Yet through the first month of the season, the Clippers are a team possessed. This year’s Clippers currently own the league’s best record (12-2), point differential (+13.4) and defense (99.0 rating, tied with Atlanta). While improved performance from their bench has been a big help in this early season surge, L.A.’s success this season can be linked primarily to the league’s most destructive five-man lineup.
Paul, Jordan, Griffin, starting shooting guard J.J. Redick and veteran forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute combine to form a unit that is absolutely demolishing opponents across the NBA. That quintet has posted a point differential of 24.3 per 48 minutes, per NBA.com data (min: 100 minutes) -- that’s over eight points higher than the 5-man combination sitting in behind them in the rankings. And this isn’t a small sample size fluke for this group either as those same NBA.com ratings had them as the second most productive 5-man combination (min: 200 mins) last season.
It’s pretty much a fact that this Clippers' lineup is legit when it comes to dismantling regular season opponents. But what is a little obscure is not that this group is productive -- with the star power anchoring it, “good” should be the baseline -- it’s how they’re utterly dominant. Because on the surface, two flawed complementary players and a star trio that isn’t exactly a seamless fit shouldn’t amount to the best lineup in the NBA.
To explore this group’s success, it’s best to take a deeper look at the relationships of the players inside it, starting with the stars. Griffin entered the league as a raw, Amar’e Stoudamire clone. Over the years he has developed into a multi-faceted threat, capable of posting up, hitting open mid-range jumpers, viciously attacking basket on the roll or off-the-bounce and creating open shots for others as a hulking point forward at about the same level of effectiveness. If Griffin was a full-time center that could anchor a defense, he’d be a league-changing force. But his marginal defensive ability makes it hard to seamlessly put pieces around him.
On the surface, his frontcourt counterpart, Jordan, seems to be the type of player that wouldn’t suit Griffin in a modern NBA. Neither can truly stretch the floor and Jordan’s range is basically dunking and jump hooks. Yet Griffin’s work to turn his jumper into a threat out to at least 20-feet has been a huge boost to the Clippers' effectiveness. It has allowed Griffin to hang higher up on the floor while Jordan, arguably the league’s most threatening lob-finisher, dives toward or lurks around the rim waiting for teammates to create opportunities for an earth-shattering dunk. A fair amount of the time, the Clipper deliver that lob to Jordan is actually Griffin, whose passing ability allows him to deftly throw lobs over the top of help defenders rotating off Jordan.
One of the league’s mid-range masters, Paul’s ability to draw in defenses despite not relentlessly attacking the rim fits perfectly with this group. If Paul was more of a driver and Griffin failed to develop his jumper, the Clippers would struggle to be effective offensively given their three stars would all need the same space to operate. So in a sense, Griffin and Paul have games -- manufactured or organically formed -- that work to unleash the rim-rattling beast that is Jordan.
Paul’s overall role with this group has remained mostly unchanged except for a few key differences this season. Paul has started off the year shooting a blistering 44.4 percent from 3 on 5.0 attempts per game -- a notch up from the 37.1 percent on 4.4 attempts from last year. The other change Paul, a notorious on-court control freak, has been gradually making over the past few seasons has been allowing his offense function without him always controlling the basketball.
This subtlety is where Redick has really emerged. While Paul and Griffin obviously get their fair share of touches, this offense plays off Redick more than expected; in ways both big and small. It’s easy to see the direct play calls for Redick -- where he weaves off screens from Jordan and Griffin until defenders are gasping for air. But Redick’s constant movement and ability to attract attention simply make life easier for everyone else. Just check out this random possession in L.A.’s last game against Chicago:
At first it seems like nothing out of the ordinary happens. Griffin gets the ball at the elbow and drives into the paint for a bucket against Jimmy Butler. Griffin tends to do this regularly so it may be had to see where Redick influenced the play.
But take another look and you’ll see that the reason Butler winds up on Griffin is because Redick -- seeing that the play is getting scattered -- makes an impromptu cut around Jordan to get a hand off from Griffin. Butler gets caught a bit on his heels and because of Redick’s shooting ability, Gibson has to jump out on the hand off to make sure Redick doesn’t get a clean look at the basket. The threat of Redick’s shot effectively forces a switch between Butler and Gibson.
For all the acclaim Butler gets as a defender, he’s going to lose a physical tussle against Griffin more often than not. In trying to avoid a backdown, Butler bodies Griffin at the elbow-- creating the opportunity for the Clippers’ All-Star forward to spin off him for an easy bucket. Redick creates situations like this with his movement and shooting gravity nearly every possession, a big reason why this lineup’s offensive rating is a spectacular 115.9.
That rating may not be helped by the fifth member of this band, but Mbah a Moute’s shooting limitations haven’t yet hindered his counterparts effectiveness (at least in the regular season). While it’d certainly make his value higher had Mbah a Moute ever developed a consistent 3-point shot, the Clippers' defensive wizard (more on that in a second) still finds way to put pressure on opposing defenses by his outstanding cutting ability. If an inattentive defender pays too much attention to any of the other four members of this lineup, Mbah a Moute will be by him in a flash en route to a layup. Sometimes even diligent defenders too eager to help off a “non-shooter” will sacrifice their positioning just enough that Mbah a Moute’s downhill movement on kickouts leave them staring at the back of a No. 12 Clipper jersey.
Mbah a Moute’s ability to leverage his cutting to enough effect that the Clippers' offense still flows at a juggernaut pace is hugely important. Without it, Doc Rivers would be forced to limit the playing time of an outstanding -- and versatile -- defender. L.A. is basically a different team defensively when Mbah a Moute sits as their rating drops over 10 points (from 91.4 with him on, to 101.8 with him off), per NBA.com data.
It’s probably not hard to understand why Mbah a Moute is so helpful -- he’s got size, length and a high basketball I.Q. That gives him the ability to guard anyone on the floor, meaning that Rivers can choose to cancel out any matchup he deems too demanding of his stars (Paul or Griffin) or too difficult for Redick, whose slighter build makes him vulnerable to the rare teams that have wings capable of posting him up. Add him in with the defensive destroyer that Jordan has become, and the Clippers can do unfair things like switch out any wing-center pick-and-rolls, like this one between Butler and Robin Lopez, and watch as offenses fail to find a mismatch capable of generating a good shot:
Because of Mbah a Moute’s versatility, Jordan’s mobility and rim protection and Paul’s ability to avoid getting called for hacking the shit out of players he guards (half-kidding), it’s not surprising to see this 5-man combo’s defensive rating at an absurdly awesome 89.5, according to NBA.com. Even Redick, once labeled a defensive liability, has become a solid defender against the wings the modern NBA now produces.
Though Golden State’s formidable closing lineup has garnered all the attention for the past couple years, it’s the one further south down the California coast that is actually the most devastating group in the NBA right now. And because of their dominance, it may mean the Clippers championship window may not actually be shut after all.