Can the Clippers Get Back on Track?
It was just three weeks ago that the Los Angeles Clippers were sitting pretty at 4-0 on the season, prompting basketball brains everywhere to ask themselves again whether or not this Clippers team was ready to make the jump from really good to elite.
Today, that question has again been put on the proverbial back burner.
Los Angeles has been reeling since their hot start. In their last nine games they're 2-7, which leaves them 6-7 on the season and tied with the Utah Jazz for the 7 seed in the West.
If the season were to end today for Doc Rivers and company, that just wouldn't cut it. Lucky for them there are nearly 70 games remaining on their schedule and a lot more time to improve as a team.
In order to do just that -- improve -- they must first realize why they were so successful to start out the season and why they have been struggling as of late.
We're going to take a look for them today.
The Blake Show
If you've been watching the NBA lately you've probably seen the NBA App commercial where a kid says he was out in L.A. with Blake and the boys. Even if you haven't, you should know by now that the Clippers are Blake Griffin's team.
Chris Paul is only getting older. Griffin, age 26, is in the prime of his career. He got off to a scorching hot start that would rival anyone but Stephen Curry and his legendary run to the start the season. In fact, Griffin's start was one of historical note.
Through six games, he was averaging 29.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, but over the last two-plus weeks, Griffin has seen his numbers decline.
His nightly line now stands at 24.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per contest while shooting over 50% from the field just twice since doing so four times in his first six games. So, what's going on?
There could be a few things, but the main factor seems to be fatigue. On the season, Griffin is averaging a respectable 33.9 minutes per game, but that includes a game against the Suns in which he played 16 minutes because of an ejection.
Griffin has played at least 36 minutes in seven out of L.A.'s 13 games this season. That could be in part because of Chris Paul's injury issues, or it could be due to the Clippers' lack of depth at the position. Either way, Doc has to suck it up (when Paul's healthy) and give more minutes to Josh Smith, who is averaging fewer than 15 minutes per game this year.
Smith isn't anything close to what Blake Griffin is, but if Doc wants the efficient and productive Griffin he got at the beginning of the season, he has to get him rest.
It's probably not a coincidence that, when Griffin started struggling, the Clipper offense started to do the same. Because he's such a huge part of what they do on the offensive end on a nightly basis, it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to start there. But what else has gone wrong with the once elite Clippers attack?
Their three-point field goal percentage may have risen over 6% from where it was after their 4-1 start, but their field goal percentage has dropped nearly 4% over the last seven games. And by looking at the numbers, there hasn't been much of a change outside of that. Their assist and turnover numbers aren't drastically different. Neither is their free throw shooting.
The biggest difference is in the results -- not just losing games but failing to score more than 91 points of either of their last two games. It might be an issue of continuity, with recent injuries to not only Paul but also J.J. Redick. And there's also the Paul Pierce DNP-Old thing, and the Wesley Johnson/Lance Stephenson failures thus far.
What it boils down to is the same thing we've been talking about for years: the Clippers need their reserves to play better in order for their starters to be rested and play well while they're on the floor. The starters have to be efficient with their shots, and you just can't do that consistently on tired legs.
The solution to this problem might not come in the way of on-court play but rather off-court moves.
In the early stages of this season, the Clipper defense showed real signs of improvement. In their first seven games they posted an average Defensive Rating of 102.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. They also managed to hold three teams to 96 points or fewer within that time span by forcing them into tough shots, as evidenced by their opponents' Effective Field Goal Percentage of 45.8%.
Currently playing at the 12th-fastest pace in the NBA, the Clippers were even better than those numbers suggest.
Since their November 7th game against Houston, the Clippers have given up nearly 106 points per game and have held three teams to fewer than 102 points. They've seen their opponents' Effective Field Goal Percentage rise by 6.8 percentage points to 52.6% in the past seven games.
They've also seen a difference in terms of the foul and foul shooting battles. In their first six, the Clippers allowed their opponents just .191 free throws per field goal attempt. In their last seven, they've seen that figure jump to .293 per field goal attempt. They've averaged 23.3 personal fouls per game, surrendering 29.4 free throw attempts and over 22.8 freebies a night.
At the same time, Los Angeles has shot 26.3 free throws per game while converting on 18.4 of them for a percentage of 69.9%. They've been allowing opposing offenses to thrive at the free throw line and struggling to take advantage of their opportunities on the other end.
Maybe we should've seen all this coming though. The Clippers had it easy to begin the season, not even leaving the state of California until a week and a half (five games) into the season. They went 4-2, losing close contests to the Warriors in Oracle and the Rockets at home (without Paul).
After losing to the struggling Rockets, the Clippers beat Memphis at home by two before heading on the road... where their troubles began.
The Clippers went into Dallas -- in DeAndre Jordan's "return" -- and lost to a tough Mavericks team. Paul came down with yet another injury at the end of the game, and the Clippers went on to lose to the Suns in Phoenix. However, they managed a nice victory at home against the Pistons prior to getting their world rocked in games versus Golden State, at Portland and versus Toronto.
After all was said and done, the Clippers came out on the other end with a road record of 1-4 on the year. You could argue that they don't get as many calls on the road as they do at home, but the numbers just don't suggest that. The difference is actually under a personal foul against per game.
The question presented really has to be answered two-fold: no, it's not time to panic but it's also not time to sit back and relax. If the Clippers intend to get back to playing the way they did at the beginning of the season, they need to put in some work, both on and off the court.