This was supposed to be “the year” for the Los Angeles Clippers, at least this year or next. They hired Doc Rivers as head coach to infuse some championship toughness into a team that had finally gotten out of the shadow of the crosstown Lakers, but has yet to make it as far as the conference finals.
And this may very well be “the year” for the Clips—they’re 37-18 and sitting in the #4 spot in the Western Conference, a tightly packed race when ending up anywhere from #2 to #6 is well within reach. But there’s also some issues that can cause disappointment come playoff time again if not rectified.
The biggest factor is the health of Chris Paul. The point guard has been on-again off-again with his injury status and Rivers will have to pace his leader to allow him full health for the playoffs. Paul averages 19 points/11 assists per game and brings an intangible quality to this team no one else can. Doc has had experience pacing veterans like this when he coached the Celtics, so Paul is in good hands.
In the meantime, Darren Collision is a steady hand as a backup point guard and the Clippers are in good shape at the two-guard spot, with Jamal Crawford averaging 19 ppg and J.J. Redick on hand as a three-point specialist. Redick’s skills are badly needed, as even with him, Los Angeles ranks 23rd in the NBA in converting from behind the arc. They are also a poor free throw shooting team, meaning Redick is almost a necessity to be involved in end-game situations.
Blake Griffin is perceived as soft by a lot of NBA players, for his flopping routines and an alleged general lack of toughness. I won’t get into that, but there’s no denying how productive Griffin is. He’s averaging 24 points/10 rebounds and is one of the best interior players in the game today. DeAndre Jordan is a rebounding force at center, getting 14 boards a game. It makes the Clippers’ subpar #19 ranking in rebounding a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the guards are consistently being outhustled for long rebounds.
Small forward is a weakness, with Jared Dudley unproductive and Matt Barnes more of a hockey-style enforcer (or protector, depending on your interpretation). When you measure the Clippers against the high standards it will take to win even one—much less three—playoff series in the Western Conference, these weaknesses start to stand out like a sore thumb. At the very least, the rebounding must improve.
If the rebounding picks up, this is still a team that can go deep into the postseason—at least to the conference finals and perhaps further. Los Angeles ranks 2nd in the NBA in offensive efficiency, a byproduct of having one of the game’s best point guards steer your attack, and they’re at #8 on the defensive end. They have star power in the backcourt, the post and on the sidelines. They’ve played well enough prior to the All-Star break to put themselves in good position. Now it’s time to finally cash in some chips.
The Los Angeles Clippers are slumping, and at the worst possible time, as they’re preparing to go into a tough two-week stretch that begins tomorrow night in Miami (8 PM ET, ESPN). The Clippers have lost six of their last nine. The easy and understandable thing to do is quickly point out that Chris Paul has been out with a knee injury for all of those games, and that his return is imminent. But the Clippers’ strength was supposed to be the deepest bench in the league and the schedule they played during this time was manageable. So can we just dismiss Los Angeles’ recent rough stretch, or should it at least make us wonder? With that in mind, we’ll break down the Clippers’ personnel and their play during this recent bad run.
Paul’s value to the team shows up in the stat sheet, as the 27-year-old point guard averages 17 points and 10 assists per game, while still shooting a solid 48 percent from the floor. That’s the definition of offensive efficiency at the point guard spot and it’s easy to see why he merits the title of “best point guard in the league” and why one would be inclined to simply assume his team would struggle in his absence.
There is talent at the other spots though, and a lot of it. Paul’s running mate in the backcourt—though he comes off the bench—is Jamal Crawford, who’s also knocking down 17 a night. Eric Bledsoe has gotten increased playing time in light of the injury situation and averages 10 ppg, while being a consistent shooter both inside the arc and from beyond it.
And if you need to win games in the frontcourt, the Clippers can oblige. Blake Griffin is having a big year, with 19 points/9 rebounds per night at the power forward spot and he’s surrounded by a very well-balanced cast. DeAndre Jordan hits the boards and blocks a few shots. Lamar Odom can come off the bench to provide some rebounding and veteran leadership. Caron Butler and Matt Barnes can both score from the perimeter, and Barnes has assumed the role of the team’s enforcer when things get a little nasty.
No one is suggesting that this frontcourt, coupled with Bledsoe and Crawford in the backcourt should beat the elite teams in the league, but is it unreasonable to suggest they should beat Phoenix, Portland, Toronto, Boston and Washington? Those are five of the six opponents the Clippers have lost to since Paul went out. We give them a pass for losing to Oklahoma City, but all of these five games—even allowing that every single one was on the road, was against a beatable opponent.
It should be further noted that the Boston game, the one people might be inclined to forgive, came after Rajon Rondo’s injury. That the Celtics have thrived without their star while the Clippers have struggled is, in part, a testament to how good Paul really is. But it also makes you wonder about the Los Angeles depth that was so heralded when the Clippers got off to a fast start. Let’s walk through the five losses and identify the main causes, and see how much might be traced back to the absence of Paul…
at Phoenix (88-93): The Suns consistently get to the line and outscore the Clippers here 28-16. And we can’t blame the absence of Paul for the fact that Phoenix’s frontcourt people, Luis Scola and Marcin Gorat had big nights.
at Portland (100-101): This time it was perimeter defense that was the problem—or maybe just an opponent having a hot night, as the Blazers knocked down 11 treys. The free throw line was again an issue, with the Clippers losing here by a margin of 20-13.
at Toronto (73-98): Los Angeles stunk the joint out in every possible way.
at Boston (104-106): Both teams shot the ball well, Los Angeles rebounded better, but Boston got to the free throw line, winning this area 23-15.
at Washington (90-94): The Clippers commit 20 turnovers, with the frontcourt people, Odom and Butler, being the primary culprits. And while the free throw edge wasn’t huge, Los Angeles again lost it by a margin greater than the final margin of victory, 17-12.
The free-throw differential was the common denominator woven throughout this stretch. Los Angeles’ season-long average has been to run about even with its opponents in this area. Keep in mind two things—that season-long average factors in this above stretch, so the dropoff is a little bigger in reality. And that this stretch came against subpar competition, where superior teams generally are the ones getting to the free throw line.
I don’t have the luxury of breaking down game tape of all eight games, but am I being unreasonable in thinking that the lack of Paul’s ability to break down defenses off the dribble is resulting in fewer free throw opportunities for his team. Or that his absence on the defensive side is allowing opposing teams to consistently shoot better—even just being down a body in the rotation means legs aren’t as fresh across the board.
Therefore, I’m drawing some mixed conclusions about how good the Clippers are. The positive is this—there’s some clear, albeit not overwhelming evidence on a purely statistical level that suggest Paul’s presence turns five losses into three or four wins. That evidence doesn’t even factor in Paul’s high leadership skills or the intangible impact on the offensive flow that he brings to the table. So the obvious answer—that they’ll win more when Paul comes back is fair enough.
I think the negative side has to be when you consider Los Angeles’ championship mettle. If they’re going to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami—the likely last three playoff opponents they would face, Chris Paul isn’t going to be enough. The early returns told us Los Angeles had the depth to match San Antonio’s and combined with the star power of Oklahoma City or Miami. Now we see some very clear evidence that tells us the Clippers have six players who are heavily dependent on Chris Paul, unable to pick up the slack if he gets in foul trouble or has an off-night.
There’s still plenty of regular season left to try and get things worked out. Although the next two weeks aren’t a time for thinking about anything other than winning games. After the game with the Heat on Friday night, the Clippers visit New York on Sunday (1 PM ET, ABC), then go to Philadelphia on Monday and come back home to play Houston and the Lakers on consecutive nights in midweek. Games with San Antonio and Utah follow. As of now, Paul is listed as questionable. Griffin and Crawford area also nursing wounds and listed as day-to-day. Head coach Vinny del Negro has to play it smart, but in a competitive Western Conference he doesn’t’ want to throw away a chance at a #2 seed or more. The Clippers are three back of Oklahoma City for second and 4 ½ games behind San Antonio for the top spot, while Denver comes barreling down in their rearview mirror. It’s time for all that depth to start showing its face again.
TheSportsNotebook continues its buildup to Christmas Day and the NBA, by taking a closer look at three possible NBA championship dark horses. The Los Angeles Clippers finally made a splash last year, winning a playoff series and are off to a hot start this time around. Denver has a good young team and over in the East, Atlanta is off to a strong start. We’ll start our review with the Clippers and Nuggets, since not only are both in the West, but they play head-to-head on Christmas night (10:30 PM ET, ESPN) and then again on New Year’s Day.
LA Clippers (20-6): The Clips are playing at a championship level on both sides of the floor, befitting a team with their record. Chris Paul is still the NBA’s best point guard, dishing 10 assists a game, providing a little bit of a three-point threat and being very good shooting from inside the arc. Paul doesn’t drive a rapid pace—Los Angeles’s pace can be classified as a little slower than the norm—but he operates this team at high efficiency.
There’s no shortage of weapons for Paul to target, and Blake Griffin is averaging 18 points/9 rebounds, while center DeAndre Jordan is a reliable second option down low at 10/7. Jamal Crawford has been a solid scorer at the two-guard, popping in 16 ppg and small forward is a solid tag-team between Matt Barnes and Caron Butler. They split time fairly evenly, though Butler is the better player and the team’s best option from three-point range.
After a Sunday night game with Phoenix, the Clippers can show themselves to the country, between Christmas night at home with Denver and then a Thursday night home date with Boston that will be part of the TNT doubleheader. The week closes with a challenging back-to-back against a pretty decent Utah team.
I like most everything about this team—they have no obvious weaknesses, they have a nice six-man rotation and they have a clear go-to player in Paul. If they could get Chauncey Billups healthy, it would be an ideal veteran presence for the playoffs. For now, Los Angeles will again be at least a top-four team in the West and perhaps even more.
Denver (15-13): You can say I’m pushing my luck in putting Denver in this discussion, rather than sticking in them last week’s article about the borderline playoff teams in the West. If you think that, the record bears you out, as the Nuggets are #8 in the West, but I think this is a team that’s going to make more substantial noise before the season is over.
Denver is young, with 25-year-old Ty Lawson running the show and 24-year-old Danilio Galianari being the key option in the offense. Lawson is averaging seven assists a game, with Galianari getting 16 ppg, but the 6’10” small forward needs to shoot better. Galianari’s 31 percent shooting from behind the arc is symptomatic of a team-wide problem, which is that no one is hitting threes.
The Nuggets have Andre Iguodala, formerly of Philadelphia, at the two-guard spot and while he’s hardly a scoring machine, he’s a reliable and consistent offensive threat. Kenneth Faried is a good complementary piece in the offense and he hits the boards, averaging 10 per game. Rebounding is something Denver does exceptionally well, ranking 3rd in the league, with a center tandem of Kosta Koufus and JaVale McGee also going to the glass and blocking some shots.
Defense is the issue right now, where Denver is 16th. They also brought in Corey Brewer, who knows a little something about the subject from his days in Chicago. The new personnel has to mesh better on the defensive end, but if they do, a young team that drives a fast pace and rebounds, can rise rapidly up the standings.
The time to make a move is now—not only are the Nuggets teetering in the playoff race, but their holiday games with the Clippers are sandwiched around matchups with the Lakers, Mavericks and Grizzlies.
Atlanta (16-9): A big shout-out to this team, who lost top scorer Joe Johnson and has replaced him with a committee at the two-guard spot and still churned their way to #3 in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have two outstanding low post players in Josh Smith and Al Horford. They’ve combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds and Smith can step out and hit the three.
The backcourt relies on depth, with Jeff Teague and Devin Harris splitting time at the point, and then a trio of Kyle Korver, Louis Williams and DeShawn Stevenson making up for Johnson’s lost production at the two-spot.
Most of all what this team relies on though is defense, where they rank 5th in the league. When you play defense you beat the teams you should, and Atlanta’s got a winnable run of Detroit, Cleveland and Indiana ahead of them this week. They aren’t going away anytime soon.
When the Los Angeles Clippers traded for Chris Paul just before the season began it was supposed to be a sign that a new rivalry was coming to Hollywood and the Clips could now stand toe-to-toe with their crosstown rivals at the Staples Center. When this sort of hype happens it usually results in the veteran team—the Lakers in this case—taking offense and seizing the opportunity to crush any rebellion from the upstarts before it even gets serious.
But the NBA rivalry in Los Angeles is looking like the real thing. The teams are within one game in the Pacific Division standings. It was the Clippers who won the first head-to-head meeting. So as they get set to tip tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), let’s look at where each stands, what they’re doing well and what’s not working out.
Alongside each team name is their record and rank within the Western Conference as a whole. The top eight in each conference make the playoffs.
LA Lakers (10-8, 10th): What’s this, the Lakers wouldn’t make the playoffs if the season ended today? That’s right. In the tough Western Conference, there’s not much room for error. I stands in sharp contrast to the East where the sub-.500 Celtics would be in. But while a competitive conference is the main cause, we can’t over LA’s obvious flaws. The biggest, and one which was talked about in the short preseason after the lockout, was that the team only has three worthwhile players, in Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. I suppose as trios go, that’s not bad, and Kobe’s averaging 30 a night while the two seven-foot post players combine for 32 points/25 rebounds. The Lakers come into every game knowing they can beat you inside and out, and that at crunch-time Kobe will smell blood.
Furthermore, head coach Mike Brown can draw some comfort from the fact that the team ranks 7th in the NBA for offensive efficiency and 6th for defensive efficiency. How do those rankings in the entire league equate out to a 10th-place spot just in the conference? They don’t, and since we’ve only played 18 games in a 66-game schedule, the smartest guess is to think that it will even out with time.
Now on to the problems. Derek Fischer, the veteran guard whose hit so many big shots for this franchise in their title runs is so clearly on his last legs, that we shouldn’t even say “last legs” anymore. He’s really worn them down to his last ankles. He was already getting significant chunks of playing time, and with Steve Blake going out with bad ribs, Fischer’s minutes will only increase. I suppose if nothing else, the drop-off won’t be that dramatic, because Blake wasn’t doing anything either. Matt Barnes hasn’t been able to step up at forward and the Man Formerly Named Ron Artest, now humbly known as “Metta World Peace” has apparently brought his newfound pacifisms to the basketball court, where he’s done nothing to demonstrate himself as an asset.
Los Angeles does not matchup up well against good teams, they lack depth and Phil Jackson’s soothing sideline demeanor is no longer there. I have nothing against Brown, who did a good job in Cleveland, but he’s in a position here where all he can do is fail. The Lakers have a tough road ahead just to reach the playoffs.
LA Clippers (9-5, 3rd): The new kids on the Hollywood block are still growing as a team, but head coach Vinny Del Negro has to be pleased with the progress. They’ve gotten quality wins against not only the Lakers, but also Miami, Dallas and Portland. None of the losses are head-scratchers, and consistency is one of the things you have to watch for with a team like this that isn’t used to winning.
Chris Paul at the point and Blake Griffin at forward are the ones who make the highlight reels and that’s entirely fair. They are head and shoulders above the rest of the team and give the Clips an inside-out combo that few can match. While its Paul’s passing and running of an offense that may land him in the Hall of Fame one day, don’t overlook the fact he can shoot, and that includes the three-ball. Mo Williams is deadly from behind the arc was well, and if defenses extend too far, Chauncey Billups can still attack the basket at age 35. Billups, a veteran of Detroit’s 2004 championship team, gives this group badly needed championship experience and he’s a good complementary piece in the offense.
Caron Butler is an X-factor for this team. He’s capable of the big scoring night if his team’s Big Two are struggling, but at the same time his shooting can be erratic. While 43 percent from the floor isn’t bad, Butler isn’t a three-point threat and he only averages four rebounds a game. I would like to see him kick up his game just a little bit before considering the Clips a serious threat to really separate themselves from their crosstown rivals in the Pacific Division. The defensive presence of DeAndre Jordan gives Del Negro something his counterpart Brown lacks, and that’s a role player who can block shots and alter an offense.
As far as tonight’s game goes, Paul is nursing a hamstring injury, and while he’s listed as probable, you never know how NBA coaches are going to respond, with the schedule being played at a much more intense pace this year after the lockout. For the long haul, I like what the Clippers have done and think that the Lakers will need to make some kind of major trade if they don’t want to lose control of their own town.