A month into the NBA season, there's plenty to be thankful for. The Golden State Warriors are starting to look like the unstoppable offensive juggernaut everyone expected, but have shown just enough vulnerability to give the rest of the league some hope. The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers are in a groove, especially Kevin Love, who nearly broke Klay Thompson's record for most points in a quarter. The San Antonio Spurs—in typical Spurs fashion—are quietly enjoying a seven-game winning streak.
Then there are the Los Angeles Clippers, who look like the NBA's most well-rounded team. The Clippers boast the league's second-best offense and defense, and also its best overall record. For a half-decade, the franchise has kept its current core together but never managed to even make the Western Conference Finals in that time. Is this the year Chris Paul and company finally get over the hump?
We won't know until the playoffs. Still, Los Angeles looks awfully good through 16 games—so good that the Clippers merit a closer look.
The Force of Gravity
The Clippers have the league's largest average margin of victory at 13.8 points per game. Their improved bench is a big part of that success, but so is J.J. Redick's absurdly hot shooting. Redick is shooting a career-best 49.3 percent from behind the three-point line. He also has a team-high offensive rating (ORTG) of 117.1, meaning the Clippers' offense is (unsurprisingly) at its best when he's on the court.
At first glance, however, Redick seems like an auxiliary piece of the offense. On many possessions, he stands still in the corner or runs around a bunch of screens without ever receiving a pass. In a win against the Toronto Raptors earlier this week, he touched the ball in the front court just 23 times, yet scored 20 points and led all players in plus-minus rating by a wide margin. The Clippers had a 140 ORTG during the 29 minutes that he was on the court, and just a 95 ORTG in the 19 minutes that he was on the bench.
Why the disparity? The concept of "gravity"—essentially, how much attention defenders have to give you when you don't have the ball, and how physically close to you they have to remain. Whether Redick is standing in the corner or running around screens, his deadeye shooting give him tremendous gravity. This might sound minor. It's not. Redick is as good as anyone in the league not named Steph Curry at occupying the attention of his defender for every second of the shot clock, and that makes a major difference.
In the clip below, watch how Arron Afflalo has to ignore everything else on the court in order to make sure Redick doesn't break free. He sticks with him through one screen, and then turns his head for a split second to check in on the rest of the offensive play—just enough time for Redick to run off another screen and get an open look.
In addition to Redick's perimeter gravity, the Clippers have the most paint gravity in the league thanks to the high-flying frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Jordan puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense when he rolls to the rim on cuts or from pick-and-roll plays. Leave him open or fail to properly rotate and he's shooting the most efficient shot in basketball, an at-the-rim dunk.
At the end of quarters or on big possessions, the Clippers simplify things and run sets like the one below, called "veer." With the weak side cleared out, Jordan sets a brush screen on the point guard before setting a hard screen for Redick at the top of the key. If the center steps up on the screen, Jordan is open at the rim for a lob. If the center drops back, Redick is open off the curl. This is perimeter and paint gravity working together to pull the defense in two directions at once—and it's nearly unguardable, even before you get to the various counters and secondary actions out of this look.
Such is the beauty of gravity. Shaking free of a defender for an open shot is great, but getting a potential help defender to instead stay close can be equally important—especially when your attack features three players named to last year's All-NBA teams. With Redick on the court, the Clippers get to attack the defense four-on-four. On some possessions, he need only to stay out of the way, dragging his defender with him. On other plays, he can wreak havoc by setting ball screens, knowing that his defender's first instinct is not to help off of him.
The scary part for the rest of the league is that the Clippers are getting better at using gravity, just as Redick is getting better at creating it. He has been with Los Angeles for four years, and his three-point percentage has improved in each of those seasons. Meanwhile, backcourt mate Chris Paul is taking and making more three-pointers than ever before, shooting a career-best 43.6 percent. That might be random statistical noise, a trailer at small sample-size theater—but it also might indicate genuine Redick-like improvement, making the Clippers even better at creating open shots.
Blake Griffin Grab 'n' Go
Another thing the Clippers have going for them is the highly skilled play of Blake Griffin. Griffin entered the league as a hyper-athletic big with a fairly dynamic skill set, and he has since developed a crisp handle and great vision. This season, he's averaging far and away the lowest turnover rate of his career, and Los Angeles is taking advantage in transition, with Griffin grabbing defensive rebounds and pushing the ball up court like a point guard.
For teams like the Clippers, the value of having a power forward who can run the break goes beyond the immediate threat of a quick score. By pushing the ball up court, Griffin can force the defense into cross-matches—and when you have skilled players at multiple positions, like Los Angeles does, those cross-matches become mismatches. In both examples below, notice how the defense stymies the break only to get subsequently confused, failing to communicate on a switch or leaving an offensive player entirely open.
This isn't just a Clippers strength. Around the league, an increasing number of power forwards and centers are pushing the ball in transition. Draymond Green plays that role for the Warriors, as did Andrew Bogut. Guys like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Jokic are getting the green light to dribble the ball up after a rebound. Again, the goal isn't simply a quick score—it's forcing scrambled matchups. Viva freedom!
Bad Teams Are Bad in the Second Half
How do you spot a young and/or bad NBA team? By how they fail to close out games.
The Denver Nuggets have blown five games in which they held a lead with less than six minutes to go; the Minnesota Timberwolves have been outscored by an average of 8.3 points in third quarters alone. Moreover, the Timberwolves have managed to own the NBA's best first-half NetRtg—and the league's worst second-half NetRtg.
Indeed, the league's worst second-half NetRtgs are a who's who of bad teams: Minnesota, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Washington, Indiana, and Denver are all at the bottom of that list. Now, this might strike you as an obvious thing—of course bad teams are bad in second halves! They're bad all game long!—but that's not actually the case. Of the teams mentioned above, only the 76ers are in the bottom 14 in first-half NetRtg.
Remember the old joke about only needing to watch the last five minutes of any NBA game? It's not really true. However, good teams absolutely separate themselves from lousy ones in second halves. Much of that is due to inexperience and poor execution; many of the teams that flail after the break lack veterans or individual superstars, or both. Of the six teams on the bottom, only Indiana has a star closer in Paul George. The Nuggets are a particularly noteworthy example: they have the league's eighth-best fourth-quarter DRtg and seventh-worst NetRtg, all because their offense completely stalls down the stretch.
While it sounds like a coaching cliché, young teams really do have to learn how to close out games, and teams lacking transcendent one-on-one offensive players have to rely on trust and execution to compensate. For young teams such as Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Denver, close losses are both painful and predictable.
Down by seven points to the Clippers with only 25 seconds left, the Raptors' only hope of staying in a recent game was to get a three-pointer or a quick two. Typically in situations like this, teams will happily concede the latter without fouling, the better to run time off the clock while keeping it a two-possession game.
The defensive rule of thumb? Don't foul, don't allow open threes, everything else is fine.
Raptors coach Dwayne Casey drew up a clever play that gave the illusion his team was going for the quick two, but in fact that was just a decoy to get a kickout three-pointer. Behold:
You can see how Paul, who is usually very vigilant in situations like this, gets lulled into thinking that the play is a lob at the rim. The play does in fact begin with a lob to the rim, but one that's designed to produce kickout to Kyle Lowry. The play worked perfectly, largely because it played on defensive expectations. The Raptors still lost, but clever call by Casey.
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