With 11 games and less than three weeks left to the regular season, there's both good news and bad news in the recent play of the Los Angeles Clippers. Given that the team has won seven out of eight, there's more good news than there was a couple of weeks ago, but there are definitely still issues out there. As we near the end of the regular season, the picture is finally coming into focus.
The Good News --
The recent play of Caron Butler and Randy Foye. A couple weeks ago, I pointed out how the Clippers perimeter players had simply been missing lot of shots during their spate of poor play. Butler is the easiest example: he shot 44% in January, 39% in February and 36% in March, with the teams fortunes more or less mirroring his own. Well, in the last 8 he has shot over 50% from the field, 38% from three point range. After going 1 for 14 in the game at New Orleans, the low point of the season, he's shot 44% overall and 40% from deep in the last 8. When he factor in his threes (more than half of his makes) his effective field goal percentage following the New Orleans game is over 55%. It's pretty simple really -- when the Clippers' perimeter players like Buter and Foye and Nick Young and Mo Williams are making jump shots, the Clippers are a pretty darn good team. Williams has been hurt and Young is still settling in, but Butler and Foye have been great recently, which means the team has been great. It needs to continue into the playoffs for the Clippers to be successful.
Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe missed the first 24 games of the season after knee surgery, and was clearly not himself when he first came back. But he's been a terror in recent games. Sometimes he terrorizes the opposition with defense and constant attacking, and less frequently he terrorizes the Clippers with turnovers and out of control play, but he's always a terror. Among NBA guards who've played at least 200 minutes, Bledsoe is fourth in offensive rebounds per minute -- oh, and the 'guards' ahead of him are between 6'4" and 6'8". Bledsoe is barely 6'0". His athleticism is astounding. Bledsoe presents something of a dilemma for the Clippers this season -- if he develops he could become a star, but he'll need game experience to develop, since control and decision making are the areas where he needs work. Bledsoe is one of the few players beyond Griffin, Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler who is signed for next season, and he's part of the Clippers future. He needs to play; fortunately, he's justifying more minutes right now.
Blake Griffin's jump shot. Griffin's perimeter game, including his jump shot, remains a work in progress, but it's a lot better than it was last year, or even earlier this season. He hit two 20 footers during a string of three straight baskets Thursday night against Sacramento that changed the game for the Clippers. Personally, I'm to the point where I have confidence that the shot is going in, provided he takes it on the catch without hesitation. If he waits, he might as well give the ball up, because his percentage goes way down.
Playoff rotations will be shorter. As the season winds down, and especially as we enter the playoffs, the bench will get shorter and the Clippers' starters will play more and more minutes. This matters most as regards Chris Paul -- the Clippers need him on the floor, and using last season as a guide, they'll have him. For New Orleans last year, Paul averaged 36 minutes per game in the regular season, and almost 42 minutes per game in six playoff games. He's averaging just over 36 minutes per game this year for the Clippers, and I would expect a similar bump of 5 or 6 minutes from him in the playoffs. Basically, his time off the court will likely be cut in half. Griffin is the other Clipper who will probably see his minutes increase in the playoffs. Who will drop out of the rotation? Reggie Evans is already getting there, as Vinny Del Negro tips his hand that his preferred big rotation involves just Griffin, Jordan and Kenyon Martin. Bobby Simmons or Nick Young will go -- there's not room for both of them, so if Young can handle the small forward minutes, they'll go to him. It remains to be seen what will happen with the backcourt, as it will remain crowded, partly because...
Mo Williams is coming back. Williams has his flaws, but he remains the Clippers' third most reliable scorer. The second unit, with Nick Young in the Williams role, sometimes looks as if it will never score again, particularly if bad Bledsoe shows up. It's still a bad play, but "give the ball to Mo and let him shoot" is definitely preferable to "give the ball to Nick and let him shoot."
The Bad News --
Mo Williams is coming back. Williams, it must be said, is not a great fit with the rest of the Clippers personnel. Since Chris Paul needs to be on the floor most of the game (and even more going forward), playing Williams and Paul together presents significant issues on the defensive end. These problems are compounded by the need to Bledsoe to get more minutes -- and at least Bledsoe and the strength, length and athleticism to battle some twos. In the end it's clearly better to have access to Williams than not -- after all, you don't have to play him. But you can't play five guards -- it's tough enough playing four -- and you can't play three 6'0" guards very much. Sliding Nick Young over to the three to get him minutes there will work against a lot of teams, and free up the logjam some. But the real issue here is that the Clippers are three weeks away from the playoffs, and don't really have any clue what their best rotation looks like, since Williams went out just days after Young arrived.
Free throw shooting. Sadly, Blake Griffin's free throw shooting is getting worse, not better. After an uptick to a bit over 60% in February when he added three dribbles to his free throw line routine, Griffin has regressed big time. He fell to 53% in March, and has made just 2 of his last 12. And it's not as if Kenyon Martin (37%) or Reggie Evans (51%) or DeAndre Jordan (52%, though at least he has shown improvement recently; 63% in March was by far is best month from the line as a pro) ameliorate the problem when they are in the game. As it stands now, the Clippers will almost certainly lose a playoff game or two because of poor foul shooting, and they probably won't be able to overcome those losses.
Zone offense. Oh my sweet FSM, are the Clippers awful against the zone. They have not the first clue what to do -- it's as if they have never seen a zone before, let alone discussed and/or practiced some method for attacking it. I honestly don't know why opposing teams don't zone the Clippers 48 minutes of every game. It's consistently a disaster, and it almost cost the team the game Thursday night in Sacramento -- it did cost them a game against Phoenix in March. The Clippers approach to beating the zone seems to be to hoist contested threes after the shot clock gets below 5. That's not a good plan. I might even call it a bad plan.
Poor defense. The Clippers have not been good on defense all season, and it's not getting better. The Lakers happen to have the perfect personnel to exploit their biggest defensive weaknesses, but the defense on the whole remains suspect. Trying to win playoff games solely on the offensive end is a tough task -- just ask the 2005 Suns.
Good perimeter shooting makes a massive difference to this team in the here and now, and will be crucial in the playoffs. If Butler and Foye and Young and Williams are making shots, the Clippers will be a tough out in the playoffs, for anyone. Bledsoe is an investment in the future more than the present, but his talent is tantalizing. Likewise Griffin's perimeter game is more a investment for tomorrow than a dividend today, but he'll always need to take some open shots (on short clocks, to keep defenders honest, on broken plays, etc.) and the more he makes the better.
But it's really late to be working on super basic things like rotations, and zone offense, and, what's it called? oh yeah, defense (which is, after all, half of the game). Increased effort in the playoffs could provide some improvement, but these are some pretty big flaws with just three weeks to go.