Searching For Identity

by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista

The Clippers’ rise has accelerated since the acquisition of Chris Paul in 2011, with the team recording above-.600 win percentages in each of his first two campaigns. After a franchise-best 56 wins last season, and still, a first-round exit, the Clippers made some changes. They had never been so close, but so far, to reaching the potential of the roster they compiled after drafting Blake Griffin and trading for Paul.

Before the season, the team brought in two new starters in JJ Redick and Jared Dudley. The most significant acquisition, however, was Doc Rivers, a championship coach known for putting his players in situations to succeed, both individually and collectively. The acquisition of Rivers led to Paul signing an extension, as the new coach and VP of Basketball Operations signaled a change in philosophy and serious commitment to contending.

In ’13-14, with the pieces of the puzzle on the table, the Clippers haven’t been able to put it together quite yet. And it may start with their identity. Rivers established his former squads in Boston as perennially elite defensive teams. Before the season, some members of the Clippers, notably Griffin, shunned their past nickname of “Lob City” to embrace a less showtime, most defensive-oriented approach. Rivers labeled DeAndre Jordan the team’s “most consistent player” in preseason and continuously stated the value of what he brings on defense.

So far, the Clippers have continued to look potent offensively, but have looked far less than elite on the other end. The team is now 2-2 on a seven-game road trip, a significant early season test, especially after recent injuries to Matt Barnes and JJ Redick. After starting the road trip with a 107-97 loss in Atlanta, Rivers talked about the myriad of defensive breakdowns, saying, “Tonight was just a bad night. We’ve gotten so much better in our pick-and-roll D, but tonight we were bad. I can pinpoint a lot of stuff tonight. We weren’t into the ball, our shows were flat, we didn’t communicate on our weak side, we didn’t get out to the shooters.”

On the other end, he acknowledged the team will have to adjust without Redick, who is out with a fractured right hand. “We gotta do a better job [with perimeter offense]. Obviously, you lose JJ, you lose a lot of stuff in your offense…we gotta figure that out and do a better job offensively without him because he’s not gonna be back for a while.”

The Clippers also lost a bit of edge with the absence of Matt Barnes, who underwent left eye surgery. It looks like the franchise will turn to veteran Stephen Jackson to fill that void after agreeing to terms with the swingman earlier this week.

Regarding the team’s defensive inconsistencies, Paul, a five-time NBA steals leader, says, “We gotta play together. It sounds simple but I think everybody’s gotta be on the same page every possession. We gotta get more consistent.”

After the loss against the Hawks, Paul said, “I think Doc hit the nail on the head in one of our timeouts when he said, ‘Playing hard isn’t enough.’ It’s not. There’s a lot of people that play basketball hard and are not in the NBA so we gotta figure out a way to be effective.”

Antawn Jamison, a 16-year NBA veteran, knows a thing or two about high expectations shadowing a club. He joined the ’09-10 LeBron James-led Cavaliers midseason, a team believed to have a legitimate shot at a championship. Last season, Jamison was a member of the Lakers, a team that quickly deflated after many had pumped up the potential of the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash lineup.

Asked about entering a season with such expectations surrounding the squad, Jamison says, “It’s what you want. We all know that you have to go out there and play the game, of course. To have so many people expect great things out of you as a team, it’s a compliment. We also know, especially with this team—with a couple of new faces, the coaching staff wants to do things differently—you got to be patient at times…But once the season starts, you know you got to go out there and play the games.”

On the Clippers’ defense, Jamison says the team must be patient. “We’re close. We just haven’t, for 48 minutes, gotten there yet. If we continue to work on the things we need to work on and just continue to believe in the process, I think we should be fine soon.”

He says some of the growing pains are due to new additions on the roster, but also a new coaching staff. “It’s a different coach so his philosophy is going to be totally different than what it was last year. A lot of guys were accustomed to what Vinny [Del Negro] wanted to do. Doc Rivers’ philosophy offensively, defensively is totally different, so that’s an adjustment.”

While Jamison played only 25 regular-season games for the ’09-10 Cavaliers, he was part of the end-of-season playoff push that eventually ended in the semifinals with a loss to Rivers’ Celtics. That Cavaliers team, as typical of many LeBron James squads, was able to achieve the often elusive offense-defense balance. The Cavaliers ranked third in field-goal percentage (48.5) and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage (44.2).

Without many standout individual defenders, what made the Cavaliers’ group so successful as a unit? “We had each other’s back, we trusted each other,” said Jamison, “We knew where our teammates were gonna be at. Those are the things that we’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there. It’s not about everybody being able to lock down their defender. It’s about trusting your teammates and knowing that your teammate’s going to be in his position and just giving that effort night in and night out.”

While the Clippers are still finding their way, they are holding their own with a 14-8 record in a tough Western Conference. And while they have hit their share of bumps early in the season, one problem they do not have is accountability. After the loss in Atlanta, Rivers said, “It’s never just on the players, it’s the whole team.”

Paul, when addressing the team’s defense, added, “We know what to do, so it’s not on the coaches. It’s on us.”