Tonight the Utah Jazz face off against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Jazz are a lowly 9-23, worst in the conference, and will be visiting the 20-11 Clipps, who are a stellar 12-2 at home. To get to know the Clippers a little bit better we got a chance to fire off some questions to Steve Perrin (@ClipperSteve), the main man at Clips Nation. So without further preamble, let's start Jamming.
1. For a few seasons there it looked like a Chris Paul / Deron Williams argument could be made, without being seriously laughed at. Since his Utah Jazz days, D-Will has had disappointing season after disappointing season; while Chris Paul plays like an MVP at times. Both point guards left small market teams for teams in big markets; but only one has thrived. What's your take on this?
Steve: You can't completely discount injuries in the Williams/Paul debate. It is ironic that Paul was previously thought to be the bigger injury risk, given his meniscus surgery and the fact that Williams is built like a tank relative to Paul. But Williams has had a series of nagging things since leaving Utah, and we're constantly hearing that he's less than fully healthy, even when he is playing.
But it goes beyond that. Part of the 'change' in the debate is that it should never really have been a debate in the first place. Paul posted PERs of 28 and 30 in years three and four in the league (before his meniscus surgery) -- Williams has never had a PER above 21.1. That's a huge difference, and it's the difference between an All Star and a Superstar, which is what we're talking about here. The discussion was only taken seriously because Williams was on a slightly better team -- and for the ultimately silly reason that Williams kept beating Paul in head-to-head meetings (which he did again last month). That's an awfully small "N" on which to base a conclusion.
Obviously Paul has wound up in a situation that has been perfect for him. At this point he's bounced back almost to pre-surgery levels of productivity (his PER as a Clippers is close to 27 and he's at 27.7 so far this season) and he has made the Clippers relevant, no small task and an accomplishment that has added to his appeal. He's a smart and telegenic person who is one of only three NBA players to have national TV ad campaigns for non-basketball products. Williams should have been in a similarly advantageous position in Brooklyn, but obviously it hasn't worked out. Regardless, on the court, Paul was always the better player, even if Williams is quite good.
2. Blake Griffin is on his way to his third 20 / 10 season in his first four years as an NBA player. How good can he get, and do you think his ceiling will be defined by improvements to his offensive game, or defensive game?
Steve: Griffin is an oft-criticized player for the very reason that his ceiling is so high. Here's a guy who is averaging 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while shooting better than 50% from the field -- the only player in the NBA doing that, by the way -- and all people seem to talk about is how is game isn't complete enough. He's producing at an incredible level, but everyone wants to focus on where he can get better.
And the fact is he can get better. His mid-range jumper and his free throw shooting are improving, but still have plenty of headroom. (He is 6-16 from beyond the three point line this season by the way, and is very willing to take the corner three at this point.) His post game still needs work, although it actually looks worse than it is. For some reason, he just can't seem to come up with a move (other than through sheer athleticism) where you say "Oh, that looked good." But he can still score in a variety of ways.
Your question about whether offensive improvement or defensive improvement will define is ceiling is an interesting one. It's the offensive side that will define him, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, players tend to become better defensively with experience, regardless of other factors. Certainly smart players who are hard workers do, and Griffin is clearly both of those things. He's gotten better on the defensive end each season he's been in the league, he's made a big step this season, and he'll continue to improve there. But ultimately he'll be measured by his offensive production, in large part because that's how almost everyone in the NBA is measured. This is Blake Griffin we're talking about here. No one is asking him to be Tyson Chandler or Ben Wallace -- leave that role for DeAndre Jordan. He's going to have to be a major force with the ball in his hands for people to one day say "That's the guy I always expected him to be."
3. What are the on court differences from a Vinny Del Negro to a Doc Rivers? Are these more significant than the off-court differences?
Steve: Vinny came in for a ton of criticism -- too much in my opinion, really -- for running an unimaginative offense. And while his offense did involve a whole lot of Chris Paul pick-and-roll, the simple fact is that you could do worse. Simple is not the same as ineffective by any means, and the Clippers points per 100 possessions last season under VDN (107.7) was better than they've been under Rivers through 31 games (106.5 -- OffRtg stats from NBA.com).
Having said that, the naked eye sees more pleasing aspects to the Clippers' offense this season, particularly in the movement of the ball and players off the ball. J.J. Redick seems to be a key, as he is a player who works tirelessly off the ball, and his injury absence has clearly been a blow to the Clippers' offensive flow. They've also not shot particularly well from deep (as we'll touch on next) which can't be blamed on the offense really -- they just haven't hit shots one would expect this group to make.
On defense, Doc likes to flood the strong side and he double teams less than Vinny did. The Clippers seemed to struggle to adapt to the new schemes early, but they've had the third best defense in the NBA over the past five weeks.
On both offense and defense, the optimistic point of view is that Rivers' systems will ultimately yield a better, more sustainable product, even if there has to be an adjustment period in implementing them. If all goes according to plan, this could be a top five team on both sides of the ball in the second half of the season, especially with the re-integration of Redick.
4. The Clippers have Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Chris Paul, Darren Collison, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, Antawn Jamison, and Byron Mullens on the roster this year. Why is this team ranked only 17th in spot up points per possession? I would expect this team to be killing it from downtown. As a team LAC is ranked #25 out of 30.
Steve: Very good question, Amar. Kudos to you.
Rivers made a concerted effort to add shooting in the off-season, with acquisitions like Redick, Dudley, Jamison and Mullens all intended to create lanes for Paul to drive into and room for Griffin in the post. Mullens and Jamison have mostly been non-factors because they're just not very good, and it's tough to have them on the court. But the simple fact of the matter is that Redick, Dudley, Paul, Barnes and Green are all well below their career three point percentages on the season and Crawford is below what he shot last season for the Clippers. Bizarrely, Griffin has the best three point percentage on the team. I can only assume that those numbers will regress towards the mean as the season wears on.
It has been amazing the difference in the offense when the shots are falling and when they are not. The team has been through a few really frigid stretches where they just can't make anything from the perimeter. I think it's an anomaly, and I think this offense is capable of being as good as many people assumed it would be this season. But they have to make shots.
5. Are injuries the only thing that can derail the Clippers ascendance?
Steve: Oh dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, no. Maybe it's because I've been a Clippers fan for so long, but I can imagine myriad ways to screw this up.
Seriously though, what the Clippers have right now is two superstars in their prime signed to long term contracts and a championship level coach that is respected throughout the league. That's about as much as you can ask for as a long term plan in the modern NBA. The reality of the salary cap will make it difficult to make adjustments around Griffin and Paul over the next few years, but the Clippers have some big advantages there as well. They play in a big market in a desirable geography, they'll be a contender for the foreseeable future, and anyone would want to play with Chris Paul (as opposed to another guard who will try to lure free agents to L.A.) They're as well positioned as any team in the league over the next four years, but things still have to fall right for them.
Thanks again Steve! And remember Jazz fans, you can check my answers to his questions over at their blog right here!