Why has the LA Clippers’ defense been mediocre this season?

Paul George, LA Clippers - Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Paul George, LA Clippers - Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

The world of sports seems always to be dominated by ironies, and the LA Clippers are no exception.

In the world of soccer, Paris Saint-Germain, a team with three of the best footballers in the world, has struggled to make an impression on the biggest stage of the world: The UEFA Champions League. More basketball-related — a record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors team choked away a 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. As for the LA Clippers, they have two of the best two-way superstars in the league, yet their defense has been one of their biggest weaknesses.

It’s extremely hard to wrap your head around these phenomena, especially from a holistic view. It doesn’t make much sense, after all. But of all these ironies, there could be a more straightforward answer to the problem plaguing the success of the Clippers.

The first obvious explanation is the team’s defense in transition. With Russell Westbrook onboard, the Clippers are not necessarily the best team at controlling the ball. Westbrook averages 3.5 turnovers per game, while Paul George turns the ball over 3.1 times each game, sixth and 16th most in NBA, respectively.

In turn, the Clippers often lose the ball at the most random places and in the most unexpected moments of the game.

Take, for example, when the team threw the ball in four consecutive possessions against the Sacramento Kings on February 24. All four turnovers came before the ball reached the opponent’s three-point arc. These careless mistakes would help the Kings go on a 13-2 run and force the game into overtime.

The Kings would go on to finish the Clippers in double overtime in what is the second largest-scoring game in NBA history — perhaps all thanks to these four crucial errors with a little over two minutes left in regulation.

The biggest takeaway? The Clippers, at crucial times in the game, have a penchant for giving away the ball, which not only gives easy looks for the opponents but also takes away a lot from the team’s energy and momentum. For context, the Clippers’ opponents average 18.4 points off turnovers, the sixth highest in the NBA.

Another big reason behind the team’s struggles comes from the same reasons: sloppiness and lack of focus.

What is the cause of the LA Clippers’ weak defense?

Whether it’d be one of the help defenders zoning off or the opponents quickly getting the switch of their desire (for instance, Ivica Zubac switching onto Stephen Curry), the LA Clippers, at different moments of the game, look lazy and slow.

Even Kawhi Leonard, widely regarded as one of the most elite defenders of the last decade, seldom loses his guy from screens or, far worse, simple off-the-ball movements. And as for the other not-so-great defenders, it happens more often.

Not to mention, there is no longer the same passion and energy on the defensive end that former Clippers like Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell used to bring: the team is slow to get back in transition or, at times, doesn’t even bother hustling back at the prospect of not getting scored on. Opponents score 14.7 points per game on fast breaks (eighth most in NBA).

That said, the team’s defense is definitely on the top of Tyronn Lue’s list of things to fix as the Clippers approach the final stretch of the season. I mean, there’s no forgetting the disastrous third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this month: the team allowed 51 points in a single quarter.

That doesn’t mean the Clippers have dug themselves into something they can’t come back out of.

Indeed, there is some good news for Tyronn Lue and the Clippers. There’s still no denying they have the league’s finest two-way defenders in George and Leonard. Amidst struggles, they are still a matchup nightmare on both ends of the floor. In addition, the likes of Nicolas Batum, Ivica Zubac (11th in blocks per game), and Robert Covington are other players that can contribute on defense.

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So, with optimism, Tyronn Lue and the Clippers should approach understanding and eventually solving the very irony troubling their championship aspirations.