In the euphoria over the Chris Paul trade and Blake Griffin’s general awesomeness, we tend to forget how bad the Clippers were last season. They ranked 22nd in points scored per possession and 18th in points allowed per possession, which means they were varying degrees of lousy on both sides of the ball. Paul is the league’s best orchestrator of scoring, but over his career the Hornets have actually been better at defense than offense. They ranked above the league’s average in points per possessions just twice in Paul’s six seasons, though those two seasons — 2007-08 and 2008-09 — represent his best seasons and times when the Hornets had their healthiest, most productive supporting casts.
On the flip side, the Hornets were better than average defensively in four of those six seasons and ranked among the league’s top 10 three times.
Paul is one of the league’s best defenders for his position, a steals machine who swipes the ball without gambling his way out of position or compromising his team’s defensive integrity. Given the personnel Paul will be surrounded with in L.A., he should provide immediate help on both ends of the floor in several key ways:
The Clippers turned the ball over more than any other team last season, and only seven teams forced them more rarely on defense. That kind of turnover differential is like starting the game down by six points. DeAndre Jordan’s turnover rate was awful considering how rarely he touched the ball, and two of the Clippers’ point guards — Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe — turned the ball over much more often than average for their position. Bledsoe’s turnover rate was an astronomical 26.3, meaning he coughed the ball up on more than one-quarter of the possessions he finished.
Enter Paul, whose turnover rate has been amazingly consistent — and consistently low. Here are Paul’s season-by-season turnover rates: 13.7, 13.5, 12.1, 13.5, 13.5, 13.9. That’s crazy, and those numbers are well below average for a point guard, let alone a point guard who has to do so much with the ball. For perspective, Steve Nash’s career turnover rate is about 18 percent, and he has pushed past 20 percent in several seasons.
The Hornets never ranked worse than eighth in team turnover rate during Paul’s six seasons. The Clippers were dead last in 2010-11. Jordan especially should do a bit better with Paul around to deliver passes at the right times and in the right places. No one has a better rhythm and sense of timing.
Paul should help on defense, too, even though the Clips’ point guard brigade actually posted solid steal numbers last season. Forcing turnovers isn’t just about individual steals; it’s about a team defending an opponent’s go-to plays in ways that squeeze space and make decisions harder.
Paul, provided he has good personnel behind him, forces turnovers in bunches on the pick-and-roll. Opposing point guards turned the ball on nearly 25 percent of pick-and-roll plays they finished — via a shot, turnover or foul — against Paul, according to Synergy Sports. That is way beyond what the league’s elite ball-hawking teams forced on the pick-and-roll overall. Paul doesn’t — and shouldn’t — get credit for all those steals and errant passes, but he helps by pressuring opponents, reaching at the right times and funneling guys to the right places as part of a broader defensive system.
Expect the Clippers to come out even, or better, in the turnover battle this season.
• Defensive Rebounding
The Clippers ranked just 19th in defensive rebounding percentage despite boasting two leapers in the front court. Dig in, and you’ll see all of their guards and wing players, save the seldom-used Jamario Moon and the departed Al-Farouq Aminu, put up defensive rebounding numbers well below the league average for their positions. Paul, despite his height and knee issues, has always been a good rebounder, and his defensive rebounding rate last season was higher than those of Eric Gordon, Davis, Williams, Randy Foye and even small forward Ryan Gomes. Every little bit helps on the glass.
Everyone hates isolation plays. The very word “isolation” denotes both selfishness and a breakdown of the team’s system. But the shot clock lasts only 24 seconds, and there will be a handful of possessions every night on which some player will have to create something out of nothing on his own.
Guess what? Paul ranked 14th among all players in the entire stinking NBA last season in points per possession scored on isolation plays, according to Synergy Sports. He averaged a hair better than 1.0 points per possession on 44 percent shooting overall, and 42 percent from deep. The Clippers as a team scored 0.74 points per possession on isolation plays, good for exactly last in the league, per Synergy. Gordon was the team’s only real one-on-one creator on the perimeter, and he shot just 35.5 percent on isolation plays. Gordon will get better with experience, though he’ll find the going tougher on the Hornets’ depleted roster; Paul is already elite at emergency creation.
• The pick-and-roll
This is obvious, since Paul has already shown what he can do with two threatening pick-and-roll big men. Jordan has no perimeter game, but neither does Tyson Chandler, and Chandler proved on both the 2007-08 Hornets and last season’s Mavericks that there is huge value in a big man who can finish dunks and alley-oops on the pick-and-roll, since extra defenders must sink into the lane to stop him.
When that happens, Griffin can either slide into open space along the baseline or curl out behind the play near the elbow, from which he can shoot or drive on the pass. And if a defense closes that option, Paul will have Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler — who shot lights-out from three last season — lurking on the outside. Butler probably can’t reproduce the elite three-point shooting he showed last season–it was a huge career outlier–but playing with all this talent will help.
The Clippers were a middling pick-and-roll team last season, per Synergy; the Hornets cracked the top 10 in points per possession on the play, despite a season-ending injury to David West (a pick-and-pop beast) and the presence of inconsistent shooters on the perimeter.
Everyone loves to mock Vinny Del Negro’s uncreative playbook, but in a compressed 66-game season, with very little prep or practice time, you can do worse than calling 70 pick-and-rolls with this personnel.
• The pace question
Here’s the interesting one: The Clippers played at an above-average pace last season, and they’ve got dynamic, young athletes all over the place, even after this trade. The Hornets under Paul’s stewardship have been snails, and the snail pace has persisted now across three coaches. Paul is a control freak, with good reason, and he exercises that control in part by milking the shot clock until he finds the hole in the defense he likes best. Heck, the guy likes to avoid the touching the ball as long as possible, walking as it rolls alongside him, not because he’s in a rush, but rather because he wants as many of those 24 seconds as possible to take place across the mid-court line.
This is thorny territory to negotiate, and you can bet the Clips will play faster when Bledsoe replaces Paul at point guard. But it will be interesting to see if the Clips finds a happy pace medium, or if Paul imposes his preferred slow tempo.
Regardless, the numbers show Paul is a great fit for reasons that go beyond the obvious Griffin/Jordan pick-and-roll potential.