When it comes to competing for championships, the most successful teams usually possess the fewest amount of weaknesses. From a player personnel standpoint, those teams are able to exploit favorable matchups without being exposed in return. Even teams with the greatest offensive and defensive players run the risk of being schemed out of wins by playing guys who are liabilities on one end of the court. Being forced to play 5 vs 4 for portions of a playoff game can shift the momentum of a series. Playoff basketball isn’t usually the place for one-trick ponies, as the value of one-way players are diminished.
The Defensive Liability
Each season we witness contending teams be exposed for having a weak link in the lineup. Efficient scorers are always needed, so the valued offensive specialist who struggles defensively usually gets a bit more of a leash for his shortcomings. However, that player presents complications. The most recent examples of this that come to mind are the Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals matchups. The weak (by comparison to Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala) on-ball defense of Steph Curry was continuously hunted by LeBron and Kyrie through pick & roll switches throughout those series’. He was largely ineffective guarding the ball, and his poor defense hurt his team quite often, but a guy with his offensive significance to his team wasn’t ever going to be played off the court. Not the same can be said about a guy like Kyle Korver, who was also a participant in a couple of those NBA Finals. Like Curry, he was targeted repeatedly and couldn’t provide any positive impact on the defensive end. And, while his shooting and floor spacing was desperately needed in a LeBron-style offense, his volume was limited and his contributions weren’t nearly as valuable as Curry.
In just the few weeks of playoff basketball that have been played in 2020, it’s evident that the Clippers have multiple guys out there who fit that Korver mold. Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, and Montrezl Harrell all bring necessary scoring, shooting, and playmaking off of the bench, which is especially useful when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are out of the game. However, those same three have struggled throughout the regular season, and mostly throughout their careers, to bring much to the table defensively. Of course, it might be that those guys could be more playable if they weren’t always on the court at the same time, but that’s a different conversation for a different day. All of this is matchup dependent, but the lack of intimidation, one-one defense, pick and roll defense, and help-side defense are big problems regardless of who they are defending. But at this stage of the season, most teams have good enough coaching staffs that can put together gameplans and throw in wrinkles that will expose those bad defenders on a consistent basis. Playoff basketball just reveals the deficits of one-way players much more than regular season basketball does.
The Offensive Liability
While guys with defensive limitations sometimes get passes for their ability to put points on the board, it’s much harder for offensively challenged players to stay on the court. In today’s version of basketball, you must be able to shoot, no matter how great you are defensively. In the seven-game first round playoffs series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, rookie Lu Dort experienced what his teammate Andre Roberson had experienced for years. Over the six playoff games he played in, Dort was successful in guarding James Harden perhaps better than any single player has been able to since Harden was traded to Houston back in 2012, which is unthinkable for a rookie to be able to do. But even with how great he was defensively, he was completely disregarded on the offensive end, with the Rockets leaving him wide open on the perimeter and daring him to shoot jump shots. His 26 percent (13/50) three-point shooting made life ten times harder for Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to have the necessary space to penetrate the lane, and left little room for Danilo Gallinari isolation post-ups. Again, Dort’s defense was textbook, but there were just too many lost opportunities to either extend leads or cut into deficits while he was on the court.
Even just a single wasted offensive possession could be the deciding factor in determining the outcome of a game, which is why it is a tough coaching decision to make when you have to rely on poor offensive players to rise to the occasion. The Clippers had one of those guys this season in Moe Harkless. While Moe was a good cutter and was shooting decently from behind the arc, the Clippers’ front office was well aware of how his inability to draw the attention of defenders had hurt his teams offensively during previous playoff runs in Portland, so they shipped him off to New York for someone who is a bit more multi-dimensional. Now with Marcus Morris filling in, the Clippers don’t really have guys who are liabilities on offense. Sure, you might consider Terance Mann and Rodney McGruder to be offensively challenged, but, realistically, they aren’t cracking the playoff rotation unless there are some injuries or extreme foul trouble.
Accepting The Challenge
It may go without saying, but each game of basketball has the potential of playing out differently to the one prior. Although you shouldn’t bank on it, guys have the ability to outperform their usual contributions. Whether it be confidence or strategic adjustments, the tables can turn. In game 3 of this Clippers-Nuggets series, Lou Williams accepted the challenge. For Lou, it was simple: he locked in and competed. He put together an incredible defensive stretch during the final minutes of the second quarter while the Clippers were on the ropes. His on-ball and off-ball defense was key in sparking fast-break points, allowing the Clippers to trim the deficit to two points before the half. Simply put, his second-quarter heroics might have saved the team from digging too deep of a whole to climb themselves out of.
Throughout the regular season, in mostly low-significance games, the on-court struggles of the one-way players weren’t as significant for the Clippers. As the stakes get higher and each game has more implications, it will be interesting to observe which of the aforementioned players will benefit from making the necessary adjustments. Doc will have to play his cards in order to win big, and that might mean foregoing those aforementioned one-way players for more two-way balance. Or, instead, those players need to rise to the occasion of playoff basketball, as Lou Williams did yesterday, and shed their reputation as one-way players. If the Clippers’ offense-only players can add even some value defensively, their path to a championship is much clearer.