The Edge of Glory: Will the Clippers Make the Leap or Hit Reset?

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The Clippers have had three cracks at it with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan all in their primes, and they’re not afraid to admit the fourth could be their last — that another flameout will force them to ask whether the core has grown stale.

“We’re right on the borderline,” Doc Rivers tells Grantland during a long sit-down at his office. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”

Maybe Rivers is worrying too much. The Clippers have won at least 56 games in three straight seasons; they could play blindfolded and finish with one of the league’s five best offenses; Griffin and Jordan are nowhere near 30; and they’ve taken out the Warriors and Spurs in the past two postseasons. When your core can win at that level, the smart play is to keep it together and wait for breaks to fall your way — to be the 2011 Mavericks, basically.

But repeated heartbreaks within the bloody Western Conference can warp a team’s self-perception. Every flaw becomes magnified. Every last-second loss feeds the internal anxiety that you have to be perfect. In 2013, the Clippers gagged a 2-0 lead in the first round against Memphis amid injuries to both Paul and Griffin. A year later, they were a minute from going up 3-2 in the second round against Oklahoma City, with Game 6 coming in L.A., before Paul suffered his worst clutch meltdown. They still have trouble discussing last season’s second-round collapse against the relentless Rockets, when the Clippers were up 3-2 and ahead by 19 points with less than 15 minutes left in Game 6 … at home.

“The more I tried to process it, the angrier I got,” J.J. Redick says. “I’m not saying we definitely would have beaten Golden State, but if you make the conference finals, you have a chance. I’ve given up trying to explain what happened.”

“You hope it’s not an opportunity you never get again,” Jamal Crawford says. The team was shell-shocked, relieved they had an extra day off to decompress ahead of Game 7, Crawford remembers. It didn’t matter; Houston walloped them again. “I’m in my 16th year, and that was my best chance ever at getting to the Finals,” he says.

Players admitted they were tired after racing through 14 fast-paced games against the Spurs and Rockets with a bench that featured two viable NBA players — one of whom was Austin Rivers. After falling on his face in his first year as GM, Doc Rivers overhauled that bench by signing Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, and Cole Aldrich on the cheap, and flipping Spencer Hawes for Lance Stephenson in a trade of outcasts — a brilliant gamble for a team with no other realistic means to acquire young talent. Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue this time around.

Rivers says he won’t accept exhaustion as an excuse for the Houston debacle, even as he brings up the epic exertion required to outlast San Antonio. “Me and Pop [Gregg Popovich] were joking afterward,” Rivers recalls, “about how the winner of that series might have really lost. It took its toll.”

Rivers says his team didn’t take Houston seriously. He had to repeat himself in film sessions and walk-throughs. “San Antonio got our full attention,” Rivers says. “The Rockets, for whatever reason, didn’t.” Rivers praises Houston for rallying, but he remembers every Clippers mistake and every perceived injustice from the officials in alarming detail. There was a Corey Brewer and-1 early in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to cut L.A.’s lead to nine that should have been a charge, Rivers says, and Dwight Howard picking up a flagrant foul and a technical foul in separate incidents. “Dwight was doing everything he could to get thrown out,” Rivers recalls. “He had one flagrant, and he probably should have had another. But credit those guys. They fought.”

Some players, damningly, agree with Rivers’s claim that they didn’t grant Houston enough respect. “We weren’t on guard against Houston,” says Jamal Crawford. “We never thought we could lose three in a row to them.” The Clippers relaxed when things were easy and froze up when the Rockets made them difficult. That sounds like a team that should be asking whether it lacks some indefinable championship quality, but the Clippers aren’t going there — yet.

“I know we have that mettle,” Crawford says, citing road wins in San Antonio to even last year’s series at 2-2 and 3-3. “I know we have a special group.”

They’re taking the rationalist’s view of life in the West: If we keep winning, fate will eventually smile our way.

“The championship window in the West is so narrow,” Redick says. “Ours might only be open another couple of years. But you need some breaks. Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break. I don’t have any doubt about the DNA of our team.”

Rivers agrees. “You need luck in the West,” he says. “Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs. But that’s also a lesson for us: When you have a chance to close, you have to do it.”

No one can afford to sit still in the West, but for now, the Clippers are betting that a few small changes are enough to keep up with Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, and every other turbocharged beast. They might be right.

It sometimes seems like the Clippers make things harder than they have to be, especially on defense, where Rivers prefers a frantic, hyperaggressive scheme. He has Jordan and especially Griffin chase pick-and-rolls beyond the 3-point arc, leaving three L.A. defenders to patrol four opposing players below the ball:

It’s a bold scheme that looks out of place in a league of Tom Thibodeau copycats who prefer that their big men hang back — even if doing so concedes some open midrange jumpers. Rivers’s scheme in theory concedes nothing, and that’s why he likes it. “The thing about my defense,” Rivers says, “is that it’s a great defense for the playoffs.” The traps force opposing point guards to give the ball up, and when the Clippers rotate in sync with each enemy pass, they snuff every open look until the shot clock nears zero:

The issue, of course, is that the best teams win that race just enough over 48 minutes and seven games. The Clips sunk to 16th in points allowed per possession last season after finishing ninth the year before,1 and they’ve fallen off against elite offenses in the playoffs. “Listen,” Redick says, “for us to win it, we have to get better on defense. We have not been on par with championship teams.”

The Clippers make opponents pass, but all of that passing and driving can lead to 3s; only five teams allowed more 3-point attempts last season, though L.A. did well to limit corner 3s. Zigzagging defenders who fall a half-step behind tend to reach for desperate fouls. Only Denver allowed more free throws per field goal attempt last season, according to NBA.com. Jordan challenged about three fewer shots at the rim per 36 minutes than most other behemoth basket protectors, since Rivers’s scheme often had him hounding little dudes 30 feet from the hoop. The Clippers were a good defensive rebounding team, but they could be impervious if Jordan and Griffin spent more time around the rim.

All things considered, the Clippers fared well playing this way. But that system is exhausting, and you got the sense even when they were rolling that the Clippers were working too hard for an uncertain return. Nonpublic analytics from other teams show that the Clippers allowed a very high expected field goal percentage — in other words, that a team allowing those same shots2 should end up with a bottom-10 defense. The Clippers finished better than that, but it felt at times like they were running uphill.

After an offseason of reflection, the Clippers are easing into a more conservative scheme. Jordan and Griffin will stick around the paint more instead of leaping out like madmen. “We’re gonna make some changes,” says Rivers, “and we want DJ to be closer to the rim.” Rivers and Lawrence Frank, the team’s defensive coordinator, have the team working out the kinks in the preseason:

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The goal is to play the pick-and-roll 2-on-2 so that the other L.A. defenders can glue themselves to shooters instead of darting in to help on a big rolling to the rim and then darting back out toward their original guy.3 The Clips will serve up more open midrangers this way, but over 100 possessions, the numbers should tilt in a good direction: fewer 3s and fouls, better defensive rebounding.

An added bonus: The core has years of collective memory playing the old way, and they can revert to it against postseason opponents that require amped-up aggression. You can’t play soft against Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant. Griffin and Jordan are both fast enough to hang with super-small lineups, including Golden State groups featuring Draymond Green at center, and Griffin can defuse possessions by switching on to wing players. If the Clippers get a stop and run out, that smaller guy will often be stuck guarding Griffin — opening up an easy post-up option. “Blake has to be better on defense,” Rivers said. “He’s good, but he can be great.”

And in Stephenson, they finally have the long, burly wing capable of at least hanging with Durant, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, and other studs. (For what it’s worth, Rivers thinks Johnson has a shot against them, too, even though he brings a track record of shaky defense. “We watched him in the gym the other day and just said, ‘Fuck, you can defend!’” Rivers says, laughing. “‘Where the fuck has that been?’”)

“Lance is absolutely our no. 1 option against all those guys,” Rivers says. He also wants Stephenson pitching in on bigger point guards so Paul can rest a bit on defense.

Stephenson just has to prove he won’t murder the Clippers offense.

Those secret-sauce numbers show the same effect with the Clippers offense: They outperform their shot chart more than perhaps4 any other team in the league. Only seven teams took more midrange jumpers last season, and Griffin jacked more dead-zone 2-pointers — from outside 20 feet but inside the arc — than any other player, per NBA Savant. He hit 41 percent of those, which sounds nice until you consider that burps up the same points per possession as one of Jordan’s misadventures at the foul line. Griffin might be able to turn some of those longer pick-and-pop 2s into 3s, though drifting out that far makes it harder for him to thread those gorgeous lobs to Jordan.

The Clippers can’t drive the ball to the rim, either; only the Knicks recorded fewer drives, per SportVU data. Griffin and Jordan (and their defenders) are in the way, and opponents sagged way off Matt Barnes. They figure to do the same against both Stephenson and Johnson, the probable fifth starter.

That the Clippers have thrived within such tight spacing is a tribute to the brilliance of their four holdover starters and Rivers’s ability to plant everyone in the right positions. Paul and Griffin can slip passes through teensy slivers, and the threat of a Jordan alley-oop makes shot-blockers paranoid about helping when the Clippers do penetrate. “He’s like Shaq in that way,” Rivers says of Jordan. Redick draws extra defenders as he flies around picks, and Rivers uses the sides of the floor to open up ping-ping-ping passing sequences. “Doc is great at teaching spacing,” Redick says. “Every foot counts.” Right when the Clippers look jammed up, they zip into a corner 3.

This is a pristine ecosystem. Whether introducing Stephenson screws it up is one of the biggest questions the Clippers face — especially if they need his defense as much as Rivers anticipates. Stephenson shot an unthinkable 17 percent from deep last season, and while that will end up an outlier, he has sniffed the league average only once in five seasons. He’s never done much off-ball cutting, a key skill for any ignored wing spotting up around Paul and Griffin; Barnes was great at it.

Rivers has to sort this out and discover whether his son, Stephenson, and Crawford can share the ball on second units. “You can figure it out on the whiteboard, but that shit doesn’t really work,” Rivers says. “You have to figure it out on the court.”

On the brighter side, Stephenson will get wide-open looks and long driving runways in L.A. If he attacks instantly on the catch, without going into one of his ridiculous circus dribbling shows, his playmaking could compensate for his jumper in the same way Barnes’s cutting did. If everything fits, the Clips will have more options on those nights when a locked-in defense strangles the paint — as Houston did in humiliating the Clippers during that infamous Game 6. The easiest choice is to slot Pierce into the crunch-time five along with the rest of the starters. The Clips should be borderline unguardable with another ace shooter on the wing.

Rivers is toying with starting Pierce, but he is reluctant to have the geezer chase wing players over extended minutes. Rivers also likes the notion of maintaining a five-man small-ball bench mob of Austin Rivers, Stephenson, Crawford, Pierce, and Smith.

Regardless, Pierce will be on the floor in the clutch to loosen the spacing and jack some daggers. Too much of that crunch-time burden has fallen on Paul, and if Griffin and Jordan are on the floor, it’s hard for him to generate anything better than contested midrangers. The Clippers are afraid to give Jordan the ball late, and smart defenses erase Griffin’s post game by sliding centers onto him if necessary; Houston used Howard as a late-game Griffin antidote during last year’s playoffs.

When Rivers really needs to juice the offense late, he can yank Jordan in favor of a Pierce-Griffin small-ball frontcourt. The Clippers naturally resist small ball, since two of their foundational stars are big men. Griffin and Jordan are mobile enough to hang with small-ball lineups on defense, and they can leverage their size to brutalize them on the other end. Griffin can demolish wings in the post, and if opponents assign their extra wing to Jordan, they risk death on the glass.

But downsizing is a nice card to play for one or two key possessions late, and if the Pierce-Griffin front line works, perhaps Rivers will find a way to use it — or other lineups with Griffin at center, including the Smith-Griffin combo — during other parts of the game. Rivers is weirdly opposed to staggering minutes so that either Paul or Griffin is on the floor at all times. That may not be an urgent need during the regular season, since Crawford, Stephenson, and Smith are smart playmakers. But opponents destroyed the Clippers when both Griffin and Paul were on the bench last season, and in high-stakes games, they may not be able to afford any empty minutes.

The Clippers need more things to flip right than the Warriors and Spurs, and perhaps one or two other teams in the West. They need to answer questions about their defense, their bench, Stephenson’s fit, Pierce’s durability, and their readiness for the next big playoff moment. They have a smaller margin for error than Golden State and Cleveland, but if enough of those questions turn the right way, the Clips have the goods to contend.

If they fall short again, will Rivers decide to shake things up? Good luck. Griffin and Jordan have massive trade value, and dealing one of them for multiple pieces would open up the lane for easier pick-and-rolls; the Clips went 9-6 without Griffin last season5 in part because Paul and Jordan found a new pick-and-roll chemistry with the lane uncluttered. But the Clippers can’t just deal one of them for future assets as long as Paul is around. A 30-year-old point guard with a history of knee issues can’t wait out a step backward. Paul is movable even amid a glut of point guards, but he’s good only for the “win now” types, and dealing him would amount to a complete reconstruction of how L.A. plays.

Rivers isn’t quite ready to think about specific changes yet, even as he acknowledges he might have to be in seven or eight months. “We’re all on that edge together,” he says. “I believe we’re gonna be really good. But if we’re not, it depends on how we play, and what the reason is. That’s what would make you make a big decision.”

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Preview, Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Wesley johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Lance Stephenson, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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