It’s been a hot topic around Southern California and the league: What is going on with the 4-3 Clippers? They haven’t looked like contenders, and they haven’t looked like the dangerous team they were at the end of the playoffs last year.
Critics can talk about execution down the stretch, and the Clippers certainly lacked that in their loss to the Spurs Monday. They can talk about the team playing flat and without energy, and that is certainly true for long stretches. They can talk about poor offensive execution, and the Clippers are down 5.4 points per 100 possessions on offense from their league high last season. They can talk about Blake Griffin taking too many jumpers, although on Monday he made a point of getting back inside. All of that is true.
But none of that is the Clippers’ biggest problem.
The most concerning issue is their perimeter defense — and there’s no easy fix for this leak.
Monday night in the Clippers latest loss, the Spurs stepped away from their title-winning motion offense as much as they have any night in recent memory because they knew that Jamal Crawford couldn’t handle Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter. Gregg Popovich said he called Leonard’s number more than he has at any time in the Finals MVP’s young career and Leonard responded with 26 points. It was key to the Spurs winning the game.
When it quickly became clear Crawford was in way over his head, DeAndre Jordan started coming over early to the strong side to help cut off those drives, but that set off a series of slow or missed Clippers’ defensive rotations that left key Spurs open for good looks — if San Antonio hadn’t shot 9-of-36 on uncontested shots in this game, it would have been another ugly loss for the Clippers. Most nights it would have been.
And Doc Rivers knows it. Postgame he was asked if the open looks the Spurs got and the loss showed the danger of trying to play J.J. Redick and Crawford together so much. His response?
Rivers felt he had to insert Crawford into the starting lineup because Matt Barnes is shooting 31 percent from three this season and isn’t spacing the floor. And Crawford does help the offense — the Clippers eFG% jumps from 46.1 to 53.1 percent when he is on the floor, and the Clippers score 9.1 points more per 100 possessions than when Crawford sits. What may be more worrying is the Clippers defense is better when he is on the court too, despite how teams just line up to go at him.
“We don’t have that one guy. I’m not going to tell Matt, ‘I need you to go stop LeBron.’ I’m not going to tell Chris that or J.J. or Jamal or Reggie [Bullock],” Rivers said after the game. “It’s going to have to be a team effort, and we knew that coming into the season….
“It’s not anything I’m going to lose sleep over. It would be great. I would be a lot smarter coaching-wise if we had something like that, but we don’t. We have what we have.”
So far the team effort Rivers needs has fallen well short.
What the Clippers would love to do is trade for that defensive stopper on the wing. Good luck. The entire league wants one of those. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports said Thursday on the Clippers flagship radio station in Los Angeles The Beast 980 the team had called around the league looking to trade for a wing, but came up empty. The bigger problem was even if a quality wing defender were available the Clippers don’t have another player to trade that wouldn’t just create another hole in the roster and another problem. They are not rich with trade assets.
Of course, it’s not all on the wings. Sure, Crawford and Redick (and Barnes the way he played) have not stayed in front of their men, but the Clippers were counting on DeAndre Jordan to clean up a lot of those messes, yet opposing teams are shooting 63.7 percent inside 5 feet of the rim against the Clippers, the second highest percentage in the league (only the Suns are worse). They have not had great rim protection.
But if they dream of playing with the Spurs or the other elite teams in the West, they are going to need better perimeter defense. One way or another. It’s just not going to be a simple fix.