Maybe I picked the right time to take a step back from the blog. Because I can't remember a time, certainly not since the pre-Griffin era, when Los Angeles Clippers basketball was such a chore to watch.
Obviously the team is playing poorly, which is a huge issue in and of itself. And while I could write for hours about that, at the end of the day I can't really put my finger on what's wrong. (BTW, I had dinner with my brother last night, and I told him what I'll tell you: I still think that the Clippers will play well at some point this season, to the point where we'll scratch our heads and wonder if we're watching the same team. It's going to happen, I do believe that.)
But it goes beyond the team's underachieving and general malaise on the court. For some reason the basketball gods seem to have conspired to curse my favorite team with several afflictions that are affecting basketball in general, and the Clippers in particular.
While hyperbole is a useful literary device, it is without exaggeration that I say that no writer in the sport has spent more energy arguing against intentional fouls away from the ball than I have over the years. I was vehemently against the practice when it was employed extensively against Shaquille O'Neal, before DeAndre Jordan was ever a Clipper. Instead of fixing an obvious problem this summer, Commissioner Adam Silver and the rules committee left us with the illogical status quo (it's a good thing for 46 minutes, but a bad thing for two minutes: sure, that makes sense). And they did so for the flimsiest of reasons.
It's a two player problem. Tell that to Andre Drummond. It doesn't actually turn viewers away. Puh-leaze. Kids won't practice their free throws. Thank you for your input, Mrs. Lovejoy.
In a development absolutely everyone saw coming, the practice has increased significantly so far this season, according to data from ESPN's Kevin Pelton (Insider required). Not only that, various coaches are employing new and innovative variations on the theme, exploiting additional loopholes in the rules such as they are. The "extra possession" foul at the end of a quarter is kind of a no-brainer. While I've argued that in most cases these fouls aren't even particularly good strategy, in this case they really do make a lot of sense, and most of the league has no figured that out. The "before the inbound pass" foul allows teams to send a poor foul shooter to the line even before the team has reached the bonus. The "hack-the-screener" foul circumvents the final two minute rule by considering Jordan and Drummond et al part of the play when they are setting a screen. And now our own Doc Rivers has brought us the "piggy back on the made free throw foul" -- an intentional loose ball foul that once again circumvents the final two minute rule, a strategy he employed in Detroit to steal a win.
Which brings me to the real problem from a Clippers' fans perspective. Jordan being Jordan, and being crucial to the team's success for the last three seasons, we're bound to suffer through interminable fouling as we did against Portland a couple weeks ago, when it took something like six hours to play six minutes. But this season Doc seems determined to double the suffering by fouling more (and differently) himself.
Take for instance the "intentional foul with a three point lead."
It is not a new strategy to give a foul while protecting a three point lead late in a game. For years it was more of a potential strategy, since almost no coach actually used it. The result was that every time a team gave up a late three to force overtime, analysts all screamed "Why not just foul and take the three pointer off the table?"
Former Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. employed the strategy in VERY specific situations: three point lead, fewer than six seconds remaining, opposition has no timeouts. I still felt like it was a bad call, but I understood his logic and appreciated the detail of the decision matrix. Rivers has taken to using the strategy indiscriminately in the final 10 seconds. He's three for three with it so far this season by my count -- but that doesn't mean it's been good strategy.
During the last road trip Rivers used it twice in Clipper wins, and both times he probably increased the odds that the Clippers would lose the game rather than decreasing them.
The math on this particular expected value calculation is absurdly complex simply because there are so many variables you have to take into consideration. But let's look at just one aspect of it. If an 85% foul shooter takes eight free throws, there is a 73% chance that he'll miss at least one. Against the Timberwolves, Rivers started giving fouls to protect his three point lead with nine seconds remaining. (In fact, at 12 seconds DeAndre fouled Ricky Rubio, but Rubio had a step and I don't put that one on Doc.)
With both teams fouling intentionally, there was essentially a foul a second the rest of the way, and in that game the teams went to the line eight times in the final nine seconds.
Let's assume you start that strategy with enough time that each team will shoot free throws twice. And let's further assume that good foul shooters will be shooting (each team is going to keep the ball in the hands of their best shooters, after). The Clippers are very lucky here in that they have three insanely good foul shooters in J.J. Redick, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, which is one reason Rivers feels he can pay this game. But even so, the math tells us that 73% of time, there will be a miss among those eight free throws (two pairs each for each team). Who misses first? Does each team miss an equal number of times? Again, the math gets nuts, BUT given that two misses are less likely than one, and each additional miss become less likely still, you wind up with about a 20% chance that your opponent misses first, and an equal 20% chance that you miss first. (The team with the poor foul shooters going to the line obviously has worse odds.)
That's a one in five chance that you just gave the ball back to the opposition now down two instead of down three, because you didn't want to defend against a three point shot. You've also turned a potentially exciting 10 seconds of basketball for the fans into a free throw shooting contest, which is NOT an event at All Star Weekend for a reason. Not to mention all the other things that could go wrong as you add possessions to a one possession game. What if you give the foul a split second too late, the ball handler goes into his shooting motion and gets three free throws? What if you turn the ball over inbounding? What if you give up an offensive rebound on the second free throw?
Which brings us to Detroit. Rivers once again intentionally fouled, this time playing right into the strength of his opponent. The Pistons are 24th in the league in three point shooting, well below leave average. On the other hand, they are second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage. On the other hand, the Clippers are 27th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. So naturally, you'd rather put them on the line and box out, right?
This problem only gets worse when you consider that DeAndre Jordan can't be on the floor, because Doc Rivers' himself invented the "piggy back loose ball foul". So now one of the worst rebounding teams in the league is without their best rebounder, trying to keep Andre Drummond from getting an offensive rebound.
Of course Drummond got the rebound, and it was just dumb luck for Rivers that he had Reggie Jackson each missed easy tip ins in the final seconds.
As a rule of thumb, if teams are trying to win basketball games based on something other than playing basketball, I'm against it. This season I have been subjected to these non-basketball strategies again and again and again.
I'm waiting for the Clippers to start playing better. Unfortunately, the wait seems to go on forever as I watch these ridiculous strategies employed both by the Clippers opponents and Doc Rivers.