Three months ago, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like legitimate contenders for the NBA title. Led by the developing chemistry between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, they ripped off a 17-game winning streak and seemed poised to crack the Miami/Oklahoma City/San Antonio contender trio.
Lately, though, things haven't been so good for L.A.'s best team. The Clippers are just 24-20 since that 17-game winning streak ended and have fallen behind the Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference standings.
Why have the Clippers fallen off? The answer is simple: defense.
When they were winning, L.A. was hovering in the top five in defensive efficiency, but things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse in recent weeks. The Clippers have surrendered an average of 105.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break. Only sub-.500 Milwaukee, at 105.8/100 possessions, is worse among the 16 playoff teams. When you narrow the sample to March 1 and later, the Clippers fall behind Milwaukee on that list.
What has caused the Clippers' tremendous defensive fall? A look at the tape reveals a club that has no coherent plan on how to defend any sort of play.
Take the pick and roll, for example. From game to game, from player to player, you have no idea whether the Clippers will trap aggressively go under the screens or try to contain the ball-handler with a big man. When they do trap, they often fail to make the next rotation to cover the basket.
Here's an example from Wednesday's game against the Hornets. The Clippers will use center DeAndre Jordan to trap Eric Gordon, but there's nobody near the hoop to protect against the roll man or a weakside cutter.
The Hornets are running some misdirection, with Anthony Davis screening for Greivis Vasquez as the Gordon/Robin Lopez pick and roll is happening, but there's no reason for Blake Griffin to be that high on the floor. If the plan is for Griffin to be there, why are the Clippers trapping the Gordon/Lopez play? If it's not, why is Griffin at the top of the key?
The end result is that Lopez dives to the rim and Gordon finds him for a wide-open layup with a simple pocket bounce pass.
Griffin is the man who committed the breakdown here, but other plays spotted on tape in the last four games show Jordan and Lamar Odom also ending up in Griffin's position when the Clippers trap. The Clippers have a tendency to not position anyone at the rim when they trap high pick and rolls, and that's a big problem.
L.A. also doesn't seem to use all five men to defend the pick and roll very well. Here's a play from Tuesday's home loss to the Pacers that ends with Paul George getting a layup. L.A. will trap a 1-3 pick and roll between George and George Hill, but as the ball is swung around, nobody picks up George rolling to the rim.
Whose job is it to stop George? Watch guard Willie Green in the left corner. Green is covering Lance Stephenson, who is a decent, but not deadly perimeter shooter. Most schemes call for the man in Green's position to step into George's lane and either bump George off his path (this is known as "chucking") or just stand in his way so nobody can throw him a pass.
Instead, though, Green's positioning is off. He doesn't beat George to the spot, allowing David West an easy pass for a layup.
Once again, this shows a lack of coherence. If the plan is to trap the pick and roll, the other three defenders must do everything possible to prevent the roll man from scoring. They don't in this case.
But this confusion isn't limited to pick and roll traps. Sometimes, the Clippers will defend the play softer, which is even more confusing. Griffin and Jordan are both athletic big men that could slide their feet with most guards, but their positioning and timing is so off that guards often have a field day coming at them.
Watch Griffin on this play in Saturday's blowout loss to the Houston Rockets. Rather than step up to contain Jeremy Lin on this pick and roll, Griffin stands flat-footed and lets Lin drive right past him.
I suppose Griffin is concerned about Donatas Motiejunas shooting the three-pointer, but if Chris Paul is going to duck behind Lin on that pick and roll like he does, it's because he expects his big man to contain the ball-handler until he recovers. If the plan is for Griffin to not leave Motiejunas, then Paul needs to defend the play in a different way. Once again, this shows a lack of a coherent plan.
The Clippers also don't have a universal philosophy when defending off-ball screens. They often switch assignments, which can be valuable in short doses as a change of pace, but not when done too often because it breeds lazy habits. Worse, when they do switch, they take poor angles and fail to communicate properly.
There's really not a good reason to switch this play. Parker in the corner won't be a threat as the roll man, and Butler would have plenty of help if Leonard cut to the top of the key and ran him perfectly into Parker's pick. For some reason, though, Butler asks Green to switch assignments with him. Green processes the instructions way too slowly, takes a poor angle when trying to stick with Leonard and opens up a backdoor cut.
And then, there's whatever Jamal Crawford is trying to accomplish on this critical fourth-quarter possession. The Spurs use Leonard, Crawford's man, to screen for Tim Duncan to get open on the left block. Crawford correctly "chucks" Duncan to impede his path and help Jordan recover, but then gets held up in the traffic.
At this point, everyone on the Clippers panics. Are they switching? Are they expecting Crawford to recover to Leonard? Who is switching onto Leonard: Griffin or Matt Barnes? What about Tiago Splitter? None of the three players noted in the above screenshot have any clue what to do.
That shows as the play develops. Griffin thinks he's leaving Tiago Splitter to cover Leonard. Crawford thinks Barnes will pinch in to stop Splitter from getting wide open and starts to run to Parker in the corner. Barnes thinks Crawford is pinching in to stop Splitter and maintains his general help position.
Griffin helps on Leonard, and now Crawford is completely lost right underneath the basket. He's guarding nobody and he's made no move to actually attempt to guard anyone. Barnes notices an issue and points right at Splitter, but he, too, is essentially guarding nobody.
The end result? Splitter cuts right to the front of the rim as both Barnes and Crawford stand there hoping the other picks Splitter up.
Barnes eventually fouls Splitter as a last resort, but that breakdown never should have happened. (Also, note where Crawford is in that final screenshot. He's still not sure where to be!).
The Clippers have tried to go zone to counteract several of these problems, but save for some mild success against the Pacers in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, it's been just as big of a disaster. The Syracuse 2-3, this is not. A zone makes some sense with long defenders, but the Clippers' are generally undersized, especially on the perimeter. That leaves obvious openings like this one in the fourth quarter on Tuesday.
Or, this one against the Hornets Wednesday, when a simple ball screen frees Gordon for an easy shot.
The Clippers have essentially gone zone because none of their other defenses have worked, not because it gives them a tactical advantage. That's a sign of larger structural problems.
While the Clippers have some poor individual and help defenders on the roster, it's hard not to point the finger at Vinny Del Negro and the rest of the coaching staff. Good defensive teams have an identity. They run fewer schemes and drill their players relentlessly on proper positioning within those schemes. The Bulls generally play pick and rolls soft and force you to score over the top. The Heat blitz pick and rolls in an attempt to force turnovers. The Thunder overplay the strong side and force you to beat them with skip passes. The Pacers and Grizzlies funnel drives to their elite defensive centers, allowing the other four defenders to stay closer attached to their men. And so on.
What is the Clippers' defensive identity? Judging from their recent collapse, they don't really have one. Instead, they try defending plays one way until that fails, then panic and try another way. They switch out of convenience, not because they think it'll confuse the defense. They go zone because nothing else is working, exacerbating the problem because it forces the players to master positioning for yet another scheme before the main scheme is mastered. These are all qualities of bad defensive teams.
Better individual defenders could cover some of these issues up, but we've seen many teams prosper with rosters ill-suited to defense. Any confusion seen by Clipper defenders is ultimately a reflection on the Clippers' coaching staff.