A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Why the Chicago Bulls are so much better than the LA Clippers: The devil is in the details!

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Wizards v/s Clippers 03/12/11

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now the Bulls and Clippers are on the opposite side of a snowball. The Bulls are 1st in the league and keep the wins snowballing even when Rose misses games, while the Clips have been slipping badly since Chauncey Billups’ season ending injury and are on the verge of falling out of a playoff seed and considering firing their coach.

The Bulls and Clips are a neat pair to compare because of their lineup makeup. Their best players Derrick Rose and Chris Paul for most, are a near draw – Paul more valuable this because of the games Rose has missed. Blake Griffin and Carlos Boozer is a good comparison, both high end offensive talents and rebounders who are weak defenders. Again, Griffin appears to have had the better season if any.

Paul and Griffin have clearly been more valuable than Rose and Boozer this year. Thus the massive difference between their caliber of play has to come from the rest of the team. This is a good message for those who think success in the NBA is just about how good your 2 best players are.

The first place people are looking is the coaching. Tom Thibodeau vs the Bulls’ last coach Vinny Del Negro is a massive gap. The Bulls have elite defense and rebounding systematically, the Clips don’t seem to care for either of those things. I give big credit to Thibs, but I also have to look at the players here. There’s no question the Bulls have key leaders like Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng who go all out defensively and set the table. Paul and Griffin haven’t appeared to hold that sway over the team’s defensive effort. Also, the Bulls have had a defensive culture for years, going back to the pre-Rose era with the Scott Skiles coached team led by Deng, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Wallace for a few years. Because of this, even Del Negro’s Bulls played good defense on the way to a few playoff spots, gaining him the probably undeserved defense first coach label. The Clippers of course have been a “What not to do “ example for years in fundamentals and playing the right way. If they played defense and rebounded even at the level of the Vinny Del Negro Bulls, they would be one of the league’s best teams. Thus it’s hard to just lay the blame at his feet, as you can’t really with any coach. It’s a talent league.

More important is the personnel on the Clippers. After throwing Eric Gordon into the Paul deal, the Clips started the years with Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams as its 2 SGs. With Paul that made one of the smallest backcourts in the league. Griffin and Deandre Jordan was one of the youngest frontcourts in the league. Jordan’s blocked shots give him a defense first reputation, but in reality the truth between him and Joakim Noah even at the same age a few years ago, is massive. Deandre Jordan does not have a great defensive IQ. He bites on pumpfakes and falls out of his help defense position. He might single handidly stop a scoring chance by the other team, but might single handidly wreck his team’s defensive and rebounding players on 3 more by being caught outside of the play. This is why his +/- stats have usually been terrible in his career. He is still a project and long term investment, not a player ready to have a positive impact right now. As for the rest of the team, their bench started the year incredibly thin, especially in regards to size in the frontcourt. They’ve added Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, but still need another 7 footer.

So what you have is a team with a tiny backcourt and an extremely young frontcourt, which is a poor combination. Furthermore the team has never had a defensive identity in the way a team like the Bulls do. Their strength is offense and they act like it. Vinny Del Negro is seen as a player’s coach and a hands off guy, but this has obviously led to players spending energy on what’s easier for them, offense. As for that offense, it’s still been good thanks to their star players, but I look at the SG and SF spots as a major problem. Right now they’re rolling out newly acquired Nick Young and Caron Butler there. These 2 players neither make sense with each other or beside the Paul-Griffin combination. Both Young and Butler like to stop the ball to try and score 1 on 1 from the midrange position. As a primary option on a poorer team this may have value, but on a team with 2 all-stars and a do it all facilitator like Paul, you probably want more role specific players in those spots, like either elite off ball shooters or defenders. The Young addition in particular, while at a cheap price, essentially just replicated what already wasn’t working with Butler’s role in the offense. He also only adds to the team’s youth and lack of defensive effort. That was the type of acquisition made seemingly with the logic of “This player’s good, so if we add him it’ll make us better” without much thought put into what he specifically would do for the team, or what hole he could fill. Compare this to the Bulls who have players like Ronnie Brewer or Kyle Korver who do SPECIFIC things on the wing, defense for Brewer and shooting for Korver. This is how smart franchises complete their teams after they have all-star players – They surround them with players who do specific things. Remember lowly Deshawn Stevenson doing things for the Mavericks in the playoffs last year? Or all those years that Matt Bonner found his way as a rotation big in San Antonio? Their specific skills filled a hole for the Mavs and Spurs than Nick Young’s more sexy isolation shot creating does for the Clips.

The devil is in the details. When the Clippers traded for Chris Paul, my reaction was not so much against the team getting him, but the price they gave up. Instead of throwing Eric Gordon into the trade offer with Minnesota’s draft pick, Al-Farouq Aminu and Chris Kaman, they could’ve thrown him in but kept the pick. They could’ve requested New Orleans takes Mo Williams while they keep Kaman. They would’ve had the power to do this because Gordon was so much more valuable than anything other teams were offering – the Hornets were taking that deal as soon as Gordon was included. This may seem trivial, but it’s not. An extra lottery pick is a big asset that can turn either into a core drafted player, or can get one in a trade. Kaman instead of Mo would’ve fit far more, giving the team a veteran C behind Deandre, instead of a second undersized SG behind Billups, while maintaining capspace for the team this summer. You have to pay attention to the small details to put the right players around Paul and Griffin. The Thunder are good not just because they have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. How the rest of that team compliments their stars compared to the Clips, makes a huge difference. The Thunder have specific roles mapped out for defenders, rebounders and shooters, that fit into their system. Players like Nick Collision and Thabo Sefolosha aren’t sexy offensively, but they make them better defensively. The Clips put a number of talented players around their stars and thought that’s all you needed. This is the biggest reason the Clips have been a bad franchise in general. Remember when they had Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette, a combination that makes 0 sense stylistically despite their talent, and then were surprised when they played terribly? It’s the same franchise. It’s the same franchise who thought trading an unprotected lottery pick in exchange for swapping Baron Davis for Mo Williams, was a good idea.

What Donald Sterling really needs to do is to hire a good general manager who truly has control, relegating him to a happy spectator who doesn’t make decisions. Right now Troy Weaver is the apparant #2 in Oklahoma City, spending a stint in Utah before that. There’s a guy who in all liklihood, has the chops to come into a general manager job and know exactly the attention to detail that the Clippers need – Asset management, players who fit, the right coach, etc. If a decision hiring good management doesn’t happen, the Clippers will be heading downhill fast. They may make the playoffs this year, but expect years of overpaying free agents, turning draft picks into short term gains, and going for the big name instead of the player who fits. This will likely make them a 1st round knockout for the foreseeable future.

In all liklihood, the Clippers are going to Clippers and flop, either now or in the foreseeable future. This is a star’s league, but it’s also a great franchises league. Change comes from the top, not from luckily having the trade talent to turn into Chris Paul. I don’t believe the Clippers have changed or are ready to win.

Written by jr.

March 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Posted in Basketball

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