These are dark times for the Los Angeles Clippers, who finished a three-game road trip winless by losing last night in New Orleans, 97-90. At 26-21, the Clippers are now just a game out of the lottery. They've gone 11-14 since guard Chauncey Billups was lost for the season and speculation about Vinny Del Negro's job security has grown louder over the course of the week. Bill Simmons tweeted earlier this week that Del Negro is on "super-thin ice", while Chris Broussard reported Thursday that the Clippers' coach has lost support in the locker room.
With a little more than a month left in this shortened season, the lingering question is whether the Clippers are salvageable, either with a coaching change or by Del Negro. In part, the coach is taking the heat for a flawed roster with obvious weaknesses. Trading for Chris Paul left the Clippers without a true shooting guard or any size in the middle besides starting center DeAndre Jordan. The loss of Billups only exacerbated those issues. In terms of win percentage, the Clippers have just three above-average players: Jordan, Paul and Blake Griffin. Besides Griffin and Paul, Billups is the only other Clipper rated above-average by BasketballValue.com's flavor of single-season adjusted plus-minus.
General manager Neil Olshey has tried to patch the Clippers lineup by signing Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin as free agents during the season and trading for Nick Young, but none of these players fit the team's needs perfectly. Evans and Martin are both too small to effectively anchor the defense playing next to Griffin, while Young was only available because the Wizards had given up on him developing into an effective starting two-guard.
In that context, the drop-off the Clippers have seen since Billups went down makes sense. At the time of his injury, the Clippers rated 2.8 points better per game than an average team, which translates to a 48 or 49-win pace over a regular 82-game season and would put them solidly in fourth place in the West this year. Since then, they've dropped slightly below average--0.1 points worse per game than average, to be exact. Two additional factors explain why the Clippers have in fact been worse than .500 without Billups. A home-heavy early schedule has gotten more difficult, and the Clippers' early good fortune in close finishes (they were 5-2 in games decided by five points or fewer when Billups went down) has also regressed evened out (they're 5-7 in such games without Billups).
What is troubling is the way the Clippers have falling apart since the All-Star break. Over their first nine games without Billups, the Clippers actually rated slightly better than with the veteran guard in the lineup. As expected, they missed Billups on offense, but compensated with stout defense in going 5-4 with three road wins. Other than a stumble at Golden State, the Clippers' other two losses were at Dallas and a home game against San Antonio that would have been a victory but for a crazy finish that forced overtime.
Since Griffin and Paul returned from Orlando, the Clippers have been an entirely different team, particularly at the defensive end of the floor. Opponents are averaging 110.8 points per 100 possessions over the last 16 games, which is 5.2 more than their usual performance. That kind of defense would rank the Clippers 27th in the league over the course of the season.
Things have only gotten worse on this road trip, when the Clippers have simply tried to outscore opponents, giving up at least 114.9 points per 100 possessions all three games. That resulted in lopsided losses at Indiana and Oklahoma City and last night's disappointing defeat in New Orleans.
Together, this evidence seems to suggest the players have tuned out Del Negro. Whether the coach is to blame for the team's problems is almost irrelevant at such a point. Any change, even to an assistant coach like Dean Demopoulos on an interim basis, is likely to yield positive results.
Expectations for the Clippers must be tempered the rest of the season. This roster is too incomplete for the Clippers to seriously contend in the Western Conference. Still, there is more than enough talent on hand for the Clippers to play the kind of defense they did before the All-Star break, allowing opponents to score slightly more often than league average. That kind of modest goal should allow the Clippers to play at least .500 basketball the rest of the way. A 10-9 finish might be sufficient to hang on to what would be the franchise's first playoff spot since 2006. Though the Clippers started the season with much bigger dreams, a trip to the postseason would represent progress and a more positive way to head into an important offseason.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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