Contender Profile: L.A. Clippers

As the season winds to a close I will be reviewing the teams that can legitimately challenge for the title. I will focus on 9 teams, 5 from the West and 4 from the East, and will break down what makes them dangerous, what can be used against them, and how far they can be expected to go. Here’s the breakdown for L.A.’s other team, the Clippers.

Positive proof that you could put Chris Paul and Blake Griffin together on any team and they could compete, the Clippers have had a second strong-yet-flawed season since bringing the two together. Paul’s impact on the team is undeniable. In the 12 games that he missed the Clippers went 6-6. In the games Paul has started, they have gone 48-20.

Looking at the numbers, his impact is mostly seen on offense, but most of this has to do with Eric Bledsoe being Paul’s backup and the other starters’ lack of defensive prowess. The Clippers are +11.6 on offense with Paul on the court, and there is plenty of visual evidence to back it up. There are games that he can win on his own, slowly breaking down the defense to get shots for his teammates or himself.

L.A. ranks third in the league in assist rate, again attributable to Paul, and to a lesser extent Griffin, who is himself a talented passer. The starters rely heavily on this duo to generate shots, and the offense isn’t particularly complex as a result. A typical sequence will involve Griffin posting up on the right block and taking an entry pass from Paul before making a move to score or pass to a cutter or shooter. The other main action is a Paul-Griffin pick and roll, which is effective, because how could it not be?

There are a couple of variations to these actions. Occasionally Paul will bring the ball up and pass to a wing, mostly Caron Butler, in the corner to get a better angle on an entry pass to Griffin. The pick and roll sometimes involves DeAndre Jordan, which can end in some gif-worthy dunks. Most of these dunks come as counters to the defense’s reaction to Paul and Griffin’s two man game though. There are also a few interesting multi-pick moves, but it all boils down to the two basic sets in the end.

When the bench mob comes in, everything is run through Jamal Crawford, with Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes working off the ball and the front line left to mop up. The Clippers tend to use a 10-man rotation, with the starters and bench operating as two separate 5-man units. The bench is mostly isos and other simple actions, relying heavily on Crawford’s skill at creating mediocre shots.

All told, the offense ranks 4th in the league and is the team’s calling card. The other side of the ball is a little less impressive. Most of this can be traced to the starters. The bench units that have gotten the most run are somewhere between okay and pretty good, with Lamar Odom providing solid play on the back line, Barnes being respectable, and Bledsoe bothering the primary ball handler into making mistakes left and right.

The starters, on the other hand, feature the roaming nuisance that is Chris Paul, and that’s about it. Griffin and Jordan can make athletic plays, but neither provides the kind of support around the basket that the perimeter players need. A big problem that stems from this is how easily the Clippers manage to lose perimeter players. Opponents are shooting over 37% from three against them, and this trend is probably their biggest weakness.

When the ball begins swinging around the floor, the defense tends to focus on the strong side and packing the paint – both good things. The problem comes when a defender loses track of his man to do this. A good defense is always aware of who is and is not covered so rotations can be swift and effective, but too often L.A. finds itself giving up open threes. This is a shame, because despite this flaw they still rank 9th in defensive efficiency, and one could see them being even better if they could work out this problem.

So how far can they make it in the playoffs? Hard to tell given that they could legitimately end up playing any one of four teams in the 1st round even though there are only two games left in the season. What can be said is that the type of team that they will be most vulnerable to is one that has a strong defense and is expert at finding open threes on offense.

Houston jumps out as a potential upset candidate, with their reliance on shooting from distance and insane pace. Golden State could be as well, but Bledsoe and Paul will be able to put pressure on Stephen Curry, the biggest 3-point threat in the league, and the rest of the team is too vulnerable. Both Denver and Memphis struggle from the perimeter, but are talented enough in other areas that a series with either team would likely hinge on other factors (health, home-court advantage, blind luck).

Should they make it to a later round, Paul and Friends will have a tough time against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. The Spurs would be their best bet, if only for the higher likelihood of injuries taking a toll on the team. Beating the Thunder across a seven-game series would be a big surprise. Given that, getting to the West Finals is pretty much the peak for this team.