LA Clippers’ defense is locked in at a league-leading level

The LA Clippers have struggled to find their offensive rhythm for most of the season so far, but their league-leading defense has driven them forward.

Until a 116-92 win against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, the LA Clippers‘ offense has sputtered to start the 2016-17 NBA season, so they’ve earned their 5-1 start on the defensive end. They lead the league in defensive rating, allowing only 90.7 points per 100 possessions. They have made big improvements on that side of the ball from last season where they gave up 103.8 points over a hundred possessions, with the bench playing a major part in doing so.

The Clippers have done a great job of constantly pressuring the ball and protecting the paint, delivering the kind of defense that looks like championship caliber defense.

A slight change this season has been the flip-flopping of defensive assignments between Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute. This is not an indictment of Paul’s defensive skills as much as it is a move to ease the burden he carries for the team. He leads the league in steals per game (3.5) and defensive rating (85) right now.

Mbah a Moute has been tasked with guarding the other team’s most potent offensive weapon. J.J. Redick, who has never been known as a defensive juggernaut, has made strides where he is not a weak link on the court.

Blake Griffin has all of the physical attributes to be a strong defender in the NBA and has dedicated himself to being a better rebounder, currently at 9.7 per game for the season. DeAndre Jordan stands as the last line of defense, using his long frame to alter and swat shots, averaging two blocks per game.

Meanwhile, the bench is equipped with several defensive options like Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Brandon Bass to keep the defense intact as the starters go to the bench.

In the defensive series below against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers defended them well to come up with stops and force them into difficult shots. The Jazz ran their motion and posted Boris Diaw up on Griffin who didn’t give up any ground. Diaw kicked the ball to Joe Johnson and went to set a ball screen. Griffin switches with Mbah a Moute who closed out hard on Diaw, forcing him into a difficult step-back jumper against the shot clock to result in an air ball.

In the play below, Griffin poked the ball away from Diaw when the Jazz tried to enter the ball into the high post. Both players chased after the ball, but the Jazz recovered it and Griffin was caught out of position. This put the Clippers into scramble mode and Redick had to defend Rodney Hood as he drove the lane. He never gave him a straight line to the basket, and when Hood spun away from Redick he found Jordan there to alter the shot. When the shot went up there were four Clippers there to rebound it against two Jazz players.

Over the past few seasons, the LA Clippers have had one of the top rated offenses in the NBA, but haven’t been able to keep up on defense (their improvement from 15th in defensive efficiency in 2014-15 to 4th last season is the best we’ve seen).

The key to being a good defensive team is having the ability to come up with consecutive defensive stops, giving yourself more opportunities for easy fastbreak points in the process as well. The teams able to do this are the teams that will be playing for a championship in June.

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The questions remains if the Clippers can maintain this defensive intensity once their offense begins to take off. If they are able to keep this focus up, they could be playing for a championship in what could become the best season in their franchise’s history.

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