Going into this season, one of the biggest challenges the Clippers were facing as a team wasn't just the influx of 8 new players, but also the implementation of a brand new defensive scheme. As has been previously written about by Caden and myself here and Justin here, the Clippers revamped their defense this year by playing a more conservative and switching style. The reason for the change in defense was simple: they just weren't good enough.
While it may be a cliche to say that defense wins championships, it also seems to be true. In the past 10 years, no NBA champion has been outside the top 10 in defensive rating, and 9 out of the 10 have been top 7 or better. Even though the Clippers were the number 1 offensivee team in the NBA last season, they were a middling defensive team, ranking 15th. While Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan both may have been 1st team All Defense last year, it was the rest of the roster, including the crater sized hole in their wing defense, which caused their downfall. Armed with little cap space to go out and get elite defenders this summer, the best thing Doc Rivers and his coach staff could do was to look for different ways to improve. This season the Clippers took a gamble on a new defensive scheme to strengthen their title chances, and so far it seems to be working out.
With a new strategy will come growing pains as players try to learn a completely new system. Evidence of those growing pains was obvious in a few big moments, like when DeAndre was giving Steph Curry too much room to launch threes in the Warriors first 4th quarter comeback win against the Clippers. You could clearly see DJ thinking about where he needed to be and how he should be playing the pick and roll; nothing was natural quite yet. Along with that were obvious breakdowns in communication when players didn't know when their teammates were calling for switches, which would result in wide open shots or drives (the most memorable for me was the miscommunication between Josh Smith and Austin Rivers out of a timeout that lead to Smith being immediately benched and yelled at). At times this season it seemed as if the Clippers had no real defensive principles anymore to what they were doing, which led to Doc calling out multiple players and the team in general for not being where they should be defensively. Once again growing pains.
As of today, the Clippers are 11th in the NBA in defensive rating*, just on the cusp being a top-10 team, and in recent weeks, just by the eye test, the team has looked much better defensively than at the beginning of the season. After 15 games of trial-by-fire and trying to figure it out on the fly, the Clippers are starting to look good. No longer are the Clipper players confused about where they should be and whom they should rotate to and when to switch, instead they are starting to move as if on a string, in concert with one another. The Clippers are getting better defensively, and we are already starting to see the results.
Starting from November 29 up until present day, the Clippers have been the 4th best defensive team in the league with a defensive rating of 100 (just .02 behind the Warriors for 3rd place). While it may seem arbitrary in choosing 11/29 as a starting point (it is) there are a couple reasonable factors to think this may be a bette representation of the current Clipper team. Like we said before, with a new season it takes around 15 games to work out the kinks, and November 29 was the Clippers's 17th game. November 29th also just happen to be the first game that Doc Rivers inserted Luc Mbah a Moute into the starting lineup.
As Doc has said before, he likes Luc mainly for the defensive mindset he brings to the team and starting him is a way to instill that mentality from the get go. For all the "Start Luc" supporters out there, since he became a starter, the Clippers are 4th in defense, 5th in offense, 4th in net rating, and about tied for third with OKC in margin of victory. But before anyone crowns Luc as the missing piece of the title puzzle, those gaudy numbers can also somewhat be attributed to the Clippers playing a lot of teams that aren't very good. In this stretch of 20 games, the average record of all the Clipper opponents have been .442. While playing bad teams can add some noise to the numbers, I don't think it's enough to simply dismiss how improved the Clippers have been in the last 20 games. Hell the Spurs have had the easiest SOS this season and Golden State the 4th, but no one really holds that against them. Plus there are plenty of other ways to show the Clippers's growth.
The new system calls for more ICE-ing of pick and rolls with the big man dropping back instead of having Blake or DeAndre aggressively hedge and show to the ball handler. Along with playing deeper on pick and roll action, the Clippers have also started switching pick and rolls much more frequently than they have ever done before, resulting in them being one of the most switching teams in the league. The benefits of these changes are with less rotations and packing the paint, you give up midrange jump shots, the least efficient in basketball, while not allowing corner threes and contesting more at the rim.
This season the Clippers give up the 7th most midrange jump shots to opponents, while holding them to the 8th worst percentages on those attempts (for comparison, last year those respective numbers were 13th and 18th). The Clippers are giving up a lower field goal percentage in the restricted area this year compared to last year, even with a couple more attempts. But the most dramatic improvement is in defense of corner threes. This season the Clippers give up the second least threes from the left corner and the 4th least from the right corner. Opponents are shooting 26.3% against the Clippers from the left corner, second best in the league, and 35.4% from the right corner, 12th. However, in the last 20 games, the Clippers have held opponents to 24.4% from the left corner and 23.9% from the right corner, both second in the league and both incredible numbers.
More than Chris Paul's failures in the clutch, more than Doc Rivers's substitutions, more than a terrible bench, the biggest thing keeping the Clippers from true title contention has always been their weaknesses on defense. With a new defensive system in place and a player seemingly capable of guarding Durant, LeBron, etc., it seems like the Clippers are starting to rectify that problem. For the last 20 games, they are Top 5 in both defensive rating and offensive rating, the only other teams to do that are the Warriors and Spurs. If those 20 games are any sign of how much this Clipper team and defense continues to improve, then it may be time to start taking them seriously.
*All stats from NBA.com