tm Opp Result MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% PTS
1 2012-03-22 LAC @ NOH L 90-97 240 35 90 .389 5 27 .185 15 24 .625 90
2 2012-03-21 LAC @ OKC L 91-114 240 29 79 .367 12 26 .462 21 27 .778 91
3 2012-03-18 LAC DET W 87-83 (OT) 265 35 87 .402 4 20 .200 13 19 .684 87
4 2012-03-17 LAC HOU W 95-91 240 35 86 .407 6 23 .261 19 27 .704 95
5 2012-03-12 LAC BOS L 85-94 240 31 83 .373 5 23 .217 18 21 .857 85
6 2012-03-05 LAC @ MIN L 94-95 240 34 84 .405 5 23 .217 21 32 .656 94
7 2012-03-02 LAC @ PHO L 78-81 240 32 87 .368 6 16 .375 8 9 .889 78
8 2012-02-18 LAC SAS L 100-103 (OT) 265 36 89 .404 8 26 .308 20 23 .870 100
9 2012-02-16 LAC @ POR W 74-71 240 30 78 .385 2 17 .118 12 19 .632 74
10 2012-02-10 LAC @ PHI W 78-77 240 33 85 .388 2 19 .105 10 15 .667 78
11 2012-02-08 LAC @ CLE L 92-99 240 32 78 .410 3 15 .200 25 29 .862 92
12 2012-01-17 LAC @ UTA L 79-108 240 31 85 .365 4 20 .200 13 21 .619 79
13 2011-12-28 LAC @ SAS L 90-115 240 29 74 .392 7 20 .350 25 33 .758 90

Two of these very poor shooting games occurred in the first 22 games of the season (through the Orlando game in which Chauncey Billups was hurt, perhaps or perhaps not just a random coincidence). In the 25 games since then, beginning with the February 8 loss in Cleveland two days after Billups was hurt, the Clippers have shot worse than 41% 11 times. Bear in mind, 41% is really, really bad. The league wide average for field goal shooting this season is 44.6%, and the worse shooting team in the league, the woeful Charlotte Bobcats, shoot 41.6%. For the first third of the season, the Clippers had a couple of seemingly random off nights in which they couldn't hit anything -- since then, it's become an every week, almost every other game occurrence.

And it's gotten far worse in recent weeks. It's happened seven times in 15 games in the month of March, and in five of the last eight. Suddenly, the Clippers can't shoot.

Now, you can blame this on the offense, and thereby on the coach. The rest of the league has adjusted to what the Clippers do, they're not getting the same open looks they were earlier in the season, that sort of thing. And there's some truth to that. But consider the individual shooting splits. For convenience I'm going to use January and March splits since they are readily available and since those months represent the peak of Clipper performance this season (11-4 in January), and the valley (6-9 so far in March).

Here are the shooting percentages for January and March for the Clippers who take the most shots.

Name

Jan2012

Mar2012

Griffin

.511

.502

Paul

.518

.463

Williams

.529

.426

Butler

.443

.318

Foye

.382

.399

Billups

.368

N/A

Young

N/A

.324

If the problem were completely isolated to a lack of sophistication on the part of the offense and adjustments made by opposing defenses as the season has gone on, you would expect the offensive trouble to begin with Blake Griffin. After all, he's the leading scorer and the first Clipper that you're going to game plan against. But Griffin is shooting more or less the same number of shots, and making more or less the same percentage in March as he made in January.

Instead, it's the jump shooters who are struggling, and struggling mightily. Is the Clippers offense predictable? Sure it is. It consists almost entirely of Blake Griffin post ups and Chris Paul pick and roll. But what shots do you expect to generate from those sets? The defense has to pick a poison, and shooters are bound to get open looks on kick outs from Griffin and on drive and kicks from Paul. Well, as it happens, those open looks were falling with much greater regularity in January than they have been in March. And when Paul has to make something happen on his own, he was much more successful early in the season than he has been recently.

Is it Vinny Del Negro's fault that Mo Williams is shooting over 10 percentage points worse in March than he did in January? Or that Caron Butler is shooting over 12 percentage points worse? I've watched the games -- it seems to me that Butler is getting more or less the exact same shots now that he was getting at the beginning of the season -- they're just not falling.

And until they do, the Clippers will continue to struggle.

This is not a defense of Vinny Del Negro. He's a poor NBA coach. But he was a poor NBA coach in January when the Clippers were 11-4 also, so it stands to reason that something else has changed. The injury to Chauncey Billups is the other easy to isolate event that people use to explain the difference. But if shooting is a big part of the problem, I'm hard pressed to identify how Chauncey's 37% shooting would be the solution. Yes he was a locker room presence, yes he was a veteran leader on the floor, I get that. But to say that explains 12 percentage points in Caron Butler's shooting percentage is akin to believing in angels. I get "intangibles", but they're not magic.

This all begs the question, which month is more indicative of what the Clippers should be, January or March? Well, if we look at the career averages for these players, we see that the answer lies somewhere in between. Mo Williams was clearly overachieving in January, and March is much more indicative of his 44% career shooting. Likewise Chris Paul was shooting above his career 47% early and is below it late. Caron Butler on the other hand is just in an abysmal slump -- he obviously needs to shoot better than 32%.

As I've said, the Clippers have lots of other problems. They haven't played a solid 48 minutes in an NBA game in about six weeks. They will have decent stretches of sustained effort and then lose focus completely and lose leads or fall into deep deficits. There is no movement on the offensive end, which certainly helps to explain their poor shooting, as they aren't getting clean looks very frequently. And the defense has been terrible all season.

But it's entirely possible that the team was overachieving early in the season simply because they were making shots at an unsustainable level -- and now that they've gone cold, they're underachieving. One thing is clear -- they can't shoot 40% every other game the rest of the season and expect to make the playoffs.

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