North America

From Lob City to Lopsided

In 2020, the LA Clippers will have the most cap space of any team apart from Brooklyn, Dallas, and Indiana, and will be trying to reel in superstar free agents to stay competitive with LeBron’s Lakers. 

This year, though, the Clippers have no all-stars andno cap space. At $120 million, just a sliver below the luxury tax, the Clippers will have the 16th highest salary in the league. Yet nobody expects them to be one of the league’s 16 playoff-bound teams. 

The Clippers are still a talented team though, even if they prove unable to succeed in a difficult Western Conference. What arguably sets the Clippers apart however is an imbalance in their players’ offensive and defensive skill-sets. Perhaps more than any other team, the Clippers have players who either excel at offence far more than at defence, or excel at defence far more than at offence.  

Exhibit A in this regard is, of course, Lou Williams. Last season Williams had by far the highest offensive real plus-minus (ORPM) in the league among shooting guards, well above the next  on the list, Jimmy Butler and Demar Derozan. Among all NBA players Williams had the eighth highest ORPM, one spot behind Kevin Durant. Williams’ defensivereal plus-minus (DRPM), however, was second from the bottom among all shooting guards in the league who averaged more than 24 minutes per game. Only Rodney Hood was worse. Williams was 515th among all players in DRPM, tied with Isaiah Thomas. He was only 119th in overall RPM, roughly the same as Dwight Howard. 

For what it is worth (real plus minus stats can often be misleading) the difference between Williams’ very high ORPM (+4.25) and very low DRPM (-3.64) was 7.89, by far the highest such differential in the league. The only other players even above 6.0 in this metric were superstars James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Lebron James, and defensive specialists and/or big men Aaron Baynes, Andre Roberson, Hassan Whiteside, Yusuf Nurkic, and Rudy Gobert.

But Williams is hardly the Clippers’ only offensive or defensive specialist. Luc Mbah Moute and Patrick Beverley are both excellent defenders brought in from Houston. Avery Bradley is known for his on-ball defence. Sophomore Sindarius Thornwell was 20th in the NBA in DRPM minus ORPM (though he only averaged 16 minutes per game). Marcin Gortat and Wesley Johnson were 23rd and 35th in DRPM minus ORPM (though for Gortat especially this stat may be misleading). And 11th-pick rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may become a top defensive point guard. 

On the offensive end, apart from Lou Williams, the Clippers have Danilo Gallinari (now their most expensive placer by far), passing wizard Milos Teodosic, Tobias Harris (30th in the league in ORPM minus DRPM), Montrezl Harrel (95th in ORPM minus DRPM), and “the most efficient scorer in NBA history” Boban Marjonavic, who despite a decent DRPM cannot defend outside  the paint. 

Having a roughly equal balance of offensively and defensively imbalanced players means the Clippers are at least somewhat symmetrical in their lopsidedness.

Obviously, RPM stats do not tell a full story. A great example of this is Marjonavic, who has a decent DRPM not only because of excellent interior defence, but also because his perimeter defence is so poor that coaches immediately take him out of the game whenever opponents use a small lineup. Were Marjonavic to stay in the game in these situations, his ORPM-DRPM spread would likely be among the top in the league, as his offence would far exceed his defence. Conversely, Avery Bradley’s poor DRPM hides the fact of his elite on-ball defender status. 


Offence-Defence” for 48 Minutes

The Clippers’ well-balanced lopsidedness, combined with their low likelihood of making the playoffs, means they may be the best choice of a team to try out a strategy of basketball that is totally unlike any that has ever been tried before: playing “offence-defence” for the entire 48 minutes of every game.

Such a strategy would consist primarily of three things: 

-substituting offensive and defensive specialist lineups at every opportunity during the game, in order to maximize the amount of time the offensive lineup plays offence and the defensive lineup plays defence
-playing at a fast pace and with an aggressive style in order to maximize the number of substitution opportunities available from fouls and deflections out of bounds, andcreate scoring opportunities for your poor-shooting but highly athletic defensive specialist lineup. (A face pace will also tire out the opposing team, which will lead to more fouls, deflections out of bounds, and transition scoring opportunities for the defensive specialist lineup).
-using trades or free agent signings in order to acquire even more offensive and defensive specialists

This strategy may sound (and be) crazy, but in some ways it is the logical extreme of trends currently defining the NBA. It would allow teams to have five excellent and versatile defenders on the court at the same time in order to execute switches and stifle opponents, then switch lineups to put on a bunch of floor-spacing shooters to play offence. For some teams, it might even be the only way to compete against this year’s upgraded version of the Golden State Warriors.

So, instead of resigning itself to another losing season at basketball, a team like the Clippers should perhaps try to employ a strategy more akin to hockey: making constant line changes, playing quickly and aggressively, and differentiating its defensemen from its sharpshooters. 

Would such a strategy actually be more likely to work? I don’t know, but it would certainly be interesting to watch. 

 

 

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