Don’t Sleep on the Clippers… If They Can Get A Fifth Guy

Posted: 12/14/2016 by levcohen in Basketball
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Early in the season, there were rumblings that maybe the Los Angeles Clippers were the team that could cause the Golden State Warriors the most trouble this year. That’s what a dominant 14-2 start can do for you, right? Well, that talk has subsided as quickly as it began as the Clippers have lost five of their last nine, including a crushing 17-point loss at home against the Warriors. But I’m here to tell you that, demolition aside, Doc Rivers’s team can still be the biggest threat to the Warriors this season.

Sports fans are generally reactionary beings, which is why the Clippers received so much attention after compiling a 14-2 start and a +13.8 point differential and one reason that they’ve been dismissed during their recent swoon. There’s also the fact that these Clippers aren’t all that exciting to talk about anymore. They certainly were five years ago, when Chris Paul was a newly minted Clipper and LA was enamored of the “Lob City Clips.” But this is now Paul’s sixth year running the show with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Six years is a long time to keep a core together — especially one that has never even made the Western Conference Finals. To put this in perspective, Paul’s first year as a Clipper was the year LeBron won his first championship. This is a make-or-break year for the group. After a year full of excuses, everyone’s healthy this year, and both Paul and Griffin could decide to leave after the season. In fact, it’s been widely suggested that they should try to trade one of their stars in order to kickstart a rebuild, with the reasoning being that this team has already peaked and will never be good enough to challenge Golden State or San Antonio. They’ve lost seven straight against the Warriors, after all. I’m going to argue the opposite, because I believe that people don’t realize how good they are and the chance they have to be the Warriors’ kryptonite.

The story is the same as it’s been for years: the Clippers have four players who play really well together, but they can’t find a perfect fifth starter. When Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and J.J. Redick are on the court together, the Clippers have scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions and given up 97.3. That’s good for a net rating of +17.3 and would be the best defense and second best offense in the NBA. The Warriors lead the NBA with a +11.4 net rating, while their big four have posted a +17 rating. CP3, BG, DJ, and JJ all rank in the top nine in the NBA in +/-, and they’re joined by the four Warriors and LeBron James. And none of this is a fluke. Last year, the same four were +16.3 per 100 possessions, and the year before they were +16.4. I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know right now, but it’s worth noting that the foursome is not just good but best-foursome-in-the-NBA good.

Here’s the important part: not only are the Clippers’ top four good together, but they’re good together in the ways that tend to bother the Warriors. They are super stingy on defense, rebound the ball really well, and can slow the pace down. As the Cavaliers showed last year, Golden State can be slowed down (I know they’ve added KD since then, but still). Remember how Steph Curry got worn down in last year’s playoffs? Well, let’s see how he fares in a series against Chris Paul, one of the stingiest defensive point guards in the league and also one of the toughest to play against. Paul can hound Curry. Redick, one of the best three point shooters in the league, can put pressure on a defense that’s quietly not been as good as it was last season, allowing 1.6 more points per contest. Jordan can protect the rim, switch onto Curry if necessary without looking too silly, and rack up rebounds (so basically Tristan Thompson but better). And Griffin, as I’ll touch on later, is the real key.

In failing to mention Luc Richard Mbah a Moute up to this point, I’ve been doing the Cameroonian a major disservice. He’s the guy most commonly put on the court with the other four (in fact, the five of them play together almost 20 minutes per game, more than the Warriors’ Big Four are on the court together. The other four play together but without Luc for just five minutes per game), and he hasn’t hindered LA’s play in the slightest. When Luc plays with the other four, the Warriors outscore opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possession. As we’ve already established, that’s elite-level production. The problem is that we’ve seen that lineup in the playoffs, and it just doesn’t work. The reason, and this is something we’ve seen time and time again, is that defenses don’t allow teams to get away with the same things in the playoffs that they get away with in the regular season. That will mean completely ignoring Mbah a Moute and forcing him to beat you. The Clips are only allowing 95.3 points per 100 possessions when Luc is on the court, the best individual mark in the NBA, which shows you how good he is on the defensive side. But let’s just say that offense isn’t his strong suit. He can’t shoot, pass, or dribble, which really hinders his ability to help on offense. The Clips will be playing 4-on-5 whenever he’s on the court, which will force them to replace him with Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, or Marreese Speights, all of whom will pretty much tank the Clippers’ chance of staying with the Warriors. The Thunder almost beat the Warriors playing largely 4-on-5 when Andre Roberson was on the court, but this is different for a number of reasons. Oklahoma City had the individual talent (KD and Russell Westbrook) to make up for the numbers disadvantage. With the possible exception of peak Blake Griffin, the Clippers don’t have that individual scoring ability. The Thunder also had legitimate bench players to turn to, while the Clippers really don’t. Most importantly, Roberson hit eight threes in that series, forcing the Warriors to guard him at least a bit. I don’t see that happening with Luc, who has made 30 threes in exactly 100 regular season games since joining the Clippers. They need a wing player who’s at least a threat to score and who can push Mbah a Moute to the role that makes most sense for him: 13-17 minutes per game of shutdown defense on Durant.

Who is that wing? Well, the Clippers don’t have the means to make any blockbuster trades. They’re not going to get Rudy Gay, for example. But how about someone like Gay’s teammate in Sacramento, Omri Casspi? His minutes are way down this year under new coach Dave Joerger, but over the last three years he’s been a consistent 40% three point shooter who can rebound suitably. He’s a huge offensive upgrade over Mbah a Moute and can be gotten rather cheaply. Or how about Stanley Johnson, a young player who has fallen out of favor in Detroit? My point is that there are a number of cheap wing players available who could be the missing piece to go along with Paul, Griffin, Redick, and Jordan. Of course, the Clippers have been looking for that player for years, but they should feel a lot more urgent about getting him this year in LA’s final real opportunity to challenge for a title with this nucleus.

It will take a lot to beat this Warriors team four times in seven games. It might not happen, and the Warriors may just waltz to the championship. But last year told us that things are rarely that cut-and-dry, and the odds are high that Golden State is seriously challenged (if not defeated) at some point. At this point, it may not seem likely that the Clippers will be the team to challenge them, especially after the game a week ago tonight, when the Warriors won 115-98 despite getting just 59 combined points from KD, Klay, and Steph. I don’t think any team in the Western Conference has a better chance of making things interesting, though. At their peak, the Clippers have the best defense in the NBA, with Paul harassing opposing point guards, Redick possessing great awareness, Mbah a Moute shutting down top scorers, Griffin using his athleticism to dominate, and Jordan controlling the defensive boards and protecting the rim. And when they’re really rolling, their offense can be really explosive. We know that Paul is going to do his part, that Jordan is going to get a bunch of hustle points, and that Redick, a 44% three point shooter, is going to be good for 15+ points and great floor spacing. The onus is on Blake Griffin to have the type of postseason he had two years ago, when the Clippers beat the Spurs in the first round and then went up 3-1 on the Houston Rockets (we all know what happened next). In those playoffs, Griff had three triple-doubles, averaged 26/13/6, and shot 51% from the field. He needs to find that kind of form against the Warriors, a team he’s really struggled against thanks largely to the efforts of Draymond Green. And the Clippers need to make some sort of move, unless they’re hiding someone on their roster who can be the playoff X-factor (Paul Pierce, anyone?? No?). This may seem like asking for a lot, but it’s going to take a lot for anyone to beat the Warriors, including the Cavs. Golden State’s going to be heavily favored against anyone they face, so I’m just looking for the teams that are most likely to make things interesting. Don’t let a December swoon fool you: the Clippers are going to be dangerous.

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