A roller-coaster ride of a season for the Los Angeles Clippers ended on Thursday night with a 104-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6. After winning 57 games in the regular season and going to six games in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Clippers established themselves as an elite team. However, the jump from good to great is the toughest leap to make in the NBA and the loss to Thunder exposed some holes that will need to be addressed.
As great as Chris Paul is on both sides of the ball, he’s got no answer for Russell Westbrook. At 6’0 190, he just doesn’t have the size for “Point Godzilla”, who absolutely destroyed him in their 1-on-1 matchup. Before a poor shooting performance in Game 6, Westbrook was averaging 30 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game in the series. He went 4-15 from on Thursday, but he still handed out 12 assists, attempted 12 free throws and got wherever he wanted to go on the court.
Westbrook is one of the biggest point guards and best athletes in the league - it’s almost unfair to ask Paul to guard him for 40 minutes. On the other end of the floor, the Thunder could put Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson on Paul at various points in the series, giving him a different look and allowing Westbrook to catch his breath. Oklahoma City has waves of long, athletic perimeter defenders they can throw at the other team - the Clippers only have Matt Barnes.
In this series, Barnes had to stick with Kevin Durant for the duration. Los Angeles really didn’t have anyone else who could guard the NBA MVP, apart from the inspired move of sticking Paul on him in Game 4. Everyone else in their perimeter rotation is either an offensive-minded player - JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison - or is just hopeless against elite athletes - Jared Dudley and Danny Granger. To win three playoff series in the West, you need two perimeter stoppers.
Let’s say the Clippers wound up on the other side of the bracket and had to face the San Antonio Spurs. Even if we assume that Paul can guard Tony Parker, which he can’t, who is JJ Redick and/or Jamal Crawford going to defend in crunch time? If you put them on Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs can space the floor and allow Leonard to brutalize them on the low block. Nor does either have much of a prayer of staying in front of Manu Ginobili, even at this stage in his career.
That was one of the main reasons they had so much trouble with the Golden State Warriors in the first round, even with Andrew Bogut sidelined and David Lee as their primary rim protector. There are just no easy covers in the trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. If they had faced the Houston Rockets, they would have had to stick a bad defender on James Harden or Chandler Parsons, since Paul isn’t tall enough to match-up with either.
Redick has turned himself into a functional defender, but that isn’t going to cut it against some of the best basketball players in the world. At 6’5 190, he’s a relatively undersized SG without elite athleticism and he’s one of the only players in the league with a wingspan (6’4) shorter than his height. He tries hard, but he can’t contest shots, move his feet or hold ground in the low post against an elite SG. That’s not going to change as he moves to the wrong side of 30.
Crawford is a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner and one of the most entertaining players in the sport, but he was never known as a defensive stopper in his prime, much less in his mid-30’s. They are both great offensive players who add different elements to the Clippers attack, but a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin shouldn’t need great offense from the shooting guard position. An inability to score the basketball is not what killed them against the Thunder.
Looking back on it, the player who could have really helped the Clippers in this series was Eric Bledsoe. He was moved to get a more traditional shooting guard in the starting line-up, but they might have wanted to try the Bledsoe-Paul combination before just giving up on it. Bledsoe is one of the only players in the NBA who can look Westbrook in the eye when it comes to pure athleticism and the Phoenix Suns proved you could play him big minutes in a two-PG line-up this season.
If Oklahoma City could close games with Westbrook and Jackson, there’s no reason L.A. couldn’t have done the same with Bledsoe and Paul. At 6’1 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe plays much bigger than his size and could match up with the best SG’s in the West in a way that Reddick or Crawford can not. Doc Rivers brought in Redick to play the Ray Allen role, but Allen was a much more multi-dimensional player who could also defend and put the ball on the floor.
Redick’s statistics in the regular season - 15 points on 47% shooting - and the playoffs - 13 points on 46% shooting - were great, but it’s not about your statistics at the highest levels of the game. It’s about your skill-set, what you can bring to the floor and how you can match up with other elite teams. The Clippers aren’t going to beat the Thunder in the playoffs with Paul or Reddick guarding Westbrook - and neither Westbrook nor Paul are going anywhere.
The good news is the solution may already be on their roster in the form of Reggie Bullock, the No. 25 pick in 2013. At 6’7 205 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who shot 44% from 3 as a junior at UNC. He isn’t a great ball-handler, but a team with Paul and Griffin in the starting line-up doesn’t need a high usage player at SG. If you have Barnes and Bullock on the perimeter and DeAndre Jordan upfront, you have three potential plus defenders next to Blake and CP3.
That’s how the Clippers need to build their team if they are going to reach the NBA Finals. All roads in the Western Conference go through Oklahoma City and San Antonio and a team with JJ Redick at SG is going to have a hard time matching up with either when the chips are down. When you are trying to win a title, you can’t focus on an individual player’s statistics, you have to look at your roster and how the match-ups will play out over four seven-game series.