Clippers’ small-ball experiment kills their defense


The Los Angeles Clippers have had a lot of problems this season, with one of the most significant being their small-ball experiment and poor defense.

In a 102-91 loss to the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers were sent below .500 yet again this season as they moved to 7-8 and dropped to 8th in the Western Conference. Both teams shots 50 percent from the floor, the Jazz only won the rebound battle 39-35, the assist numbers were almost identical, but the Jazz got 26 easy points off turnovers as the Clippers gave up the ball 19 times. Yet, while that’s one of many problems for L.A. this season, there’s another aspect of their performance that has been far more costly.

Rebounding (or a lack of) has been killing the Clippers. Doc Rivers admitted it himself as long as a month ago and said it again this week. Although, considering the struggles they’ve had on the boards so far this season, Doc isn’t being remotely harsh by calling his team “terrible” in that regard.

It seems strange that a team with a two-time rebounding champion in DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin (averaging 8.7 per game) would rank 26th in the league in rebounding. With those two in the starting lineup, they shouldn’t be out-rebounded so easily. And as Doc said, the only way they can be an elite team (besides improving numerous other aspects of their game) is by improving their rebounding. Because if you can’t end another team’s possessions effectively, their moderate defense is going to be exposed even more. And when they can’t get hot enough to shoot their way past opponents, they’ll simply have no chance to contend.

Initially, it largely comes down to the Clippers’ attitude. They’ve been playing lacklustre basketball for pretty much the entire season, and a sense of urgency and hunger to compete just hasn’t been present at all so far. It affects all aspects of their game, but a lack of effort really shows when it comes to rebounding.

Besides the combined 21.4 rebounds per game of Griffin and Jordan, the rest of the Clippers squad is only managing to grab 20 boards a night. Yes, members of the second unit such as Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith aren’t getting many minutes, but no one else on the roster besides the starting frontcourt duo is averaging even four rebounds a game.

There just doesn’t seem to be any sense of depth when it comes to everyone chipping in on the glass. Which, as all champions who play team basketball know, isn’t a way your team can excel defensively. It just doesn’t work.

This again links back to Doc’s rotations, though. As he insists on giving Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce heavy minutes, more youthful and athletic players (who quite frankly have more to offer and deserve more playing time) such as Stephenson, Smith and Wesley Johnson are reduced to minimal roles.

Nov 24, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Wesley Johnson (33) dribbles the ball against Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari (8) in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson has just stepped into the starting lineup for the last two games and he’s played fairly well with the other starters, but he’s still been limited to no more than 24 minutes in each game. As for Lance, he’s essentially been benched. Over the last six games, he played five minutes in one, a mere 102 seconds in another, and was kept at the sideline all together for a contest against the Golden State Warriors. Which, despite his obvious problems with shot selection and controlling the offense as a ball handler, doesn’t justify him getting almost no playing time. He deserves a bit more of a chance to improve.

The Clippers have praised his energy since he joined the team. Why not try using that attribute on defense a little more? At the very least, he can push the pace, hustle, and rebound. As more than anything right now, the Clippers just need to wake up and play like they want to actually win.

Now, let’s get back to the problem with their defense and rebounding.

Besides the general lack of heart, it’s Doc’s small-ball experiment that isn’t working out.

For instance, the Clippers’ main small-ball lineup (which is their second most used lineup all together) features Austin Rivers, Crawford, Johnson, Pierce, and Smith. Before even getting to the matter of rebounding, both Crawford and Pierce are poor perimeter defenders. The former has never been good at guarding one-on-one and sometimes just seems to fall asleep all together and misses his rotations. Meanwhile, the latter is simply too slow now at 38 years of age and can’t keep up with the NBA’s fast wing players at all.

As well as the weak defense outside, Pierce is especially questionable in the paint when playing at power forward. That’s where he’s spent 48 percent of his minutes this season, and he can’t protect the rim and is easily elevated over by opponents when it comes to controlling the glass. Even with Smith in at center, who’s averaging 9.4 rebounds per 36 minutes and has far more explosiveness, it’s not enough. He can’t grab every rebound and he can’t stop bigger post scorers down low.

That’s the problem with most small-ball lineups for any team. Add in the Clippers’ old age, and things are going to be even worse.

Nov 25, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) rebounds the ball as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard Rodney Hood (5) watch during an NBA game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Next: NBA Western Conference Power Rankings for Week 4

Their primary small lineup (as mentioned above) has a rebound percentage that’s 21.8 percent worse than their opponents, which equates to them being out-rebounded by 11.1 rebounds per 100 possessions. It isn’t worth sacrificing rebounding just to try and use a lineup that can handle the ball and shoot to space the floor. Although, seeing as the bench haven’t been doing that either, it’s hard to find a positive angle.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a positive angle when the small lineup is outscored by an average of 21.4 points per 100 possessions.

Yes, it’s really that bad.

More from Clipperholics

The small-ball experiment just hasn’t worked. Doc has got better at integrating either Griffin or Jordan at center to help hold the bench unit together, but when they’re left alone matters are far worse. With their poor perimeter defense and rebounding, the backups just aren’t doing enough.

Rotations can fundamentally help change this, and that’s needed if the Clippers want to improve. The other key is some effort and physicality. It sounds so simple, but that’s because it is. If they change their mindset, maybe they’ll have enough heart and effort to do the things besides scoring that will help them win.

Rebounding generally comes down to who wants it more, and so far the Clippers just don’t look like they’ve wanted it enough.