At this point in time, Doc Rivers still has big questions to answer
I am writing this piece despite the fact that Zach Lowe just a few days ago wrote a big article defending the Clippers and arguing that, although people—like me—like to hate on the Clippers, they’re actually still really good.
Now, caveat one, the most obvious: Zach Lowe is much smarter than me. Caveat two: There is obviously a strong argument to be made that the Clippers can still compete at the highest level. Lowe points to their still-blistering offense, which pretty much trails only Golden State in points, efficiency, and differential. He argues that although their defense, in terms of points, isn’t one of the better ones in the league, the Clippers do tricky things to mix up schemes and also there is still time to figure out the defense.
Against reason, however, I disagree with Zach Lowe. (Shudder…) While the Clippers do have the league’s second- or third-best offense—at this point it’s tough for me to put LA’s offense over Atlanta’s, which is superior in differential and assists—it’s not just their points defense that’s a problem. It’s a systematic problem, a holistic web of concerns, and I’m not sure if it’s simply a lack of effort, a coaching situation, a roster situation, or some mix of those three variables. I suspect it is the latter.
For starters, it’s best to mention a couple more things. The Clippers are just 1.5 games out of third place in the West. There is still a very real possibility they can climb over Houston and Portland—and maybe even Memphis. Another thing: There are really only two teams—the Warriors and the Hawks—who I would say have basically have no issues. Everybody else—the Grizzlies, Blazers, Rockets, the Cavs and Bulls, everyone—has serious flaws.
Three simple categories. Steals, blocks, and forced turnovers. The Clippers rank 13th, 12th, and 13th, respectively. That’s not horrible. But isn’t Chris Paul supposed to be some amazing perimeter defender? The truth is, he’s not. As Lowe points out, Matt Barnes is still probably their best perimeter defender. For a little comparison, the Warriors rank in the top-10 in all three of those categories.
The biggest problem with the Clippers, however, is not their defense, average as it is, and it’s not even rebounding—a huge question-mark, given that DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin compose your starting frontcourt—the biggest issue haunting this team is the bench. Great bench scoring does not necessarily make a great team, but if the Spurs have taught us anything over the last several years it’s that a great bench really, really helps. When your system can pluck guys like Danny Green and Patty Mills out of obscurity and transform them into key cogs in a championship machine, that’s something that gives you an edge.
The Clippers have Jamal Crawford, who is 34. The Spencer Hawes signing—which on paper seemed like the perfect fit, which to me seemed like the perfect fit—has been an absolute disaster. There is so little reliable talent on this bench. Rivers has no idea what he’s got, even though he himself has put it together. Big Baby Davis? Austin Rivers? 35-year-old Hedo Turkoglu? A team with the depth of Golden State would, in a seven-game playoff series, put the Clippers through a meat grinder.
Look, to definitively say that the Clippers are not title contenders would be a little black-and-white, a little too certain. I’m not going to say that. But at this rate, they’re not. With this defense, they’re not. And I really, really question their bench, the roster Rivers has put together. It’s old. It’s not skilled. It’s not scoring. And while—amazingly—the Clippers still have one of the league’s best offenses, the playoffs will expose some of these under-the-surface issues. Great defensive teams will exploit these facts, and the Clippers won’t be able to hide behind the talent of their front line any more.