Blake Griffin and the Clippers have hit the skids thanks largely to a poor defense that isn't getting any better. (EPA)
Despite 11 losses in 18 games, the Clippers remain in good position to make the playoffs because of their relatively hot start, their favorable remaining schedule and the struggles of other postseason hopefuls.
But a team that appeared to mark itself a contender when it thumped the Thunder on Jan. 30 now appears to be playoff roadkill. Its struggles, including a blowout loss at Oklahoma City on Wednesday and a home defeat last week to a Phoenix team resting Steve Nash and Grant Hill, have prompted two locker-room shouting sessions and rumblings that coach Vinny Del Negro’s job is in danger.
Del Negro’s job, of course, was in danger the moment the Clippers traded for Chris Paul, transforming themselves into a team that needed a championship-level coach sooner rather than later. Del Negro is not a championship-level coach, unless they give out championships for coaches who scream and stomp their feet at opposing shooters. The knock on Del Negro, dating to his two seasons in Chicago, is that his offense is boring and predictable. It is. I have news for you, team playing the Clippers tonight: Caron Butler is going to set a back screen for Blake Griffin on the left wing, turn to the side, set a ball screen for Chris Paul and then pop to the left corner while Griffin sets up in the post. Repeat 25 times, sprinkle in some more traditional Paul high pick-and-rolls, add a dash of Mo Williams running around screens at the elbows and, presto, you have the Clippers’ offense. Everyone knows what’s coming.
But most teams generally know what’s coming against every team they play, and the Clippers still rank sixth in offensive efficiency with 104.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. The best coaches can catch opponents by surprise out of timeouts, by switching up what plays they emphasize night-to-night, and by constantly adding wrinkles and counters to their bread-and-butter stuff. Del Negro isn’t elite at making these adjustments. Nevertheless, the Clippers’ offense is just fine and has basically held steady during this poor stretch. Their scoring has dropped by less than a point per 100 possessions over the last 15 games, per NBA.com.
Their defense, on the other hand, is a total disaster. And while a better defensive coach could mitigate the damage, I’m not sure this Clippers team was ever going to be ready to play championship-level defense in this lockout-compressed season. The Clippers rank 23rd in points allowed per possession, a mark that essentially disqualifies them (historically speaking) from title contention and makes them the worst defensive team among those competing for a playoff spot. In the last 15 games, the Clippers have regressed badly, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions, which would about tie them with Washington as the league’s third-worst defense.