The public vibe around the Clippers has been pretty much the same since Chris Paul was acquired via trade in the 2011-12 season: they can score, but when the game slows down they can’t get stops when needed. That’s what Doc Rivers was brought in for. Outside of just being a complete upgrade over his predecessor in Vinny Del Negro, Rivers was expected to turn this Clippers team in a squad that can rely on their offense as well as their defense.
As the season has progressed, the team, as long as observers of all kinds, has noticed a change in the defense. “You can feel us starting to believe in our defense and being in the rights spots,” said Doc Rivers after a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. If you compare how the Clippers defended at the beginning of the season to now, Rivers is right.
But in the advanced statistics era, this improvement should show in the numbers (provided with context of course), so we take a look at several variables that have changed throughout the season to see if the Clippers defense is really improve or if it’s just fodder from the club to convince themselves things are changing.
The Matt Barnes Effect
Coming into the season, the Clippers expected Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes to split time defending opposing teams best players aka the Kevin Durant’s, Lebron James’ and Carmelo Anthony’s of the world. That idea came crashing down as Dudley has played some of the worst basketball of his career and Barnes couldn’t get in rhythm due to consecutive injuries. The teams defense was impacted dearly by the regressions of these two defenders. Barnes’ absence has affected his ability to get familiar with Doc River’s defensive system.
“To learn the game plan has taken me a while because I’ve been in and out,” said Barnes after the victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Even the idea of being shipped off during the trade deadline affected the way Barnes performed on the floor. “I think there was a lot of outside distractions for a while that kind of had me mentally confused and frustrated. But all that’s out the way now and I’m just out there playing.”
But since Matt Barnes has gotten healthy and in game shape, his defense has been a huge factor in the Clippers defensive improvement. Look at the Clippers defensive rating with Matt Barnes on and off the floor before and after All-Star weekend.
The decision to play more Matt Barnes and less Jared Dudley has paid dividends for the Clippers, especially now that he’s healthy and it’s extremely evident, in the numbers. Coming off a career year, fans were a bit antsy when it came to being reasonable with the expectations the group played on Barnes, but, health permitting, his play of late has allowed him to meet those expectations plus some.
For the Clippers to take the next step, it’d help if Barnes provided his services off the bench to create a balance between the starters and reserves, but until either Jared Dudley or Danny Granger prove to be starter worthy, Barnes will remain the number one small forward on the roster.
Defending the Western Conference
While the Clippers were a top-10 in defensive rating prior to the All-Star break, there were some questions on whether their on-the-court defense lived up to the numbers. One observation made was their numbers being inflated due to the lack of competition aka consecutive games played against Eastern Conference opponents. When pointing to their defensive numbers against Western Conference opponents, the numbers reflected the thoughts of many: they could defend, but not well enough. That seems to have changed following the All-Star break:
While the sample size isn’t significant — 28 games pre-All Star compared to 8 post — this dip in defensive rating is a sure sign that improvement is happening. In those eight games the Clippers have faced the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Lakers, Rockets, and Suns. Of the aforementioned teams, five of them (Suns, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Pelicans) have an offensive rating of 104 or higher and four of those five (SAS, OKC, PHX, HOU) are top ten in offensive rating.
Oddly, since the All-Star break the Clippers have faced only Western Conference opponents, and while before this would have been the reason why they haven’t defended well the Clippers have been a top-3 team in defensive rating at 98.6. Only the Portland Trail Blazers (!!!) and Golden State Warriors have defende better than the Clippers. Add the Chicago Bulls to the equation and you have the only four teams to post a defensive rating under 100 since the break. Here is a chart that displays how well the top ten defensive teams in the league, based solely on defensive rating, have defended since the All-Star break ended:
This means they’ve defended better than San Antonio, Miami, Indiana, and any other team you’d consider to have a better defense than Doc Rivers club. By no one’s criteria isn’t that impressive.
Impatience may have been the reason why we as fans and analysts have been weary to call the Clippers a solid defensive team. It was just a year ago that the club posted a top-10 defensive rating, but failed to live up to that measure in the playoffs. But the improvement must start somewhere, and this stretch after the All-Star game seems to be that place.
Is this data enough to confidently say that the Clippers are one of the five or six best teams on the defensive end? Of course, not due to a small sample size not overpowering a larger one that said, at best, the Clips were a step above mediocre, but if you need proof that improvement is happening, these numbers are exactly that.