The story for the Los Angeles Clippers has, for the most part, been the same ever since they traded for Chris Paul in 2011. They are annually one of the best teams in the NBA, powered by their top-three players (Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), a high-octane offense, a league-average or slightly better defense and generally a shallow bench. However, things seem to be a little different this season, as the Clippers have the best record in the league (8-1) and are off to their best start to a season in franchise history.
The first response any NBA fan may have to the Clippers’ hot start is skepticism. The Clippers have been a good-to-great regular season team for years now, but have failed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. However, this Clippers’ team seems a bit different than its predecessors. Sure, the majority of the players are the same, the coaching staff is only slightly altered and the starters continue to navigate their sets with peak efficiency. But this team isn’t just outscoring their opponents this season – they are pummeling them with a combination of energetic, lockdown defense, depth off the bench and their potent offensive attack.
As of November 12, the Clippers are ranked first overall in defensive rating, holding opponents to 91 points per 100 possessions, which is 4.9 points better than the second-best defensive team, the Atlanta Hawks. This impressive defensive output has offset the fact that Clippers’ offense, while still efficient, has not performed at an elite level like it has in recent seasons. The Clippers are currently ranked 11th in offensive efficiency, scoring 105.9 points per 100 possessions. Nevertheless, based on the strength of their defense, the Clippers lead the league in net rating (+14.9), which is a strong indicator that L.A. has been the best team in basketball this season by a wide margin.
Whether the ramped up defense is primarily a result of years of continuity, a shift in strategy or their offseason acquisitions, the players seem to be focusing on and enjoying their new defense-based identity.
“I was talking to somebody on the bench, maybe it was at halftime, and it’s like, ‘When you play defense like that, it’s fun,’” Blake Griffin said. “You look forward to getting stops. Guys are just flying around, might make a mistake, but somebody’s covering up for you, then somebody’s covering up for them covering up for you. When you’re playing basketball like that, it’s a blast.”
Over the years, opposing teams have come to expect big offensive performances from the Clippers, but now it seems they will have to start planning out how to dissect what has seemingly become an elite defense as well.
“Their defense was great,” Stan Van Gundy said after the Clippers beat the Detroit Pistons by 32 points. “We didn’t have any patience to move the ball. We didn’t execute, we didn’t screen. You’re not going to get stuff easy against that defense. You’re really going to have to work. … I didn’t have our guys ready to play against that defense. I think that was pretty obvious.”
Again, the season is early and the Clippers haven’t had to deal with any major issues like injuries or new players struggling to acclimate to a new role and system. However, the team will run into some bumps throughout the season, but for right now they are finding joy in their defensive improvements.
“We are having a lot of fun right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with our defense,” Chris Paul said. “The part about it is we will hit adversity at some point, and it’s crazy, as much fun as I’m having right now, that’s all I’m thinking about. Seriously, when it does happen, how are we going to react?”
The Clippers have been locking down their opponents and running up the score in the first half of several games. This wasn’t something the Clippers could do consistently in past seasons because anytime the starters came off the court, the bench would often hemorrhage points and let their opponents close any gap the starters may have created. This season, the Clippers seem to have finally found some players who were extremely undervalued in the free agent market and are capable of not just holding a lead, but stretching it out when the starters are resting.
“The second unit has done an unbelievable job, especially defensively of just buying into the principles,” Griffin said. “[Raymond Felton] just absolutely dogs the ball, every time, and makes it tough to even start the offense.”
Marreese Speights is another key offseason addition that has bolstered the Clippers’ second unit. After losing a significant amount of weight this offseason and continuing to improve his jumper, Speights has become a nice offensive weapon off the bench for the Clippers and a surprisingly effective defender as well.
“You know what he does? He shoots … and he makes some of them, which is really nice,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s done a great job defensively as far as taking charges. We saw that in Golden State, but we’ve seen it more.
“He’s one of those guys you want on your team, in your locker room. He’s just a fun guy to be around. You know he’s been in big games. He’s been better than advertised for me.”
Between the additions of Felton and Speights, the improved play of Austin Rivers and the offensive punch that Jamal Crawford is still somehow able to bring each night, the Clippers have put together a strong second-unit that is doing its best to keep up with the starters. In fact, among all five-man lineups that have played 85 minutes or more together this season, the Clippers’ starters and their primary bench unit are currently the two best defensive lineups in the league by a wide margin, as you can see in the image below, courtesy of NBA.com/stats.
The Clippers faced a tough challenge in their last game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook is the Thunder’s unquestioned superstar now that Kevin Durant is with the Golden State Warriors, which means teams are doing everything they can to slow him down. This strategy was backfiring on the Clippers as Westbrook’s teammates were getting open looks and knocking them down. In past seasons, the Clippers may have panicked and abandoned their defensive strategy, but that didn’t happen, which led to their eventual victory over the Thunder.
“This is one of those games that you can lose your trust in,” Doc Rivers said. “Roberson was making threes, Sabonis was making threes and we’re telling our guys to stay and clog the paint. And they are looking at me, like, ‘Why?’ We did it and it worked out for us. This is one of those games that you could have lost trust easily in what we were doing and we didn’t.”
Chris Paul echoed Rivers’ thoughts on the game.
“Yeah, a big-time trust game for us,” Paul said. “You know, [Victor Oladipo] got going early. I think Sabonis was four of five from three, Roberson was three for six, and we just stuck to the game plan. We kept trying to build a wall around Russ and kept making those guys make plays.”
The Clippers are playing better than any other team in the league right now, which is surprising when you consider how little hype and excitement there was around this team entering the season. But with key offseason additions, a new enthusiasm for locking down opponents and their usual offensive efficiency, the Clippers are blowing out opponents and forcing those who dismissed them to take notice.
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