HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Los Angeles Clippers are in a unique position. They’re the only team that won a playoff series last year and is set to hold home-court advantage in the first round this year.
Note: Winning the Northwest Division guarantees the Blazers a top-4 seed, but they wouldn’t have home-court advantage against a lower seed with a better record (like L.A. has right now).
The Clippers are also the worst defensive team among Western Conference playoff squads. They rank 18th in defensive efficiency through Wednesday, having allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions.
For the fourth straight season, the Clippers have a top-five offense. But each of the last two seasons, the they’ve complemented and elite offense with a top-10 defense. This year, they have not. They’re below average on D, with the sixth biggest regression on that end of the floor from last season to this one.
History tells us that you need a top-10 defense to contend for a championship. The Clippers play the Sixers on Friday and have two more games against the Lakers, but that’s probably not enough to get them near the top-10 by April 15.
So where have the Clippers fallen off? The numbers point to 3-point defense and an inability to keep their opponents off the free throw line.
The 3-point defense had nowhere to go but down after ranking No. 1 last season, and it’s been better (fewer attempts) since the All-Star break. The free throws continue to be a problem. The Clippers have given up 19.2 points per game at the free throw line, 2.0 more than the league average. Take away those two points per game and they’re a top-10 defense.
The Clippers’ defensive system puts pressure on both their bigs and their perimeter players. They bring the bigs out high to defend pick-and-rolls…
This scheme usually takes the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands. Opposing ball-handler’s have passed the ball on 68 percent of ball screens that the Clippers have defended, the highest rate in the league, according to SportVU.
But the scheme, in turn, puts pressure on the Clippers’ wings, who have to help on the opposing big when he rolls to the basket. And if he catches the ball, those wings are often in a position to do nothing but foul or concede a layup…
If the ball doesn’t go to the roll man, that guy who was helping on the roll now has to close out on the perimeter to both contest a shot and contain a drive…
And if the drive isn’t contained, the pressure goes back to the bigs to defend both the driver and his own man.
Other teams employ a similar scheme. The Miami Heat often suffocated their opponents with it when they had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wings. But when the Heat’s defense wasn’t on point, it could be broken down by teams that passed the ball well (see Spurs, San Antonio).
The Clippers don’t have James or Wade. They have J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers trying to help on those rolls, recover out to those shooters, and contain those drives. And those guys aren’t quick enough or disciplined enough to do all that on a high level and on a consistent basis.
The opponents’ free throw rate has been highest with the Clippers’ reserves on the floor. When it comes to both the opponent free throw rate and overall defense, there’s a big gap drop-off when at least one of their starters takes a seat.
And that goes back to the big issue regarding the Clippers. Their starting lineup is among the best in the league, while their bench (especially with Crawford out) is a liability. The roster moves of team president Doc Rivers are going to test the patience of head coach Doc Rivers when his reserves are on the floor in the playoffs.
Chris Paul isn’t worried too much about where his team stands defensively in the regular season, believing that, once the postseason begins, it’s all about matchups.
“When you get to the playoffs, all of the other stuff that you did during the season goes out the window,” Paul said Wednesday. “All of those stats ain’t going to mean nothing if you’re playing against a team that you can never beat.”
The Clippers have played all of their fellow Western Conference playoff teams pretty evenly. And they have a top-10 defense against four of the seven, including the team – Portland – they’re currently in position to face in the first round and the team – Golden State – they’d most likely face in the conference semifinals if they got there.
But history disagrees with Paul. In the last 37 years (since turnovers started being counted in 1977), only one team has ranked as low as 18th defensively and reached The Finals. That team was the 2000-01 Lakers (defending champs at the time), who ranked 19th defensively, flipped the switch once the playoffs began, and went 15-1 with the best defense in the postseason.
The Clippers don’t have championship experience on which they can fall back. Nor, does it seem, do they have a defense on which they can rely.