To get a better handle on the Los Angeles Clippers in advance of their game Wednesday with the Orlando Magic, we talked to Steve Perrin, the lead writer at Clips Nation, via email on Tuesday. You can read the Magic-centric portion of our exchange at Clips Nation. Here's how our talk went.
Evan Dunlap, Orlando Pinstriped Post: In a response to a brief message I sent you shortly after the Clippers' 137-118 drubbing of the Rockets, you said of L.A., "They can score a little. It may not even matter that they're a really bad defensive team." I was wondering if you can expand on that point. Is this Clippers offense, led by Chris Paul, really so potent that the concerns about defense are minimal or nonexistent? And, further, just how are the Clippers lighting up scoreboards the way they have?
Steve Perrin, Clips Nation: I'm glad you asked that. I was being tongue-in-cheek in my email, but there's some truth there as well. The old tropes that "Defense wins championships" and that "Defense wins in the playoffs" are just that -- tropes. The obvious fact of the matter is that all you have to do is score more points than you allow in order to win games, and whether you win 137-118 or 82-78, a win is a win. Generally, it's easier to be pretty good on both sides of the ball if you want to be better than all the other teams -- but it's certainly possible to be so unbelievably good on offense that you make defense irrelevant. Possible, if not likely.
The [Mike] D`Antoni Suns teams are often cited as examples of why you can't just be a great offensive team, since they never made it to the NBA Finals. But I actually have a different view of that history lesson. In 2005 they probably win the West if Joe Johnson doesn't get hurt. In 2006 they probably win the West with a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire. In 2007 they probably win the west if [David] Stern doesn't suspend two key players for Game 5 against the Spurs. Injuries and circumstances had more to do with the Suns losing those series than the fact that they were offense-first teams.
The Clippers will be better defensively than they have so far. The fact that they've played the Warriors and Rockets (two teams that will almost certainly be among the league leaders in offensive efficiency at the end of the season) and a basically unconscious Lakers team has skewed the early season numbers. Don't get me wrong -- the defense has been bad, but the small sample size is not helping. The Clippers continue to say the right things -- "We want to have a defensive identity", "We'll win with our defense", that sort of thing, but I kind of wish they'd just embrace their scoring nature. "We will score more points than you, it doesn't matter how many you score." "We'd like to play better defense than we have and hopefully we will, but ultimately that's not who we are: we score in bunches, and you can't stop us."
OPP: One of the stories that emerged out of L.A.'s training camp -- and correct me if I'm wrong, please -- is that Doc Rivers has an affinity for DeAndre Jordan's game and planned to rely more heavily on the 25-year-old center. So far, how has Jordan responded to Rivers' faith in him?
CN: You are not wrong. Opinions vary on how much of Doc's effusive praise for Jordan is sincere and how much is calculated to instill a high level of confidence in the big man: clearly it's a strategy on Doc's behalf to try to get the best out of Jordan, and so far it seems to be working. Vinny Del Negro did seemingly everything in his power to destroy Jordan's confidence -- nitpicking his mistakes, pulling him from games, ignoring him completely in fourth quarter action -- and it worked, as Jordan's game slowly deteriorated under VDN as each season wore on. Rivers has taken the opposite approach, heaping praise on Jordan at every turn, and giving him huge minutes thus far on the young season. Jordan's had games of 35 minutes and 41 minutes in four games under Rivers (and foul trouble has limited his minutes some) -- he played as many as 35 minutes just four times in 88 games last year.
It's worth noting that Rivers message has been entirely about defense -- about Jordan's potential as a defensive player, to be first team all defense, to win DPOY. It's absolutely the right message for Jordan, who has a Howard-like combination of size, length, strength and athleticism. Jordan hasn't been a great defender to date in his NBA career -- he hasn't even been a particularly good defender -- but his issues have much to do with focus and discipline. If Rivers can really get to him, it can make a huge difference. The early results are encouraging, but it's a long season.
OPP: Adding Rivers and strong role players like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to the Paul/Blake Griffin core makes it clear that the Clippers view themselves as title contenders. How realistic are L.A.'s championship chances, and for how long do you expect the so-called title window to remain open for this team?
CN: I'm far from unbiased of course, but if you're making a list of potential NBA champions in 2014, the list starts with the defending champion Miami Heat and after that I think the Clippers have as good a case as anyone else. I don't know how to grade that on your realistic scale. Pretty realistic? Somewhat realistic? Tied for second most realistic? I personally have been picking the Spurs to come out of the west -- but not really because I believe it so much as because I've been expecting the Spurs to succumb to age-related decline for so many years now that I've just given up.
The Clippers have defensive issues and a gaping hole on the bench where quality NBA big men should be (see next question). But every team in the league has strengths and weaknesses, and the Clippers strengths are pretty strong.
As for the window, with Chris Paul (28) and Blake Griffin (24) signed for five seasons each, I'd place the window at ... let's see, carry the four, divide by seven, take the square root ... about five seasons. It's impossible to predict the future and weird stuff is almost certainly going to happen, but it's a superstar driven-league and the Clippers have two superstars in their primes signed to long term contracts -- that's your window right there. I happen to be of the opinion that Paul will age very well, given that he thrives on skill and intelligence more so than athleticism, so I expect Paul at 32 to still be ultra-productive. Bear in mind also that Paul is the one superstar in the NBA that every player wants to play with -- if you want to put up career high numbers, come to the Clippers and play with Chris Paul. If you want to watch Russell Westbrook take shots away from you, head over to Oklahoma City (I know, gratuitous Westbrook shot, not cool -- but you get the idea).
OPP: It's true that a lot of teams could use reserve front-line help, but that seems especially true in the Clippers' case, given that they're using Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins almost nightly. What do you make of the reserve power forwards and centers? Do you expect Gary Sacks and Rivers to shop for help in that area, and what assets can L.A. offer another team in exchange for an upgraded backup big?
CN: The Clippers will almost undoubtedly have a new face as their first big off the bench come March. How much of an impact that player can make, how much of an upgrade he is, remains to be seen. The team is between the luxury tax threshold and the hard cap at present and extremely limited in what they can do. They have a $2.6M trade exception they could use to acquire a player, and beyond that they're limited to minimum deals or trades.
The team is loaded on the wing, so they could conceivably deal one of their wings for a big. Willie Green started 60 games for a very good Clippers team last season and did an admirable job, but he hasn't played a minute yet this season. Rookie Reggie Bullock has looked good enough to get a few minutes and provide wing depth as well. So they could conceivably trade a Jared Dudley or a Jamal Crawford and backfill from their existing roster. Crawford is the name that comes up the most on Clips Nation -- but I assume the Clippers would be loathe to part with a guy who is so amazingly good in his bench-scorer role.
Nothing will happen for awhile -- free agents become eligible for trades December 15, contracts become guaranteed first week in January, you can start signing 10 day contracts in January as well. I'd be shocked if the Clippers made a roster move before January 4. For now, it's experimenting to see if any of the guys currently on the roster can actually help. Mullens is apparently going to get the first crack at proving his worth, and I'm feeling guardedly optimistic. He's big, he's 24 and he has skills -- seems like the Clippers ought to be able to do something with that. Was he terrible in Charlotte? Sure, but that was on a terrible team. I think there's at least a chance that he can be better than terrible -- maybe even kind of good -- on a very good team. Hollins is who he is, which is not very good. Antawn Jamison is on the roster as well: Doc says he's saving Jamison, but I figure he's just saving Jamison from the embarrassment of getting torched on a nightly basis.
OPP: I mentioned as much when we spoke earlier, but I really dug the Clippers' addition of Redick, who began his career with the Magic. Now he's averaging 17.3 points in less than 30 minutes per game and shooting 50 percent from the field. What did you make of that acquisition at the time, and how differently, if at all, do you assess the move now, through four games? Is he a fit alongside Paul, or might moving him to the second unit in favor of Jamal Crawford benefit the team?
CN: I had sort of dreamed of Redick as the Clippers shooting guard even before it happened; I really thought he'd be out of the price range, so I was thrilled when the trade went down. Having said that, I was always more than a little apprehensive that I was being unrealistic about my expectations for Redick. After all, here's a guy who had never been a full time starter in seven NBA seasons, and the Clippers were asking him to be the starting 2 on a team with championship aspirations.
But his basic profile -- incredible shooter, super high basketball IQ, works well without the ball -- just seemed like a perfect fit for his old ACC-adversary CP3. I've long felt like shooting is undervalued in the NBA, and the success of the Warriors last season seems to have opened a lot of people's eyes to that. The Paul-Griffin Clippers benefit more than most teams from great shooting -- Paul's forays into the lane suck defenses in, while Griffin draws a lot of attention in the post and is a terrific passer. Redick (not to mention Dudley) is going to get plenty of open shots this season. And you know what? That's exactly what's happening. If you ask me, he has even shot great so far. He's 50%, but he's getting great looks, and you know as well as anyone that when Redick gets a clean look, you simply expect it to go in.
For his part, Redick has spoken about the fact that he's never played with a pass-first point guard in his NBA career. (Oooh, burn Jameer [Nelson]!) He was miserable begging for the ball in a backcourt with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in Milwaukee -- he's elated to be playing with Paul.
I love Crawford, but I like the configuration of Redick starting and Crawford coming off the bench. Crawford is a shot creator, and the Clippers need him on the floor when Paul is out to take over the shot creation duties. Redick is the perfect off-the-ball complement to Paul. It helps also that Crawford has had his best NBA seasons coming off the bench and embraces the role. The real question is who is going to finish games among the Clippers four wings. Matt Barnes hasn't gotten going yet this season, but he was more often than not in the closing unit with Crawford last season. You can pretty much mix-and-match with Redick, Dudley, Crawford and Barnes depending on the opponent; how the minutes get distributed over the course of the season -- especially in crunch time -- is going to be one of the more interesting decisions for Doc Rivers.
Thanks to Steve for answering our questions. Head to Clips Nation for complete coverage of the Clippers.