Just over a dozen games into the most pivotal season in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers are playing their very best basketball.
They lead the NBA in wins (12) with a top-two offense and top-two defense. Their starting lineup is by far the best in the league: of every five-man unit that has logged at least 100 minutes, none come close to the Clippers' plus-26.3 net rating. (No group has spent more time on the court together, either). So far, coach Doc Rivers' team appears to have taken the step from very good to legitimate championship contender.
Let's take a closer look at what Los Angeles is doing right.
Blake Griffin is barking at refs less frequently while proving nightly that worries about his physical demise remain premature; 31-year-old Chris Paul somehow looks like 23-year-old Chris Paul; J.J. Redick, who was the NBA's most accurate three-point marksman a season ago, is currently shooting an absurd 47.9 percent beyond the arc; DeAndre Jordan remains a 40-foot electric fence; and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is eight-for-18 from the corners and suddenly has enough confidence to make these plays look routine:
The Clippers are winning because they enter every game with more talent and continuity than the teams they're facing. They're forcing a ton of turnovers while securing the ball. It's a simple recipe for success, especially when your half-court offense rarely needs to veer off autopilot to demolish most opponents.
Their system is back-of-your hand familiar, but the Clippers avoid stale predictability by running misdirections to create open looks with crafty screens. Here's one example, coming against the Minnesota Timberwolves:
Paul gives the signal for "floppy," a routine NBA action that springs guards from the baseline off down screens and up to the wing. Andrew Wiggins expects Redick to fly up off Griffin's pick, but instead he darts across the lane—clearly catching Wiggins by surprise—and comes free for an open three off Jordan's screen.
One of L.A.'s pet end-of-quarter plays over the past few years has seen Jordan fake like he's coming up to set a high screen for Paul, only to slip away to the weak side and set a flare screen for Redick. Most defenses see it coming a mile away (the Sacramento Kings were not one of them on Friday night), but Rivers has tinkered with the recipe.
Here's the play with Jamal Crawford in Redick's role. After screening for Crawford, Jordan drifts over to pick off Redick's man near the baseline.
Set plays are nice and fancy, but the core of what makes L.A. so impossible to stop is their free-styling trillion-watt star power. Griffin and Paul are two of the league's seven best offensive players, and have been for quite some time. They know how to draw and then exploit double teams, create for others, and score efficiently. Each might be the best passer at his position, and both can finish in myriad ways.
One of the NBA's most consistently impossible-to-stop offensive sequences right now comes the moment after Griffin rips a defensive rebound off the glass. It's like when Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, except far more under control. Griffin is 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds; his combination of handle, speed, strength, size, and intelligence is unprecedented.
When Jordan is also on the floor to give Griffin a drag screen, well, that's all she wrote.
Put a superstar on a team and that team will probably be very good. Pair two together and you have a championship contender. Paul has cooled off a tiny bit since his dominant start, but he still has the NBA's fifth best PER while making 44.3 percent of his threes and launching more than ever before. (Six seasons ago, Paul's three-point rate was .197; right now it's .409. It may help that he has his eyesight back.) His free-throw rate currently sits at the second-highest mark of his career, remarkable for an aging six-foot guard who had seen that number decline over the previous few years.
The Clippers lead the league in free-throw rate in large part because of Paul's commitment to getting to the line—he's devious with the various ways he'll bait defenders to buy a pump fake or fall for a jab step—but send anyone on their roster (except Jordan) to the line, and it's a problem for opponents. Not only does it lead to them scoring more points, it also slows the game down and lets them organize their defense.
We can go on and on about how Los Angeles' offense is impossible to stop, but the key to their championship aspirations rests on the other end of the floor. Before the season started, I wrote an optimistic piece about why the Clippers should be taken seriously as foils for the Golden State Warriors. Much of it centered on Griffin, an ever-frustrating variable who possesses the physical tools to elevate L.A.'s defense to the level it needs to be. If only he could stay as engaged away from the ball as he is on it, the thinking has been in previous seasons. If only he could regularly recognize actions as they unfold instead of guessing wrong and only being in position to foul or allow an easy bucket.
So far, Griffin has stepped up in humongous ways, and a lot of that is thanks to Rivers' decision to ramp up the Clippers' switch-nearly-everything strategy. Not too many guards and wings are quick enough to blow past Griffin when he steps out to harass them on an island.
Most bigs would be content running a sharpshooter off the line, but Griffin stays low and disciplined, with his hands up and his twitchy feet at attention to slide back or spring forward. It's a huge reason why only three teams are allowing fewer three-point attempts per 100 possessions right now.
Griffin's improved defense deserves a standing ovation, but Jordan starts at center on the NBA's All-Taken-For-Granted Team. His rim protection numbers have made steady progress over the past few years, and that trend continues today with opponents only shooting 42 percent at the basket when Jordan is the closest defender. The Clippers are allowing 14.7 more points per 100 possessions when Jordan is on the bench, and they don't use him to switch as aggressively as they do with Griffin.
In most matchups, Jordan will instead drop back to wall off the paint, maintain solid rebounding position, and coerce guards into firing up mid-range jumpers. He still can't hit a free throw, but that's been mitigated by a free-throw rate that's literally half as high as it was last year. Opponents appear to have learned their lesson: Hack Jordan and kiss the opportunity to attack L.A. in transition goodbye.
The Clippers' main Achilles' heel over the past few years hasn't been Jordan, Paul, Griffin, or Redick. It has been the one-dimensional, mostly-minimum-contract-level veterans they've acquired to supplement those top-flight stars. This season's bench is once more filled with aging, one-dimensional veterans, mostly playing under minimum contracts—but, at least so far, they haven't been that bad!
The need to stagger Griffin and Paul was a significant theme in the preseason, but so far Rivers hasn't had to experiment too often, mostly because his starters jump out to such an early lead. (Paul has played only 23 minutes this entire year without DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin both on the floor.) Rivers will plug Griffin into all-bench units that feature three guards and Marreese Speights a few minutes a night (with much success), but despite recent disastrous results from their Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Ray Felton, Speights, Brandon Bass/Paul Pierce unit, the Clippers' rotation feels like less of a concern than it ever has.
Heading into Thanksgiving week, the Clippers are the best team in basketball. They've blown out the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, all on the road. But the next couple weeks should be interesting, starting Monday night with a tough match-up against the Toronto Raptors, followed by showdowns against the Cleveland Cavaliers (December 1) and the Warriors (December 7).
With at least one day of rest before both those latter two games, the Clippers will be in prime position to make an early statement. If they do, everyone else in the league may need to abandon their hopes that L.A.'s stellar defensive play is more aberration than evolution.
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