The Los Angeles Clippers are the best team in basketball
There’s a decent chance that you’ll get to the end of this piece and wind up muttering to yourself, “Who cares? It’s the regular season. They’ll blow it in the playoffs like they always do.” (Or something along those lines.)
But it needs to be known that, through the first two weeks of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers have been the best team in basketball.
The 7-1 Clippers have the best record in the Western Conference and the best record in the NBA. They lead the league with a plus-16.9 point differential. The next-closest team is the Hawks at plus-9.4. Six of the Clippers’ seven wins have come by double-digits. Only the Hawks and Pistons join them with more than three double-digit wins, and they each have “only” four. The most recent three of LA’s victories have been by 20-plus points, and the last two have been by 30-plus.
They’re not fattening up on slouches, either. The Clippers are beating good teams. Jazz, Grizzlies, Spurs, Pistons, Blazers — they’ve all lost to the Clips by double-digits within the first two weeks of the year.
How have the Clippers gone about it? By leaning on a defense that has thus far been the NBA’s best — and it’s not particularly close. Heading into their Wednesday night game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Clippers had allowed a league-low 90.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That mark was more than five full points south of the next-closest team. Then they allowed the Blazers to score just 80 points in a 94-possession game. By the end of the night, the Clips’ defensive efficiency had dropped all the way to 89.3; that’s 6.1 points ahead of the Charlotte Hornets for best in the league.
That big a margin begs the question of how exactly they’ve separated themselves from the pack. The simplest answer is that they are getting elite level defense from both their starters and their bench. There are 23 five-man lineups that have played at least 70 minutes together so far this season, per NBA.com. The best defensive group among those 23 is the Clippers’ starting lineup of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. The second-best defensive group is, incredibly, the Clippers’ five-man bench lineup of Ray Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreesse Speights.
There’s a lot of institutional memory with these Clippers. Paul, Redick, Griffin, and Jordan are now in their fourth season together, and Doc Rivers has been coaching them that entire time. This is Crawford’s fifth season with the Lob City trio, a threesome now in its sixth year together. When a group plays together long enough, it develops a communication shorthand, and when that group features true plus defenders at the point of attack (Paul) and in the paint (Jordan), it becomes remarkably tough to score on.
That’s what opposing teams have to deal with every night, and the unease is reflected in the Clippers’ deeper defensive numbers. LA ranks seventh in defensive rebounding percentage and second in opponent’s turnover percentage so far this season, per NBA.com. That’s as good an indication as any that the Clippers have done an excellent job of limiting the number of possessions their opponent has on any given night. They’ve taken the ball away from the other team at an extremely high rate and also not given their opponent many opportunities to get a second look at the basket. That, already, puts a defense ahead of the game.
Making things even more difficult for the opposition is the fact that, on the occasions where the Clippers have allowed them to actually get off a shot, no team has forced a greater percentage of misses. Teams playing against the Clippers have connected on shots in the paint just 51.0 percent of the time, 27th in the league. They’ve hit only 28.2 percent of their mid-range attempts, last in all of basketball. And they’ve made just 30.2 percent of their shots from behind the three-point line, 28th in the NBA.
The shooting percentages on mid-rangers and threes are unsustainably low, of course, but the good news is that the Clips have forced opponents into a terribly disadvantageous shot distribution as well. Over 27 percent of shots against the Clippers have come from mid-range; that’s the third-highest rate in the league. Only 25 percent of shots against the Clippers have been threes; that’s the third-lowest rate in the league.
Not only that but Clipper opponents have actually hit a somewhat unsustainably high percentage of their wide-open looks (described as the closest defender being six-plus feet away, per NBA.com’s SportVU data), and the Clips have limited such attempts better than almost any other team. That means that even when the shooting numbers regress toward the mean, it won’t drag L.A.’s defensive efficiency numbers down quite as far as one might expect.
While it may seem somewhat strange to you that the Clippers — those soft, Lob City Clippers — are leading the league in defense, it probably shouldn’t. They were tied for fourth last year, after all. They get top-flight defense at point guard (the Point God is one of the few true excellent defenders left at the position) and center (Rivers may have incepted Jordan into becoming the elite defender the coach said he was two years ago, just by saying it enough times) and have two wing stoppers in Mbah a Moute (a long-armed monster that can guard four positions) and Rivers (now a truly useful bench player on both ends). They have guys that know where to be and when, and what to do when they get there in Griffin, Redick, and Johnson. And they have a coach who has been with these guys for a while, and using (most of) these schemes for even longer. When you stop back and think about it, the Clippers taking a leap forward defensively actually makes a good deal of sense.
The operative question, of course, is whether they can maintain it. They won’t stick at quite this level, obviously. Nobody’s ever done that. But there’s really no reason why they can’t contend for a top-five or even top-three spot all season. Because of the spacing crunch the predictability of their offense sometimes creates, this is a team with a somewhat slimmer margin for error in the playoffs than one might expect given the talent level on hand. Keeping up elite level defense would be a good way to widen that margin back up. Doing so wouldn’t make the Clippers the favorite out West, but it would certainly give them a better chance.
More from FanSided
- Grey’s Anatomy season 13, episode 8 live stream: Watch online7m ago
- How to watch Legends of Tomorrow season 2, episode 5 online21m ago
- College Football Week 11 preview and predictions: What to watch for22m ago
- Big 12 Basketball 2016: Preview and predictions22m ago
- NFL Week 10: Picks and predictions22m ago