It has been said, once or twice, I think, that defense wins championships. You might find that adage to be a bit silly. You might wonder aloud, “well, Will, you have to score in order to win games, let alone titles.” That’s an idea I’d typically entertain, especially as it pertains to titles. But when it comes to games, I’d be inclined to push back. I’ve watched seven Los Angeles Clippers games so far this season, three of them wins. Perhaps scoring is the ideal way to win, but for this team, it has proved to not necessarily be the be-all and end-all.
The Clippers offensive rating this season — a mediocre, if not totally concerning 103.6 — ranks 22nd in the league. The most concerning piece to that puzzle is the fact that teams like the seemingly-inept Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, as well as the fine-but-still-3-and-6 Indiana Pacers rank higher. The piece that makes the puzzle come together in a much more encouraging fashion is that they rank seventh in defensive rating. At 103.1, they sit just decimal points behind the defensively stout Toronto Raptors (102.4) and within comfortable striking distance of the league’s elite, like the Golden State Warriors (97.1), Miami Heat (97.9), and Chicago Bulls (101.8), to name a few. The Clippers may struggle to consistently score the ball, but they’re certainly not making life on the offensive end easy on their opponents.
Like practically everything else with this current iteration of the Kawhi-less Clippers, that defensive prowess starts with Paul George. So far this season, he’s maintained the best defensive box plus/minus of his career at 2.9; it’s a wonderful aid in bolstering his career-best box plus/minus of 8.9, helped along mightily by what very well may be George’s best scoring campaign, too. He’s shouldering a heavy load — one that he wanted, and one that he particularly needs to embrace given his team’s slow start so far — but he’s managing it with force, not mere grace.
Beyond numbers alone, George has been the metronome that dictates the team’s tempo on both ends, but particularly on defense. His defense, ahead of all others on the floor, has determined what happens next for the Clippers. Take last night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves for example: players guarded by George scored a total of 19 points, and though they shot 47 percent from the field (8-of-17), they shot just 2-of-7 (29 percent) from three. George also forced two turnovers, nabbed a steal of his own, and had a block on Karl-Anthony Towns that, from what I’ve heard this morning, set the Timberwolves franchise back to 1996.
Not to mention: he got back on offense and made a dump pass to Ivica Zubac that sent me into a tizzy unlike any I’ve experienced thus far this season. It won’t make any SportsCenter Top 10 lists — at least I don’t think it did; I’ll have to check — but it tops any list of mine counting down the best plays from this young season so far.
The block on KAT. The pass to Zu.— Bally Sports West (@BallySportWest) November 4, 2021
This sequence from Paul George pic.twitter.com/JXlyrh6mtT
You might be familiar with the reels film studios put together ahead of awards season. They’re often wrapped in a lovely digital bow and labeled “For Your Consideration: Actor name here.” This clip would be the lead highlight in George’s if NBA teams made such videos for their players regarding awards consideration; he’d contend for both Defensive Player of the Year and MVP immediately.
It’s not just George, though, even if he is this project’s lead star. There are supporting actors galore on this roster, and it would be illogical to pretend that this team would be anywhere without them. If George’s name sits atop the poster, it’s Terance Mann’s name that comes next, and arguably deserves even more of the credit for his team’s performance so far this season than the Clippers’ de facto leader.
Though his plus/minus net per 100 possessions of 20.1 ranks him as one of the best in the league in that regard, Mann is evidence that defense goes far beyond numbers. He’s approaching a place where he’ll forcibly beckon being considered one of the NBA’s premier-level stoppers, and he’s most certainly the Clippers’ most important stopper without Kawhi Leonard. He’s taken on each opponent’s toughest offensive threat in each game this season — from Steph Curry to CJ McCollum to Ja Morant — and has been anything but a slouch at every turn.
Mann remains attached, energetic, and poised all at once. He has to be one of the most bothersome draws for an offensive player, given his length and athleticism, and how brutal his effort can be in impacting a shot. And his impact isn’t limited to his assignment, either. He’ll squirm around screens and stagger his closeouts in order to stay glued to the hip of his own man, while somehow contesting another’s shot at the same time. It’s absurd that at 25 years old and in just his third season, he’s already testing the waters of skills most players don’t master until their sixth or seventh seasons, if at all.
I’ve been trying to find the right word to describe watching Mann on defense... I think it’s symphonic. He’s choppy, but in a staccato, pick-of-the-cello type way that emotes freshness and vibrancy — which is to say, he’s a constant presence, albeit a quick one. What’s it like playing against him? I’d venture to guess that it’s annoying.
Three times this season, the Clippers have given up less than 100 points in a game; they’re 2-1 in those games, with their only loss coming to the Cleveland Cavaliers (they gave up 92, but only scored 79). George and Mann have led the charge, but contributions from Eric Bledsoe, Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac, and Justise Winslow are wondrous additions to that effort.
If this trend persists, there’s a chance that the Clippers end this season as one of the five best defensive teams in the league, something they haven’t accomplished since the 2019-20 season, and had last done in 2015-16 before then. Perhaps they’ll be helped by offense being down across the league, but that’s a backburner item for now. The Clippers are finally starting to score anyway — they scored 126 last night against the Wolves and are scoring 113.7 points per game in wins this season.
It’s a young season, but we’re approaching the point where trends begin to form and puzzles begin to fall into place. Right now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the Clippers are a defensive-minded team with players who can score. It might just be a winning blueprint.