They’re still here. After a spate of injuries left the Los Angeles Clippers crippled early in the season, it was assumed that this was the season their recent playoff streak would end. Yet entering the weekend, the Clippers currently occupy the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, just a game and a half behind the Thunder in fifth. And while this unexpected reversal can be attributed to a few positive developments, it’s essentially boiling down to one man: Milos Teodosic.
Simply put, these Clippers are a totally different ballclub with a healthy Teodosic. In the 17 games he’s played, the Clippers are 13-4. When the Serbian point guard isn’t in uniform, the team is 10-17. On top of that, there’s nearly a 15 point swing per 48 minutes -- +12.7 to - 2.2 -- when Teodosic is actually on the court for L.A. versus when he sits. It’s quite the contrast.
As a 30-year-old “rookie”, Teodosic was more a known commodity than most NBA novices. Most basketball fans had seen his passing wizardry on display on the international stage or maybe, if they were hardcore enough, at the highest levels of European basketball. It’s easy to see the above numbers and assume that the Teodosic’s impact is because his skills have supercharged the Clippers' offense. But here’s a twist for you -- it’s the team’s defense that is seeing the most benefit from Teodosic’s presence.
If you were playing a basketball word association game with Teodosic the last word that pop into your head when looking at him would be “stopper.” Yet somehow in the 426 minutes Teodosic has been on the court, the Clippers are posting a shockingly stifling defensive rating of 99.5, per NBA.com. That number would tie Boston for the league’s best defense if it held up for an entire season.
When you see that number and watch Teodosic move around on the floor, there’s obviously a bit of a disconnect. The veteran guard struggles to contain in space and is far from graceful navigating screens both on and off the ball. He’s one of those players that often ends up at the wrong end of 1-on-1 Twitter highlight. So how could a dude that looks to be the antithesis of an impactful defender be having such a positive effect on the Clippers defense?
To answer that question, it’s probably best to zoom out and look at what generally makes for a strong defense. At the start of this decade, most of the elite defenses were anchored by a dominant big man protecting the paint. Nowadays, team’s like Golden State and Boston use mobile, switch-happy schemes to prevent opponents from finding clean looks. In other words, Roy Hibbert is out and Draymond Green is in.
It’s with this in mind that we first start to see how Teodosic can function within a competent defense.
In the above clip, Teodosic starts guarding fellow countryman Bogdan Bogdanovic but winds up on Sacramento center Kostas Koufos. Within this brief bit of basketball action, you start to see how the numbers start to add up. Teodosic sees the screen coming, realizes he’s not going to be able to effectively trail around it and communicates to the big guarding the screener -- Montrezl Harrell -- to contest Bogdanovic.
On a macro level, you need more than just a guard capable of switching onto a big to make things like this work consistently. In Harrell, Blake Griffin, Wesley Johnson, Sam Dekker and a handful of others in certain situations, the Clippers have plenty of players that can cover Teodosic if he switches out with them. So in a sense, Teodosic’s impact on the Clippers' defense is partly a byproduct of the personnel around him helping mitigate his deficiencies.
But again, switching is a two-way street. At the end of this play, the 6’5”, 196-pound Teodosic winds up tangling with the massive Koufos. But though he’s not quick or graceful, Teodosic is sturdy and has spent over a decade tussling with bigs in physical European leagues. The blockout on this play may seem insignificant until you see that the Clippers improve their defensive rebound rate by over two percentage points with Teodosic on the floor.
To see why that stat is consequential, just look at Golden State, another team that employs lots of switching to keep opponents at bay. Since their switch-happy, Green-led lineups started soaking up major minutes, the Warriors' defensive rebounding has taken a big hit. This year, they currently rank 22nd in the league. So while Golden State switches out a lot and gets worse at rebounding, the Clipper lineups with Teodosic switch fairly regularly and get better at it. That’s important.
The other element that helps is the same thing driving Teodosic’s success on the offensive end of the floor -- his mind. When a defense gets broken down, all chaos typically ensues. Good coaches can drill rotations out of scramble situations all they way, but at some points, you just need defenders to make heady plays on the fly. Though some of these situations come because Teodosic is initially the one getting beat to cause the scramble, he makes up for it by smartly moving to block off rebounding paths or kick out passes. Take a look at this example in a game against Memphis:
Though he gets beat off the bounce, Teodosic peels off his man to take away a pass out to Marc Gasol -- now open because of a rotation -- standing behind the 3-point line. Teodosic does little stuff like this quite a bit and it’s had to really tell because the effects are more subtle. Instead of generating steals or bad passes, sometimes these rotations just cause a player to take a worse shot or waste time on the shot clock -- two things that, when they occur consistently, make for good defense.
The million dollar question for the Clippers, however, is how much of this defensive boost is sustainable. Teodosic’s positive effect on the Clippers' offense is something that was expected and therefore easily counted on, but what about this defensive surge? There are definitely some numbers that are cause for concern in that regard.
Opponents are currently only converting 29.3 percent of their 3-point attempts when Teodosic is on the floor compared to 36.5 percent when he’s off it. As we’ve learned over the years, 3-point defense is essentially random, so it’s a good bet variance will kick in at some point and opponents will start making more 3’s when Teodosic is on the floor.
The same effect is happening at the free throw line. Though teams are getting to the line less often when Teodosic is in, they’re shooting 72.8 percent when they get there. When Teodosic is off the floor, that number rises to 77.9. Unless Teodosic is whispering secret, Serbian spells into opponents’ ears as they shoot free throws, this is also bound to change.
Yet even when Teodosic gets stuck on the wrong side of variance, it shouldn’t cloud the fact he’s having a massive impact on the Clippers. On top of that, he’s helping all of us take a longer look at the skills players need to contribute to a good, or even just competent, defense. So it looks like this Serbian passing wizard has a lot more to dish out than both fans and the Clippers could have ever expected.