I'm not one to put too much stock into anything that happens in preseason basketball, especially the first two games. However, in watching the Clippers play the Nuggets and Raptors, there was one meaningful thing that jumped out at me: the Clippers have completely changed how they defend the pick and roll.
Since Doc Rivers has taken over as head coach of the Lob City, he has employed an aggressive defensive scheme using his extremely athletic and agile big men DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to hard hedge or show and pursue the ball handler, chasing him out past the three point line. Watch how Blake shows twice against Tony Parker trying to string him out:
For the last two years, that type of hyperactive defense has been the Clippers calling card. Now compare that with the new, much more conservative way Griffin defends this pick and roll against the Nuggets, barely even coming up to the free throw line to contain Jameer Nelson:
THAT'S A HUGE DIFFERENCE! Defense has always been the biggest obstacle of the Clippers in their pursuit of a title. Almost every NBA champion has been a top 10 defensive team, and for the past two years, the Clippers have been close to that mark, but either just missing it or on the very outer bound. While some of the defensive struggles are masked by a league's best offense, if they want to be considered serious title contenders, they need to make a jump this coming season.
Will this new defensive change make the Clippers' defense better? Let's dive into some pros and cons:
Larson: Since we're going to be diving into some basketball X's and O's Caden, I think we should refer to you only as Coach K(inard); let's see if we can get the rest of ClipsNation to start calling you that.
Coach K: When I coached high school basketball I tried so hard to get my players to call me Coach K... they never did. I still use the self-declared, completely ripped off nickname daily, it's just no one else has caught on yet.
Larson: The first pro I see for this new, more conservative Clipper defense is that it's going to make them better in the regular season. Their previous aggressive scheme constantly resulted in 3 players trying to defend 4, demanding constant effort and precision rotations at all times in order to be effective. If one link in the chain was lazy or late in helping, the whole chain would break down and the other team would score an easy bucket.
During the season, it's easy to take get worn down and take possessions off as a big man, which would mean not recovering to the roll man quickly enough. That was a big reason why the Clippers gave up the most points to roll men in the league last year. With a more conservative scheme in place, there is less energy and effort expended, and thus less chances for mistakes.
Coach K: You're completely right. In their old scheme with Blake or DJ hedging hard and trying to curtail the ball-handlers with force, effort is crucial. The big men can not be lazy. If Blake gets lead footed in front of the offensive player's path, it's an easy drive into the middle creating a 5-on-3 situation with both pick and roll defenders removed from the action. If Blake does his job and blocks the path of the ball-handler, then he's in purgatory until the original defender recovers back to the ball. When that defender does return, Blake has to hustle back to the roller or else he's giving up an easy bucket.
Look at this play against San Antonio:
Blake manages to wall off Tony Parker's from driving into the lane, but his recover back to Tim Duncan is just horrible. He shows no sense of urgency to find his man which results in an easy dump off from Tiago Splitter and a layup. Too often the Clippers' bigs were late, forcing the rest of the team into scramble mode, which could be effective with the right effort, but often lead to being two steps behind and surrendering an easy layup or open three pointer.
Larson: I do want to say this area of Blake's game he was extremely bad at last year. While he seemed to be only going about 80% on offense during the regular season to conserve energy for the playoffs last year, that went down to about 60% on defense. Simply put, this new scheme asks defenders to do less, meaning there will be less chances to screw up and a higher level of overall defensive consistency. (Also how come I only see 4 Spurs in that play???)
Coach K: The biggest pro to me is that it keeps DeAndre Jordan closer to the basket. For whatever reason, DJ doesn't challenge as many shots as he should, yet he still defended the most shots in the league last year. While he doesn't protect the rim as efficiently as others, nobody alters more shots than him. Blake and his short little T-Rex arms can't be expected to provide rim protection, so the Clippers need Hylander to be as close to the goal as possible.
Larson: Having Blake and DJ camping out closer to the rim will also help improve their defensive rebounding. With DJ and Blake not extending themselves out on the perimeter chasing guards, they should be able to box out stop opponents from cleaning up the offensive glass. We may even see Blake return to averaging double digit rebounds. JK DJ will probably steal them all and average 18 rebounds a game next season.
Coach K: My biggest con in this scheme is that it concedes a pull-up jump shot almost every time in a league dominated by guards. Yes, the Clippers will be giving up less layups, but a wide open shot is still a wide open shot. Good players just need to see the ball go in the bucket once or twice in order to get hot. For example, Steph Curry in the Finals struggled for the first couple games against Matthew Dellavedova, but once he saw one or two go in the seal was lifted and it didn't matter what the Cavs threw at him. Look at how Kyle Lowry just destroys this new defensive scheme because he's being given wide open jump shots:
Larson: So there's a good and bad to what you're saying. The good part of that conservative scheme is that the long two point jump shot is the least efficient in basketball. There are very few guards that can pull up off the dribble from 15-17 feet and be effective, and the Clippers have the best and 3rd best at that as their starting back court. The bad part is that you obviously can't give Steph Curry that much room to shoot or he'll murder you, so this defensive system doesn't work for every team.
Coach K: It's dangerous man:
Larson: So that gets into what I think is another big con to this new system: it relies heavily on Chris Paul to be the one expending lots of effort. While previously it was on Blake and DJ to be sharp and active on defense, if the Clipper big men are going to sit back and give the ball-handler room, a lot more effort is going to be required from Chris Paul to fight through and over screen to try and recover back to his man. While Paul may be the best defensive point guard in the league, he's also the oldest of the Clippers Big 3 and somewhat prone to injury. Do you really want to be putting the biggest responsibility on defense on him?
Coach K: While Blake and DJ may be younger, the previous hyper active defensive system required much more effort out of them to cover ground than asking Chris Paul to work a little harder going over screens. You're limiting what Blake and DJ do defensively, because they, mainly Blake, have shown they will not exert the effort to maintain the integrity of the defense.
Larson: I guess the biggest problem with this defense is also it's strength: it's conservative. It has a higher floor, which is good for the regular season, but not as high of a ceiling when executed perfectly. While the old scheme is much harder to perfect, theoretically when done correctly it doesn't allow for any open shot; it has a much higher ceiling while having a lower floor. We saw flashes of brilliant defense from the Clippers at times last year, especially post-All Star break. When everyone is in sync and rotating together on a string, they can snuff even a great offense as they do to the Spurs here:
Coach K: We've seen hyper aggressive defenses win championships lately in LeBron's Heat and the Golden State Warriors. During the 2014-2015 season, the Clippers defensive rating was 106.14. In the playoffs, despite playing two great offenses in San Antonio and Houston, their defensive rating improved to 105.3. I would expect the Clippers to revert to the old style of defense comes playoffs. That's the way Doc won with the Celtics.
Larson: Is that another con of this new defensive system then? If they're practicing and playing defense one way for 82 games and then are going to dramatically shift to their old system in the playoffs, why not just try and keep improving on the old system? I'm worried about how easily they will be able to just switch back and forth, especially with a roster full of new players.
Coach K: Malleability is essential in winning a Championship. The Warriors started Iguodala, losing their rim protector. Dallas always throws out a zone-oriented defense to switch things up when they're in trouble.
Larson: This conservative defensive pick and roll scheme will definitely help the Clippers regular season success, but I'm unsure if it will provide dividends in the postseason. Let us know what you think if the new system will be good, or if they should've kept the old scheme.