Last week, when it looked like Chris Paul was going to the Los Angeles Lakers, we looked at what Paul would look like in Forum Blue and Gold. This time, after waiting until the trade was made official, we will explore how Paul might mesh with his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Probably the first thought that ran through most basketball fans’ minds when they learned of the deal was “Lob City,” and while that will be fun to watch, alley-oops don’t win championships. Instead, we’ll look at some of the other ways Paul can make an impact on the Clippers and we’ll try to determine if this team can be a contender.
The most important Clipper before Paul’s arrival (and maybe even after) was Blake Griffin. Let’s look at how Paul and Griffin might run the high screen together. The pick and roll is Griffin’s second most-used play. He sets ball screens on 13.9 percent of possessions he’s involved in. When Griffin gets to the rim after setting a screen, he shoots 63.2 percent and is pretty tough to stop.
We pick up this play with Blake Griffin setting a screen for Eric Gordon. It’s useful to watch how defenses covered Gordon/Griffin pick-and-roll plays because teams will likely guard Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the same way. You have to respect the ballhandler’s jumper, but you also have to defend Griffin’s roll to the rim.
In this instance, Griffin’s defender shows hard at Gordon as Gordon’s man works his way over the screen. Essentially, it becomes a double team on Gordon. Griffin’s skill becomes apparent here. He is one of the NBA’s quickest players when he goes from setting a screen to rolling to the rim. He’s just as quick, or maybe quicker than, forwards like David West, David Lee, and Amar’e Stoudemire, who tend to slip screens before making contact with the ballhandler’s defender. Griffin, on the other hand, sets solid screens and still manages to roll to the rim with impressive speed.
Griffin’s quick rolls to the rim are important because they allow him to beat the weakside help defense to the basket. Teams will probably defend Paul/Griffin pick and rolls by hedging out hard on Paul and rotating to Griffin from the weak side. If Griffin can beat the weakside help to the hoop and Paul can hit him with passes, the result will be easy dunks for Griffin. Here are a few looks at it in real time:
When Griffin dives hard to the rim after setting screens for Paul, it will be all but impossible to stop them with only two defenders. The only problem is that Griffin tends to settle for pick-and-pop opportunities too often after he sets ball screens. Last season, Griffin popped out for jumpers 42 percent of the time after setting picks.
Maybe, once Griffin develops a jump shot, he can pop out this frequently to mix up his game and keep defenders guessing. Right now, however, Griffin’s popping gives the defense an easy way out. In the play above, Griffin hangs around the three-point line after setting a screen. When he catches the ball, a help defender just simply stunts at him and returns to his man. This gives Griffin’s defender the extra second he needs to return to Griffin, who settles for an outside shot. If Griffin had rolled to the rim, he would have forced the defense to rotate all the way instead of merely showing. More defenders would have needed to rotate to help the helper, and the Clippers likely would have gotten a better scoring opportunity.
So what should Griffin be doing instead of popping out? The first answer is rolling to the basket, but Griffin should also slip more screens. Griffin only slipped ball screens in 5.4 percent of his pick and rolls last season:
With Paul handling the basketball, opportunities for Griffin to slip screens will be abundant. This is because many of Griffin’s defenders will try to hedge early, in an effort to corral Paul. When they do that, however, they are putting themselves out of position, and it’s Griffin’s job to read the defense and slip the screen.
Want proof? David West, Paul’s former pick-and-roll mate, slipped his screens 17.8 percent of the time, the fourth highest percentage among big men who regularly play the pick and roll:
Here, we see West positioning himself to set a screen at the top of the key for Paul. As Paul starts to use the screen, West’s defender steps above the level of the screen in an effort to stop Paul’s penetration.
Once Paul Millsap, West’s defender, gets above the level of the screener, that’s the cue to slip the screen. West dives to the middle of the lane before Paul gets a chance to come off the screen.
Now, two defenders are guarding Paul at the top of the key. Once Paul passes to West at the elbow, those two men are way out of the play and the remaining defenders must close out hard on West. This allows West to freeze the charging help defender with a pump fake and attack the rim.
West gets all the way to the rim and finishes strong before the defense can reach him. Here is a look at that play live and then a second slipped screen:
Having Griffin slip the screen anytime his defender steps out to defend Chris Paul would be a pretty good rule for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to implement. Not only would Griffin’s athletic ability create opportunities for sensational dunks on slips, but the rule would also encourage Griffin to roll to the rim more and force him to pop less.
While Griffin will have more success with Paul, the player who may improve the most from playing with Paul is DeAndre Jordan. Jordan could produce at an all-star level this season just by moving and cutting off of Paul/Griffin pick and rolls. In previous clips we looked at the pressure Griffin’s rolls to the rim and slipped screens could put on weakside help. With the defense focused on Paul and Griffin, Jordan is going to have opportunities to sneak into gaps and cut to the hoop. Jordan is already skilled in this area — he shoots 76.9 percent of the time on cuts out of pick and rolls:
Here, Blake Griffin sets a ball screen at the top of the key, just inside the 3-point line. As Mo Williams comes off the screen, Jordan is circled coming down the court.
Look at how Griffin’s roll to the basket collapses the defense. Griffin’s defender sprints back to him to prevent a lob. Williams’ man gets caught up in the screen, so a third defender — Jordan’s man — is forced to step up and help on Williams. Once Jordan sees this, he dives to the rim.
Williams passes to Jordan, who finishes at the rim. With no disrespect to Mo Williams, if he can force the defense to show and then complete the pass to Jordan, imagine what Paul will be able to do in similar situations. Here are a couple more clips that show Jordan’s ability to get open on the weak side of pick-and-roll plays:
These opportunities will be there all season for Jordan. If Griffin rolls hard to the rim, the defense has to pay attention to him. The defense also has to pay attention to Paul coming off screens, and containing Griffin and Paul will require more than two defenders. Once that third defender commits, Jordan can cut into open areas and take advantage.
As presently constructed, the Clippers have five point guards. If the team stands pat, one of these point guards will have to play shooting guard. That player will probably be Chauncey Billups, and it’s easy to see why. Billups is bigger and stronger than all the other point guards on the roster. He also played some shooting guard with the Knicks last season. When he was with New York, Billups played 9 percent of the Knicks’ total shooting guard minutes and posted a time-adjusted player efficiency rating of 22.0, according to 82games.com.
Billups’ success at shooting guard didn’t come from catch-and-shoot plays. With the Knicks, Billups shot just 26.8 percent on spot-ups and posted a PPP of 0.756, which put him in the bottom 20 percent of all NBA players. Billups did play well, however, when he ran the pick and roll on the left side of the court. With the Knicks, Billups posted a PPP of 1.071 when coming off screens on the left side, good enough to put him in the top 17 percent of NBA players:
Billups was so productive on the left side because he was closer to the rim than he would have been at the top of the key. When Billups used screens at the top of the key, he usually settled for 3-pointers. When he used screens on the left wing, Billups was forced to play a midrange game, working to his dominant right hand, and he often found better scoring opportunities.
The side screen and roll for Billups also makes sense for the Clippers because it will allow Paul to spot up outside of pick and rolls. In those situations, Paul shoots 57.1 percent and posts a PPP of 1.571, which is in the 99th percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports:
When Billups works the side pick and roll and gets into the midrange area as soon as he comes off of the screen, the defense will get sucked into the lane. Once that happens, Paul will be open at the top of the key, ready to shoot if his defender doesn’t close out hard on him, or to drive past him if he does.
The final piece of the Clippers’ projected starting lineup for us to consider is small forward Caron Butler. So far, we’ve looked almost entirely at pick-and-roll situations because that’s where Paul is at his best, and I expect the Clippers to lean on these plays and allow Paul to create for his teammates. One player sure to benefit from Paul’s pick-and-roll game is Caron Butler, who will be spotting up on the outside when Paul uses screens. When the Clippers signed Butler to a three-year, $24 million contract before the Paul deal, the acquisition looked extremely confusing. Now, it looks brilliant. Spot-up shooting is Butler’s best skill. Last year with the Mavericks, Butler spotted up on 26 percent of his possessions. He was particularly adept at reading the defense, finding spots, and getting open. When taking jump shots without dribbling in spot-up situations, Butler shot 52.2 percent and posted a PPP of 1.348, which was among the top 5 percent of all NBA players.
Butler is such a dangerous spot-up shooter because he can hit jumpers with the defense closing out on him. On outside shots labeled as “guarded” by Synergy, Butler shot 51.9 percent and posted a PPP of 1.25, again in the top 5 percent of NBA players. Butler has long arms and a high release point on his shot, so when he lets the ball go, the close-out defender’s hand doesn’t bother Butler’s shot:
Think about how many offensive options the Clippers will have coming off of Paul’s or Billups’ pick-and-roll plays: Griffin diving to the hoop or slipping screens; Jordan streaking along the baseline; and Butler spotting up in the corner. Those are all high-percentage plays, and Butler could be the sharpshooter who gives the Clippers that one extra weapon they need to break into the NBA’s elite.
It shouldn’t be surprising that adding Paul to the Clippers makes the team’s outlook extremely positive. Paul is such a good point guard that he doesn’t just mesh well with the other Clippers, but his style of play and his skill level also enhance the abilities of everyone who plays with him. “Lob City” will be fun as hell to watch, but what’s more impressive is that the Clippers have a chance to secure a top-4 seed in the Western Conference. The team could still improve its roster, however, specifically by acquiring reliable backups for Griffin and Jordan. If the Clippers pull that off, they could be in the mix for the Western Conference Finals, and perhaps more.
Previously by Sebastian Pruiti:
A breakdown of Eric Gordon’s path to superstardom
Chris Paul and the Lakers: What could have been
How John Wall can become a Star in his Second NBA season
The Pros and Cons of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis
Thomas Robinson Grows Into His Role at Kansas
The Problems with Austin Rivers
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