|The Clippers have to improve defensively to be taken seriously as title contenders. (Getty Images)|
If the Los Angeles Clippers want to become a trustworthy, serious team of the future, they're going to have to contend for a title this season. What does contending for a title mean? It doesn't mean they have to make the NBA Finals. I'm not even certain it means they have to make the Western Conference finals.
What the Clippers do have to do is avoid losing in the playoffs without a fight and they have to bring some kind of defensive stamp to put on their games. That was the problem with them last season. The offense was pretty fun and incredible with Chris Paul. However, the defense wasn't able to consistently keep opponents from getting buckets inside.
The Clippers ranked 24th in the NBA in opponents' field-goal percentage in the restricted area. They gave up the third-fewest attempts in the restricted area, but that's mainly because they were 27th in possessions per game. Even with athletic freaks like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin on the court, they couldn't block or alter enough shots inside.
Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin were coming off the bench as the defensive big men last season, in hopes of bringing some toughness and flopping acumen to the team. Now they're gone and replaced by Lamar Odom , Ronny Turiaf (never mind, Jeremy Evans took care of that) and Ryan Hollins. These are not exactly roadblocks before the rim.
So how do the Clippers defend well enough to become true title contenders and avoid another playoff exit like the hellfire San Antonio put on them in the second round? If you can't stop teams at the rim, you might as well try to stop them from getting to the rim.
The Clippers went out and beefed up their perimeter on both ends of the floor. Assuming Jamal Crawford can regain the magic he showed a couple of seasons ago in Atlanta as the league's best Sixth Man, the perimeter scoring of the Clippers should be improved. Where they really made some headway is with the additions of Matt Barnes and Grant Hill on the perimeter.
Hill is 40 years old. and Barnes is more of an also-ran than a defensive stopper, but both players have had solid and successful roles the last couple of seasons as guys who can slide their feet on the perimeter.
While Hill is one of, if not the oldest players in the NBA (is Kurt Thomas still around?), his defense last season was superb. He played 54 percent of the Phoenix Suns' minutes at the small forward position and gave up an opponent PER of 12.6. The previous season, he played half of the Suns' minutes at small forward and gave up a PER of 14.
Hill does a great job of being in great help position and closing out on his man while keeping a solid base. It means he's not off-balance when trying to get out on a shooter he's left. He can bother the shot without overcommitting to the closeout.
Barnes was nearly as effective as Hill on defense, surrendering just a 13 PER from opposing small forwards. It helped having Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum as his anchors on the defense end of the floor, but an improved and more under control Jordan on defense could serve as a decent substitute on the back end of defensive possessions.
The Clippers will still have Paul and Eric Bledsoe harassing opposing point guards and forcing opponents to start their offense deeper into the shot clock with pestering pressure at the top of the offense that could give Jordan and Griffin easier times defending the rim.
The Clippers' chances for contending this year will rest solely on how active and effective their defensive effort ends up being. You can peg Griffin and Jordan as guys who need to improve, but that shouldn't be a problem if the wing defenders make their opponents work harder.