The Los Angeles Clippers won 56 games last season, tied for fifth most in the NBA. Though they lost in the first round of the playoffs, that made them among a half a dozen contenders for the title. And yet, listening to them talk, you'd think they were a rebuilding team.
Consider this line from J.J. Redick after Sunday's blowout of the Chicago Bulls, via ESPN's Arash Markazi.
"We're closer," said Redick, who had 19 points. "This is our 15th game. Just even thinking about our first game against the Lakers and where we are in terms of knowing each other and each other's tendencies, we've come a long way in three weeks. I'm excited about that. I don't think you're ever there. I don't think you're ever there. You're always trying to get better and improve, but we're close."
We're closer. This is generally not how a team that was already really good talks. This is the kind of language you hear from a franchise that made a huge offseason acquisition or one that is trying to make the playoffs after years in the lottery.
And yet, it fits here. The Clippers may have won 56 games, but they did it with a roster of great players picking up bad habits from poor coaching while struggling late in the year. In came Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and a number of new bench players to supplement the core of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Rivers is working hard to correct those habits, whether it's from Paul, Griffin or, in particular, DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers decided they weren't really a contender and needed to embark on a longer process to turn their existing core into one.
So far, results have been mixed. The Clippers are 10-5 after shellacking the Derrick Rose-less Bulls on Sunday to complete a five-game-in-seven-day stretch, which is good, but other West teams have been better. The good news? Paul and Griffin are off to excellent starts, and Redick has fit in beautifully. The bad news? The defense is still just 21st in points allowed per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference, and the revamped bench has struggled.
Let's start with the good. Over the summer, Rivers challenged both Paul and Griffin to step up, and they have so far. Paul has stopped his tendency to hold the ball and has become much more aggressive, both in pushing the ball and in taking shots that are there. Paul's taken nearly 14 shots a game this year, up from just over 12 last season. Sixty-two percent are from 10-23 feet, compared to 55 percent last year, per NBA.com's stats page. Only Stephen Curry attempts more pull-up jumpers per game, according to SportVU data. These may seem like bad shots, but they help maintain a faster pace and give the defense one more thing they have to guard.
Those shots are increasingly coming early in the shot clock, too. This is not an attempt Paul took much in the past.
A similar message has gotten through to Griffin. Last year, Griffin often held the ball and took a while to make a decision, whether he got it 18 feet from the hoop or in the low post. That indecisiveness hurt his already-poor jumper and hampered him in the post even though he has a wider variety of moves than people think. He still needs to improve in both areas, but quicker decisions have significantly helped. He's shooting 36 percent from 15-19 feet and 43 percent from 20-24 feet, per NBA.com's stats page. Last year, he shot 33 percent from 15-19 feet and and 34 percent from 20-24 feet.
And he's getting easier shots in the paint. Notice how he doesn't wait for the double team on this play and gets a layup for his efforts.
Stars playing like stars is good. But there are still issues, particularly defensively.
L.A.'s D rose several spots in the rankings with the Chicago blowout, yet still sits in the bottom third of the league. ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz noted that the biggest problems result when the Clippers go to the bench, which is true. But the starters could stand to improve too, particularly DeAndre Jordan. LA's unit allows just over 100 points per 100 possessions when the starting lineup is in, which is good, but there are still 21 lineups that have played at least 50 minutes ahead of them, per NBA.com's media-only stats page. This includes semi-regular starting lineups in Indiana, Boston, New York (surprisingly), Detroit (with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, oddly enough), Phoenix, Chicago (with Derrick Rose), Washington (with either Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster), San Antonio, New Orleans, Minnesota, Miami and Memphis. Point being: it's typical for a team's starters to defend well as a unit, so this shouldn't necessarily be used as a trump card.
This is where Jordan's and Griffin's awareness still need to improve. The Clippers' system calls for hard hedging and quick recoveries on the back end, so it's asking a lot of both players. Jordan has made strides as a rim protector and Griffin is giving more effort, but there are still too many possessions like these where they lose track of the action.
And Jordan still often forgets to put a body on would-be offensive rebounders, like here.
Things obviously get much worse as you get to the bench. Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison and Ryan Hollins is not a credible bench big man trio, and signing Lamar Odom won't move the needle much at this stage of his career. Jamal Crawford has been the defensive sieve he's often been, and Darren Collison has been poor on that end as well. Playing the two of them together has been disastrous for L.A.'s defense this year; two of L.A.'s three worst defensive lineups that play more than 10 minutes include both players, per NBA.com. Heck, if you replace Dudley with Crawford and keep the same four starters in, the Clippers' defensive rating plummets from 100.2 to 108.5. This is the dilemma with Crawford, who is such an important offensive player, but gives a lot back defensively and has a contract with little guaranteed money beyond this year, making it a useful trade asset to improve the team's frontcourt.
This play, via Andrew Garrison, illustrates a lot of the Clippers' defensive problems at once.
For one, you have Jamal Crawford taking a poor angle on his closeout. For another, you have Jordan falling asleep on the back, staying right with Steven Adams instead of rotating to cut off the lane. Because of all that, Derek Fisher of all people gets a layup.
Bottom line: L.A. has to clean up its defense if it wants to be taken seriously as a title contender.
But it's still early, and these are correctable issues. The Clippers are clearly a work in progress, and probably need at least one more frontcourt player to get to where they want to go. But they also understand that the goal is to be at their peak in May and June, not November. Until then, there's plenty of time to work through the growing pains of Rivers' rebuilding project of sorts.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
My Bullets Forever colleague Thomas Pruitt argued that we're in the middle of John Wall's official leap into superstardom. I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far yet, because we've seen Wall dominate for week-long stretches before only to fade back. But there are several notable areas of growth that make you think that leap really is happening.
Some of that is with his jumper, which looked excellent against the Raptors and Knicks after not looking so great earlier in the season. His shooting motion has a lot of moving parts, especially off the dribble, which explains why it can be so inconsistent. But when he gets this kind of balance, arc and follow through, he'll get good results.
But a lot of that growth is in his playmaking. Wall's always had great speed, but he's now seeing several steps ahead, anticipating ways to tilt the defense even if he's not getting the primary assist. Consider what's happening in this screenshot:
This looks like an ill-fated isolation attempt first glance, the kind of "hero ball" Wall is not suited to fill. Indeed, Wall has already waived Marcin Gortat away after he tried to come set a screen. But as it turns out, Wall is not looking to take Andrea Bargnani off the dribble here. He's spotted that the Knicks help defenders seem confused and is trying to figure out how to take advantage of it.
And ultimately, this is what he decides.
Wall and Gortat make eye contact, and Gortat comes to set a backscreen on Pablo Prigioni, who is guarding Bradley Beal. Yet, the goal here isn't to get the ball to Beal specifically. Wall knows the scrambled Knick help defenders will have trouble rotating, and thus he's set up the floor balance so that a pass to Beal will set up a subsequent ball rotation to Martell Webster in the opposite corner. Wall can't pass to Webster directly, but he can have one teammate clear out Beal's man for a screen to open a passing lane and convince Webster's man to help.
Sure enough, once Gortat's flare screen opens the pass to Beal, Webster's man, J.R. Smith, freaks out, comes to stop Beal and leaves Webster, one of the league's deadliest corner shooters, all alone.
Webster knocked the shot down and Wall manufactured something out of nothing.
Sure, this was bad defense, but that's not really the point. It became bad defense because Wall studied the Knicks' jumbled alignment and created a multi-pronged plan out of thin air to exploit it. He processed several rotations in advance and determined that if he manipulated his teammates just the right way, he could get his corner three-point shooter a wide-open look.
For his efforts, he received zero stats in the box score. If you're wondering why Wall leads the lead in secondary assists per game, according to now-public SportVU data, this is why.
Wall's pick and roll play has also taken a step forward. Here, the addition of Marcin Gortat has paid off big time. Gortat is one of the league's best rollers, with expert timing and soft hands to catch any passes. His addition made it necessary for Wall to develop patience and figure out ways to draw help defenders to him so he could take advantage of Gortat's skills.
Gortat, and Nene to a lesser extent, has also allowed Wall to unleash his skills on transition drag screens. Rather than always charging towards the rim, Wall is now veering into his bigs on the break, creating pick and roll finishes on the fly before the defense gets set. For example:
And for example:
That second one included a nifty hesitation dribble to get by J.J. Barea and draw Dante Cunningham to open up the pass to Nene. Again: a sign of growth.
No question, Wall's ultimate success requires that he continue to improve as a shooter, and we need more than two good games to say that's fixed. Even his shockingly-not-terrible three-point shooting has come in a small sample of attempts.
But Wall's now reached the point where he can control games without that jumper falling. He shot 5-17 against Minnesota on Tuesday, but still conducted a 104-100 win with 16 assists and one turnover. That's happening because he's learning the balance of when to attack and when to facilitate, when to push in transition, how to change speeds and how to use different movements to set up what he wants instead of just taking what the defense wants.
The process of putting it all together takes time for young point guards. Wall is getting closer to the end goal.
SACRIFICE OF THE WEEK
There are so many pieces to a play's puzzle that don't show up in the box score. We'll highlight one such piece each week in this section.
It's been a rough week for Bulls fans, so let's recognize something happier here. Check out Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich leveling poor Thomas Robinson on consecutive cross-screens for Taj Gibson in Friday's game against the Trail Blazers.
That's how you get a guy open.
10 other observations from the week that was.
- I don't know if the Blazers are really this good, but I do know their offense is a thing of beauty. There's so much misdirection that teams never know what to defend. Terry Stotts has brought much of the 2011 Mavericks' playbook to Portland, but there are several different wrinkles. The Blazers love to set down screens for Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum at the same time because it can trigger so many different options. It's a great way to get LaMarcus Aldridge a post touch, for example, because he can simply turn and dive into the post after setting a screen. Also, one of the two wings will circle back through the top of the key, and that can set up a second down screen for him to pop back to the top of the key or something else. This beautiful backdoor play for Matthews qualifies as "something else."
- There are times, however rare, when the Cavaliers look like they are picking up Mike Brown's defensive system. There are other times when they display an alarming lack of effort and cohesiveness. This is an example of the former. This is an example of the latter.
- I've been surprised by how often teams are going to traditional zones for a possession or two out of timeouts or missed free throws as a change of pace. Even teams that defend well with their regular schemes are doing this. Check out how the Spurs confused the Grizzlies on this play in the third quarter on Friday.
- Really interesting to read Grizzlies players, as well as Dave Joerger himself, admitting to Sam Amick of USA Today that they got too far away from Grit 'N Grind early in the season. I noted a couple weeks ago that it seemed they were trying too hard to get into their sets quicker, jumbling up the rest of their game. I guess they agreed. Of course, doing that without Marc Gasol for a while will be difficult. Related: a great look by Grizzly Bear Blues at the importance of hockey assists.
- Denver Stiffs talked to Tommy Balcetis, the Nuggets' manager of basketball analytics, about what exactly he does. He was vague about the specifics as expected, but it's always great to hear more from these guys. On another note: the Nuggets have been very good since JaVale McGee's injury allowed them to go small up front. It's also helped that Brian Shaw seems to be bringing back some of the semi-transition tricks George Karl used to use after previously trying to enforce a new style on his roster. Notice how J.J. Hickson delays getting up the floor on this play before cutting down the lane for a dunk.
- Anyone who loves point guard fundamentals has to love Michael Carter-Williams. The 76ers' rookie does a great job of getting low and shielding the ball with his body when he drives, which masks his slender frame. Rather than use blazing speed to get by defenders, he gets them on his back shoulder, then uses his body to elevate or pass around them. Here's an example from Friday's game against Milwaukee.
- Here's a crazy stat for you: a whopping 44.6 percent of Monta Ellis' finished plays have come as the ball-handler in the pick and roll, according to MySynergySports.com. His efficiency on those plays? Fourth-best in the NBA. The Mavs are clever at how they use Ellis in this play, too, often setting the screen well in front so he can get a running start rather than having the big man come to him. Here's just one example of that.
- At some point, the Thunder's tendency to take three quarters off defensively against so-so teams before turning it on in the fourth will cost them. But it's a long season, and as Welcome to Loud City notes, the Thunder's defense can be vicious when locked in.
- That 2011 No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams barely plays for a Timberwolves team in desperate need of bench production is an indictment on Minnesota's player-development staff, and Rick Adelman by proxy. But there's a reason Adelman has little patience for the third-year forward, and it shows up in little ways, like taking a step in for a contested two when he should be catching and shooting for three, or making a pointless gamble in transition that led to a fast-break opportunity for the other team.
- Oh Nets. You have been so bad this year, thanks to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce showing their age, too much ISO ball and bad coaching. If I had to choose the one play that epitomizes this season, though, I'd take this one. That's Kevin Love you forgot to box out.