When the Clippers arrived one year ago here for training camp, they touched down in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
Some on the team, however, envisioned they were somewhere far more inhospitable to visitors. They nicknamed it “Clamp City,” the place they believed opposing offenses would live, uncomfortably, all season. First-team all-irritation defender Patrick Beverley came up with the name. Forward Luc Mbah a Moute declared that the defense possessed not only the belief but the capability to become the NBA’s best.
In the end, Clamp City was more mirage than reality.
Mbah a Moute missed all but a handful of games because of injury. Hounding guard Avery Bradley was beloved by coaches but deemed dispensable at February’s trade deadline. Continuity was difficult when the team imported nearly half a new roster at midseason. The Clippers ranked 19th in points allowed per possession — below the league average and a huge drop from those preseason goals.
The offseason has done little to clamp down such lofty talk, however.
When the Clippers arrived Monday in Honolulu, they brought two-time NBA defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard, four-time all-defense honoree Paul George and a rejuvenated belief that they can be the most difficult defense to score against.
“It’s going to be scary,” George said. “I think, for the first time, people are going to be excited to watch the defensive side as opposed to the offensive team.”
Creating one of the league’s toughest defenses is not something done for bragging rights alone. It is a prerequisite for championship contenders. All but one title team from the past decade has finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating. And the outlier, Golden State in 2018, went from 11th in the regular season to first in the postseason.
Getting into the top 10 will require Leonard and George to amplify the Clippers’ strengths and patch over their weaknesses, and their track records suggest they will have success doing that.
Last year’s Clippers were excellent at defending spot-up shots, average in transition and a sieve against ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll plays — the three defensive scenarios faced most last season, according to Synergy Sports.
Leonard allowed opposing ballhandlers in pick and rolls to score on 39% of opportunities last season, among the lowest rates on Toronto’s roster, and George was stingier at 34%. Like that superstar duo, Maurice Harkless is a long-armed, tall defender who can switch onto opposing players, from shooting guards to power forwards, and get his hands on passes.
“We weren’t disruptive,” coach Doc Rivers said of the defense last season. “We couldn’t get our hands on [balls]. We were small.”
He was pleased when he had to stop a drill during Monday’s practice because players were getting their hands on passes too often.
The team also expects a boost from center Ivica Zubac. Motivated by a four-year, $28-million contract signed over the summer, he lost weight by cutting sugar out of his diet.
The Clippers are more than just arm length and foot speed, with a roster that carries echoes of some of the best defenses Rivers has been associated with, the coach said. As a point guard, Rivers played on a New York Knicks defense that, under the coaching of assistant Dick Harter, acted like a neighborhood bully. As coach of the Boston Celtics, he watched the competitiveness of Kevin Garnett, James Posey and Tony Allen take hold of the entire team.
“Both teams, before you even start, they had this team toughness,” Rivers said. “You kind of said, before they even started, ‘Man, those are some tough dudes.’ … The same thing with this. Now you have to do it.”
Then again, it wasn’t toughness that was the issue last season — it was health. And perhaps no team’s potential this season hinges as much on health as the Clippers, who are slowly bringing George and Leonard along during camp.
“Defense is going to take care of itself,” Beverley said. “We’ve been playing defense since we were a small child, so that won’t change. Now it’s just time to get to work.”