This story is over 5 years old.


The Clippers Could Be an Obstacle for the Golden State Warriors

Defeating Golden State will require discipline, talent, (lots of) luck, and the ability to muffle a fireworks display. There's reason to believe the Los Angeles Clippers have what it takes.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Few predictions in NBA history have felt less precarious than "The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors will win the championship." It's anticlimactic yet perfectly rational; serious injuries are seemingly required to block Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green from reaching the NBA Finals.

Not only do the Warriors have two of this generation's most frequent volcanic eruptions; their "sidekicks" are arguably the second-best shooter who ever lived (and the second-best two guard in the league) and a fierce, transcendent defender whose charisma and divisiveness rises to the level of a beloved rebel leader.


There will be points. There will be versatility. There will be blood. But for every Superman there exists a chunk of kryptonite, and if it's not LeBron James, Golden State's greatest obstacle this season may be the Los Angeles Clippers.

Read More: The Timberwolves Will Be Worse Than You Think This Season

While they've never made it past the second round of the playoffs—and routinely invent new ways to depress their fan base—the Clippers enter the 2016-17 season with a trio of All-NBA First Team contenders in Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan and the deepest, most talented, and most experienced bench they've ever had. Ever reliant on jump shots, this team's athletic frontcourt can also turn the paint into a zoo whenever they want.

Defeating Golden State will require discipline, talent, (lots of) luck, and the ability to muffle a fireworks display. Los Angeles already has exhibited three crucial traits for accomplishing that last part: they defend the three-point line, get back on defense, and hardly ever turn the ball over.

But that by itself will not be enough. The Clippers need to squeeze even more production from their roster. A good first step is the team's decision to stagger Griffin and Paul this season, ensuring at least one is on the court at all times.

A 2,420-minute sample size over the past few years tells us benching the two greatest Clippers in Clippers history at the same time is a disaster. That, in turn, encourages more balance on a roster flexible enough to play big and small, fast and slow.


Chris Paul needs to be a scoring machine. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers didn't skip a beat when Griffin was hurt last year because few sequences in recent NBA history are more unstoppable than a Paul–Jordan pick-and-roll with multiple shooters spotted up behind the three-point line. The progression typically results in: 1) an open three, 2) Paul rising for a dead-eye pull-up jumper, or 3) Jordan catching a lob and then immediately making the rim cry.

Griffin isn't an ideal fit on those units, but his court vision, improved jump shot, and one-on-one dominance erases any concern that he'll cramp the floor and lower their offensive ceiling. Unleashing him while Paul rests will be pure devastation; embedded within the second unit, Griffin will have the ball in his hands more often, a worst-case scenario for any defense hoping to catch a break. (Reminder: Griffin was the best player in the world for a few weeks during the 2015 playoffs, and reached another level when Paul wasn't at full strength and L.A. ramped up its pace of play.)

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers waited until he had a solid bench to rejigger the rotation. The team didn't add much certainty on the wing this offseason—an annual obstacle—but quality backups at every other position should relieve the pressure felt by L.A.'s best players, while complementing them whenever they share the court.

Ray Felton showed life last year as spot-starter on the Dallas Mavericks. Marreese Speights can't guard anybody, but his itchy trigger finger will stretch opposing defenses. Brandon Bass might have been the best all-around player on the Lakers last season (playing out of position and in a system that didn't utilize his mid-range jumper). And 34-year-old Alan Anderson may be the starting small forward they so desperately need. Most important, all know their limitations and understand their roles.


Jordan is a crucial Clippers asset against the Warriors. Photo by Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Despite an embarrassing 45-point beatdown three weeks ago—not a big deal, it's the preseason—this Clippers group matches up as well with the Warriors as any team in the league, mainly starting center.

Jordan can't manufacture individual offense, and his horrendous free-throw shooting remains a major concern late in tight games, but he doesn't waste possessions and supplies the rare skills any team with a prayer's chance to take Golden State down must possess. Control of the glass is vital against an opponent who thrives when small; the Clippers' rebound percentage plummeted from 52.5 to a devastating 39.8 against the 2016 Warriors when Jordan wasn't on the floor.

The Clippers seem to know this, too: Jordan saw more action against last year's 73-win team than any of his teammates, and L.A. outscored Golden State by 2.4 points per 100 possessions in those 148 minutes.

Arguably more critical than Jordan's work on the glass will be his ability to switch screens (particularly late in the shot clock) and stay in front of shooters on the outside. Only a handful of players can step out on Steph Curry and shadow Kevin Durant. Throw Jordan on Durant and the Clippers should be able to stifle most 1-3 and 1-4 pick-and-rolls with a quick switch, while also preventing the Warriors' newest star from wreaking havoc on the block.

Griffin's defense will be a question. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A big question, though, is Griffin's defense. The Clippers have asked their four-time All-NBA forward to switch on to guards more than usual this preseason. For the most part, he isn't hedging or trapping or sagging back and crossing his fingers. Instead, Griffin shuffles his feet, keeps his arms high, and straps a muzzle on ball-handlers who should be able to blow by him or, at the very least, create some separation.


There are downsides to this strategy. It forces Griffin to exert more energy than the Clippers would like. His offensive responsibilities remain significant, and too much dancing on the perimeter can be tiring, especially if he's doing it multiple times on consecutive possessions. It also drags an effective rebounder away from the basket, but that's the price to pay when up against a team that can throw five good-to-historically-accurate shooters on the floor at the same time. And even though he's entering his seventh NBA season, Griffin will need some time to feel totally comfortable in space, even though it's far and away where he's at his best.

Heading into last season, the Clippers wanted Griffin to focus on becoming the type of defender his athleticism suggests he can be. That didn't happen. Of all players who defended at least four shots at the rim in 2016, only four allowed a higher shot percentage than Griffin. He was obliterated in the post, and contested a sheepish 16.4 percent of available shots at the basket, according to Nylon Calculus.

Some of Griffin's weaknesses cannot be corrected, nothing can be done about them. At the NBA draft combine, Griffin's wingspan was the same length as Tyreke Evans' and a quarter of an inch shorter than Tyler Hansbrough's. Nothing can be done to lengthen those stubby arms. Adding insult to injury, Griffin's positioning and reaction time are abysmal whenever he's a help defender. Sometimes he doesn't want to pick up a foul, but sometimes he simply fails to make any rotation whatsoever.


It disallows any hope for Griffin to anchor units as a playmaking center in guard/wing-heavy lineups. (The Clippers have allowed 1.13 points per possession over the past two seasons whenever Griffin is the only big on the court, per NBAWowy. That's really bad.)

But in a season cut short due to shenanigans and injury, Griffin also ranked 26th out of 94 eligible power forward in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and the Clippers allowed a stout 100 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. (In the aggregate, L.A.'s defense hasn't been dramatically worse or better when Griffin plays over the past few years.)

Do Griffin's defensive shortcomings lower this team's ceiling, or is there reason to believe he can still grow—at least when utilized correctly—in big spots against L.A.'s most imposing rival? The ramped-up switch-heavy scheme should help, even if it's not a perfect solution. It'll keep a body in front of Golden State's shooters while incentivizing Griffin to stay focused and engaged.

But even if Griffin steps up his defensive effort and Jordan becomes a competent free-throw shooter, defeating Golden State will require Doc Rivers to acknowledge hard truths in real time, whether it's removing Crawford from the rotation or bum-rushing the offensive glass with unusually large units. A Jordan, Griffin, Bass/Speights frontcourt is worth exploring even though Rivers has long prioritized transition defense over second-chance points. Deviating from this identity can be dangerous, but hesitating to adapt could be fatal when facing a blade as sharp as Golden State.

With both Griffin and Paul becoming free agents at the end of the season, this may be the L.A.'s last chance to band together and take down a Warriors team nobody expects them to touch. Of course, a juicy narrative isn't enough to go against conventional wisdom and believe they can pull off the seemingly impossible.

The Clippers have the firepower, versatility and depth to stick with the projected champions. It doesn't mean they will—the Warriors' margin for error is Grand Canyon wide—but they have a better chance than anybody else.

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.