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The Clippers Are Dominating in Unfamiliar Ways

With added depth and a new commitment to defense, the Los Angeles Clippers are dominating their opponents.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.

clippers-defensive-statistics

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.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Draft Watch: Should You Expect a Flurry Of Trades?

Should you expect a flurry of trades during tonight’s NBA Draft? History says yes!

Lang Greene

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Draft Day. The event that rebuilding teams have been planning months for is finally upon us. The next wave of NBA stars await their opportunity to play under the brightest of all lights on the biggest of stages. But outside of the rising and falling status of the prospects, each year draft week is filled with a flurry of trade activity and there’s no reason to believe things will be different in 2018.

On Wednesday, the trade market kicked off with the Charlotte Hornets shipping former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for veteran center Timofey Mozgov. The move isn’t all that surprising considering one of the biggest advocates for the Hornets in acquiring Howard from Atlanta last year, Steve Clifford, was fired back in April. In addition to a new head coach, James Borrego, Charlotte also hired a new president of basketball operations and general manager in Mitch Kupchak.

In the deal, Charlotte was able to avoid paying the luxury tax while also creating immediate salary cap flexibility to be players in this year’s market should they choose. For Brooklyn, the team acquires a veteran presence for their youth movement and a consistent double-double anchor on the interior.

The trade also marks consecutive years that Brooklyn was active on the trade front during draft time. Last year, the team acquired former lottery pick D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Since the Nets haven’t had the luxury of prime draft assets in recent years, the team has had to resort to trades (Russell, Howard) and free agency (Allan Crabbe) to reshape the roster.

Transitioning to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the question can be asked whether this will be the third straight year involving a draft day trade. At the top of the Warriors’ lineup max players reside which means the team has had to find talented gems in the back half of the draft to contribute to their success.

In 2016, the Warriors acquired the rights to the No. 38 overall pick, Patrick McCaw, from the Milwaukee Bucks for cash considerations. In 2017, Golden State acquired the rights to another No. 38 overall pick, Jordan Bell, from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations.

Notice a trend?

With the Warriors needing to lock NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant into a long term deal this summer and future free agency looming for All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the franchise will need to continue finding young role players to complement their collection of stars.

There could also be a deal involving All-Star level talent.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo back in 2016 in a draft week deal with the Orlando Magic. While Oladipo didn’t emerge as an All-Star caliber until the following season (after being dealt to Indiana), there are usually a couple of big names in play come draft night.

Consider the 2017 draft day deal that saw the Chicago Bulls send Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for talented two guard Zach LaVine.

This year, the most prominent name potentially on the market is San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard. The rumor mill reports Leonard is frustrated and wants a trade to the Lakers. The Spurs are, of course, attempting to keep their franchise player with a series of meetings. Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent next summer and his public trade demand limits what San Antonio could demand in return. Teams will be hesitant to give up prime assets for a player that won’t commit to their franchise long term. While San Antonio doesn’t have to make an immediate deal their leverage hasn’t been compromised with Leonard’s specific trade destination request.

The NBA Draft can best be described as a crapshoot with prospects being hit or miss. There are teams that make their bones via draft day acquisitions, or working between the lines, which is a storyline to watch during the draft tonight.

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NBA Draft Watch: Storylines Heading into Thursday’s Draft

With the NBA Draft just one day away, there is plenty of uncertainty on how things will play out, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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From now until the conclusion of Thursday night’s NBA draft the landscape is subject to shift and evolve at a moment’s notice.

As of right now, the only thing that we can be most certain about is DeAndre Ayton going first overall to the Phoenix Suns. After that, it’s basically a crapshoot in regards to what might go down.

With media day commencing in New York City on Wednesday, the players that will be present during the draft’s greenroom got the chance to address the droves of media from all over the land about where they might end up, how they might fit in those places, and a few off-the-cuff questions thrown in here and there.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the league and their selection extravaganza on Thursday night, many people who are usually in the know this time of year seem to be approaching the event erring on the side of caution, more so than in years past.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer echoed that feeling Wednesday afternoon.

One of the large looming clouds heading into draft night is the Kawhi Leonard situation. As it stands, Leonard appears to want out of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs and would prefer to wind up in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the Lakers being his new employer.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard met with Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday night in order to discuss the situation between San Antonio and their franchise player.

While Wojnarowski has also reported that the Spurs are in no rush to move Leonard, draft night could potentially serve as a motivator in the opposite direction should Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford receive a tempting offer that involves some draft capital. With the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers reportedly interested in acquiring Leonard, on the clock with the 10th overall pick, perhaps they can entice the Spurs into sending their star forward packing.

Regardless of if Leonard is traded Thursday night or not, there were certainly be many eyes on his situation over the next 24-plus hours.

Up until about the time a player is selected by their new club, the situation for drafting remains fairly fluid. When the basketball community congregates to New York the day before the event, rumors and confirmation of shifting ideals begin to flourish.

With a lot of the players in this year’s lottery surounded by reasonable question marks, we may see last-minute rising and falling of the prospected hierarchy in prospects. Michael Porter Jr., with questions surrounding his health, and Trae Young having questions about his slight frame and defensive capability, seem to be two subjects of that shuffling just a day before the Thursday night festivities.

Conversely, the final moments leading up to the time to make a selection, teams can shuffle their opinion based off of their need to bring in star power possibilities — especially high up in the lottery.

Real Madrid star Luka Doncic has been the subject for criticism throughout this year’s draft process. While the 19-year-old has posted some of the best numbers for a player his age in the ACB and Euroleague, NBA evaluators are rightfully questioning if his athleticism can hold up in the league.

Originally figured to slip past the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, who hold the second and third overall picks, respectively, Doncic appears to be gaining last-minute steam within the ranks of the Georgia-based basketball club.

Even though prospects are surfacing Wednesday in the Big Apple to meet and greet with reporters, and get settled for their big moment on Thursday night, some teams and correlating players are having final sit-downs to profess their admiration for each other.

More specifically, New York native and projected high-end lottery pick, Mo Bamba, reportedly met with his hometown Knicks on Wednesday. Corresponding reports tell the story that the Knicks are exploring the option to trade up in the draft, in hopes to acquire a franchise-caliber center to put alongside Kristaps Porzingis.

DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony added context to further confirm the Knicks’ hope of scoring their first franchise center since Patrick Ewing roamed Madison Square Garden.

Whatever does wind up happening Thursday night, those watching can be assured that this year’s NBA Draft will contain the necessary amount of chaos to continue the conversation throughout the league while free agency quickly approaches.

Although, if you were anticipating being able to see those draft picks come in a few minutes early on Twitter like in years past, think again.

It looks like those draft night Wojbombs will be reserved for any unforeseen trades, and not who your favorite team will be picking 10 minutes later.

Either way, embrace the insanity. Draft night is upon us.

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NBA Daily: What is Cleveland’s Next Move?

Plenty has been made about where LeBron goes this summer, but not much has been made about what Cleveland will do if he leaves.

Matt John

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Usually, when you make the NBA Finals, it’s a good thing. Especially if it was the fourth consecutive time you’ve made it.

For Cleveland though, this season, which would have been deemed a success in any other case, was overshadowed by what can only be compared to a hostage situation. Many speculated that this season was going to be LeBron James’ last as a Cavalier, as rumor had it since last summer that he already has his eyes on his next team.

So the pressure was on in Cleveland, to say the least. They did everything to accommodate LeBron given how shaky the circumstances were. From shipping disgruntled star Kyrie Irving out of town to trading half the team mid-season, this past season has been a bumpy ride. In spite of all the hardship, Cleveland managed to make it to the Finals anyway.

Still, it wasn’t enough. For Cleveland to have a realistic chance at re-signing LeBron this summer, they had to beat Golden State, which wasn’t in the cards. The Cavs may have gotten to the Finals, but the Warriors predictably took them out all too quickly.

All in all, the Cavaliers were so close, and yet so far.

That brings us to now. LeBron’s going to test the free agency waters again. Cleveland will certainly do what they can to bring the King back for another season, and for all we know, LeBron could return to Cleveland, but the odds aren’t in their favor.

Cleveland has to deal with the very real possibility that LeBron will leave this summer, because if and when he does, that leaves the current roster in a flux. Without LeBron, Captain Obvious says that Cleveland’s not going anywhere near the Finals and could also see themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. All signs point to it being time to rebuild, but how exactly do they approach the re-building stage?

It all starts with the Nets pick.

No matter what you think of how Cleveland did when they shuffled half their roster around at the trade deadline, one thing should be universally agreed upon: They made the right move not trading the Nets pick they acquired from the Celtics for Kyrie Irving.

It’s true that the Nets pick this season didn’t pan out as well for the Cavaliers as it had for the Celtics over the last two seasons, but it still wound up being the eighth overall pick in a loaded draft. A valuable asset like that should only be traded for someone who puts you over the top and going to stay long-term. With all apologies to any star who was rumored to be on the market back in February, the Cavs didn’t have that option.

So now, Cleveland has the eighth overall pick, and it’s clear who they should take: The best player available. No matter who that is, the best player available for a team that is most likely starting from scratch is the best option.

Of course, the simpler way of getting young talent is by getting it through the lottery. Getting that Brooklyn pick in the Kyrie Irving deal was a great failsafe for if and when LeBron skips town.

Next is addressing who should be traded.

Cleveland’s uncertain draft pick situation from now until 2020 should also push them towards a rebuild. The team traded their first-round pick this year to the Lakers at the deadline when they acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Next year, they will have to forfeit their first-round pick to the Hawks if they finish outside of the bottom ten. Those protections will roll over to the next year if the Cavs finish in the bottom ten.

Given that the roster isn’t all that impressive outside of LeBron, that would be the best way to go. While the Cavaliers aren’t going to get any value out of Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, and Jordan Clarkson, there are two players who definitely could: Kevin Love and George Hill.

Let’s start with Love. Love will not get back the same value that Cleveland gave up to acquire him, but he’s still a proven commodity at 29 years old who should fetch something back if Cleveland decides to trade him. Love has made the All-Star team over his last two seasons and has done all that Cleveland has asked of him since being traded to the team back in 2014, like him or not.

How much he can fetch back is another story. Rumor has it that the Cavs have dangled Love along with the Nets pick for a star, but no one has bitten on it. Love won’t fetch a star, but he could fetch young assets from a team looking to make a win-now move. He won’t bring back a King’s ransom, but he can bring back something.

Then there’s Hill. If Hill has any interested parties this summer, it may stem from his contract rather than his services. Hill will be on the books for $19 million next season, but the following season, his contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. Now, Cleveland could just wait until next year then waive him, and no one would fault them for that. It would heavily reduce the payroll for a team that, even without LeBron James, is playing with fire with the luxury tax this summer.

Or, they could get an asset(s) out of him. Teams that may want to avoid the luxury tax next year or go after a marquee free agent would salivate for a contract like Hill’s. If the Cavs play their cards right, they could sell Hill’s contract to the highest bidder.

Whether or not they keep Hill will all depend on how Cleveland sees its roster’s future. The team still has Rodney Hood’s restricted free agency this summer, and the team reportedly hopes to keep Nance Jr long-term. If avoiding the luxury tax is what they want more than anything during the rebuild, then keeping Hill is the best option.

That transitions to the final aspect of Cleveland’s potential rebuild: Organizing the roster for the foreseeable future. Cleveland is not completely devoid of youth. They have Hood, Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, and even Clarkson, all of whom are young and may have their best days ahead of them. Hood and Clarkson did not pan out well in their half-season in Cleveland, but perhaps that could change if they’re put in the right situation.

It all starts with coaching. Tyronn Lue has done what he can since taking over as head coach in 2016. However, Lue was made head coach because that’s who LeBron wanted running the show. With the King out of the picture, perhaps it might be best to replace Lue with a coach better-suited to nurture youth.

One such name that comes to mind is David Blatt, who has worked with Zizic. Blatt was originally hired in 2014 because of his reputation as a developmental coach, but once LeBron came back, he and Blatt’s tense relationship led to Blatt’s firing half-way through his second season. If LeBron doesn’t return to the team, Blatt could use the strategy he planned to implement when he first arrived.

That is just one idea. The Cavs could keep Lue or they could look at other options, but Blatt would be intriguing. Skeptics would question why Cleveland would bring him back after such a bitter break-up not too long ago, but consider this: The Cavs hired Mike Brown back three years after firing him following the end of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland, so anything is possible.

Re-building is a bridge that Cleveland will have to cross when they come to it. Koby Altman must have known that it was a possibility when he took the reins as general manager last year. The situation he’s found himself in isn’t as hopeless as many have pegged it out to be, but the young GM will have plenty of work to do this summer.

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