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L.A: Breaking down why these Clippers are the Clippers

Doc Rivers' summer additions are making the world of difference in the City of Angels

Back in the offseason, I wrote in this space about the Los Angeles Clippers, and their inefficient approach to team building. Head coach and President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers had just congratulated himself and his team publicly by celebrating their success at acquiring quality rotation players with only the minimum. Whereas I countered that, while it was true they had made a good use of the minimum, exploiting one market inefficiency to decent effect does not excuse the fact that they put themselves into a position whereby they were forced to do so by being so haphazard with other assets.

In my determination to stubbornly prove an obvious point that no one had disagreed with, I made the following observation on this year’s Minimum Clips:

This year, the Clippers have […] signed Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass and Raymond Felton to minimum salary deals. Speights and Bass are capable-to-good offensive big men who largely duplicate each other and provide little internal defence, once again leaving Jordan to do it all, whereas Felton is a journeyman second or third stringer whose best quality is being 'steady'. But this is the minimum salary – no one is going to be perfect, and all three should contribute.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Clippers

All three certainly have contributed. Indeed, it is the Clippers’ strong bench, fuelled by those three, that got them out to the NBA’s best record through 11 games. Now at 10-2 after last night’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies – I stubbornly refuse to let one bad quarter undermine my point - the Clippers sit at the top of the Western Conference, above the 9-2 Golden State Warriors, and above the 9-3 San Antonio Spurs whom they beat along the way.

The Clippers look like legitimate contenders early on, and the 47-point preseason drubbing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors is a thing of the past.

Previous incarnations of the Clippers have looked like legitimate contenders, too. Ever since the Big Three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan came into being, the Clippers have had their moments of looking as good as anyone – when those three are all on their game, they are sufficiently good that it does not much matter who the other two are. Rarely, though, have they managed stretches as impressive as the one with which they started this season.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Clippers

The offence looks very good (an Offensive Rating of 112.1, fifth in the league), while, despite ostensibly lacking many quality defensive playing personnel, the defence looks even better (a 96.7 Defensive Rating, best in the league). They are still middle of the pack in terms of pace (15th), but then, with a half-court point guard as considered and consistent as Paul is, this is no bad thing. All of the Big Three are off to good starts this year, particularly the ageless Paul (31.6 PER and a ridiculous .631% true shooting percentage), and the supporting cast and bench have filled it well around them.

The Clippers look like legitimate contenders early on, and the 47-point preseason drubbing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors is a thing of the past.

As essentially the third big man in a three big rotation – the three leading minute bench players are all guards; there is a lot of small ball going on here, as will be seen – Speights’s job is to provide a different look to Jordan, the man he often replaces. Whereas Jordan is the paint protector, rebounder extraordinaire and limited offensive talent, Speights is in to score.

Throughout his career, Speights has shot on almost every touch, and this continues – his 16.9 field goal attempts per 36 minutes is second only to Griffin’s 17.5. And while Speights’s field goal percentage of 40.2% is poor, it is forgivably poor for the role he fulfils.

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder

The amount of threes and free throws helps (a true shooting percentage of .542%, while not great, is only .004% off of his career high), and regardless of his efficiency on any given night, Speights adds something to the team through both his desire and ability to score.

The difference between the Clippers of previous years and the Clippers of this year thus far is due in part to the fact that, when the Big Three are benched, there are capable backups for them all now. These bench players also balance the team – some frontcourt offence, some backcourt defence – in a way not seen before. Indeed, it is the defence in particular that has thus far taken them to the next level.

Throughout his career, Speights has shot on almost every touch, and this continues – his 16.9 field goal attempts per 36 minutes is second only to Griffin’s 17.5.

With Speights in the game, the Clippers have a new wrinkle. The 19 foot jump shots of Speights’s early career are now three pointers, and his 31.7% shooting from downtown on the year is enough to have an impact on the defensive schemes of his opponents. Last year, the Clippers would often turn to the bench and immediately hit a wall – aside from the free-roaming scoring ability of Jamal Crawford, who continues to do his thing this year with slightly better shot selection discipline (and more defensive effort!), there was little to go to. This is different now with Speights.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers

There is now a big man who can score that isn’t Griffin, or two including Bass (who hasn’t played as much as Speights, but who gets buckets when he does). The two should also allow for better regular season rest for Jordan (currently at 30.3 minutes per game) and Griffin (32.3mpg), so as to be fresher for what they are hoping will be the deepest possible playoff run.

When the Big Three are benched, there are capable backups for them all now. These bench players also balance the team

While he is not known as a defender, lacking great length, timing, lateral foot speed or instincts, Speights does try on D. He tries to provide help defence, takes a good number of charges, and puts forth the effort that masks some of the deficiencies. This has not always been the case in his career, but it is the case right now, and the case right now is what matters.

Similarly, behind Chris Paul, Raymond Felton’s addition has pushed Austin Rivers into a sort of hybrid point guard/small forward role thing, and has added the reliable ball handling presence behind and alongside Paul that has long since lacked and that Rivers never was. Felton’s role has fairly consistently decreased throughout his NBA career, and he is now entrenched in journeyman backup status, but it is a role in which he thrives.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Clippers

Gone is the free-roaming player who tried to play beyond his talent level – nowadays, although still not a talented shotmaker or athlete, Felton plays with poise and headiness. It is a thoroughly unremarkable recipe – bringing the ball up, some catching-and-shooting, driving closeouts, not throwing it away, feeding the paint, finding shooters, trying more on defence – but it works here, where steadiness was the priority.

Felton’s role has fairly consistently decreased throughout his NBA career, and he is now entrenched in journeyman backup status, but it is a role in which he thrives.

Rivers, meanwhile, has been asked to focus on defence. And while his off-the-ball defence needs work still, his ability to defend the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions in isolation with his size and athleticism has become a key component to the Clippers’ thus far smothering defence.

In conjunction with the continued efforts of J.J. Redick and the athletic, rangy Luc Richard Mbah A Moute – who can quite feasibly defend every position, and who is not a man you want to switch pick-and-rolls with – the Clippers have better wing defenders than before, to pair with Jordan’s anchoring of the middle and Paul’s exceptional anticipation.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Clippers

There are still some concerns going forward. Mbah A Moute’s offence is as limited as anyone’s, and, come playoff time, he will be easy enough to hide the opponent’s star scorer on, thus letting them save their energy for offence. The Clippers need to stay healthy and committed, neither of which is a given. They need to stop losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder. And, as seen last night, there is still the occasional poor quarter that costs them.

However, fuelled by their offseason acquisitions, the Clippers look better than ever thus far. They have come ready to play, fit and healthy, deep and versatile. It is just their luck that they will have to go through one of the very best teams of all time if they are earn their inaugural NBA Finals berth, but regardless of whether they do that or not, this is a legitimately good team. And one that is fun to watch, too.

Detroit Pistons v Los Angeles Clippers

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