OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 25: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers celebrates with Chris Paul #3 against Golden State Warriors during the season opener at Oracle Arena on December 25, 2011 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Obviously we're getting way ahead of ourselves, but what fun is a blog if you can't get way ahead of yourself? Besides, in this compressed 66 game season, we're already about 10% through the schedule, if you can believe that. So after about two weeks of NBA basketball, how do the Clippers playoff chances look?
The playoffs are the ultimate zero sum game. You can't analyze any one team's playoff outlook in a vacuum - you have to look at the entire Western Conference, because 8 teams are going to make the playoffs, whether there are 12 really good teams or only 4 really good teams. In the first week of the season, we've seen surprises, disappointments, and injuries that will likely affect the overall playoff picture.
Portland - The Trail Blazers have the best record in the Western Conference so far, defying all expectations and among their five victims are several West powers, such as the Thunder, the Lakers and the Nuggets. In fact, the Clippers' New Years Day win over the Blazers is their only loss, and is looking more and more impressive as Portland's hot start moves beyond the fluke stage. It's truly astounding that the Blazers are playing this well when you consider that as recently as 25 months ago, their foundational pieces were Brandon Roy and Greg Oden - Roy is now retired and Oden hasn't played in an NBA game since December of 2009. Imagine a Clippers team WITHOUT Blake Griffin and Chris Paul leading the conference a couple of weeks into the 2013-2014 season; and imagine they lost Griffin and Paul for NOTHING (which we shouldn't even imagine since it's the nightmare scenario that Mark Heisler and others envision). It's unfathomable. It's hard to imagine that Portland can sustain this, partly because they are relying on two of the five oldest players in the NBA in their front court, but hats off to them so far.
Denver - Not everyone is surprised by the Nuggets, but I am. While the Heat and Knicks and Clippers and Lakers have scrambled to build top-heavy teams dominated by superstars and filled out by marginal talents, the Nuggets have bucked that years-old NBA trend and built a deep, balanced team. The Nuggets do not have a single All Star on their roster (though Nene has had some All Star worthy seasons) - but they're 5-2 on the young season. Instead they have six players averaging between 10 and 17 points per game, and 11 playing 10 minutes or more. The "deep, balanced" model may be well-suited to this compressed regular season - but we'll see how it translates in the playoffs.
Dallas - The defending champs opened the season with three straight losses, and just when it looked like they were getting things straightened out, they were embarrassed in San Antonio last night. (Of course the Clippers know a little something about being embarrassed in San Antonio.) There's little question that Dallas overachieved on its way to a title last year, and team chemistry surely played a role in that. With Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea gone, the chemistry is different, and it certainly hasn't helped that Lamar Odom has been beyond terrible so far. The Mavs may yet find some chemistry, but it's also possible that the window is simply closed for a team with 7 key players over 30.
Memphis - I may have been seduced by the Grizzlies' playoff performance. They dominated the first seeded Spurs last April, and then took the super talented Thunder to seven games in the conference semis. But I forgot why they were playing the first-seeded Spurs - it was because Memphis was the eighth seed, with a so-so 46-36 regular season record. With Rudy Gay joining the mix and all their key contributors back, it seemed like Memphis should be taking the next step - but the early results seem to indicate they might have been over-achieving last season. Injuries haven't helped (see below), but even before Zach Randolph went down, the team had started slowly. Don't forget that the Grizzlies lost Darrell Arthur in training camp - their first big off the bench last year, Arthur was sneaky productive for them all last season.
Much will be made of any injury during this post-lockout season. Shortened camps and fewer days off will undoubtedly lead to more injuries of the Chauncey Billups/Rip Hamilton/Corey Maggette pulled muscle variety. I'm not convinced however that broken hands (Manu Ginobili), torn MCLs (Zach Randolph, when O.J. Mayo fell on his knee) or dislocated shoulders (Chuck Hayes Thursday night) can be calked up to the lockout. These are just freak injuries, and they happen.
Ginobili - The Spurs are 5-2, and have won both of their games since their leading scorer broke his hand, but this injury will certainly hurt San Antonio. Unless it helps them. Manu is 34, and 6 weeks off now will make him better in the playoffs. Gary Neal showed what he can do last season, and James Anderson will get a chance to play, and it wouldn't be the first time Gregg Popovich coaxed a productive season out of an unknown. Still, the short season will be half gone by the time Ginobili is back - can San Antonio weather that storm?
Randolph - The Grizzlies had already started slowly before losing the All Star and All-NBA performer. When they needed a bucket last year, Memphis always went to Randolph. Where will they go now? It's a relatively minor MCL tear, and Randolph may be back in 8 weeks, but will that be too late for the Grizzlies' playoff hopes? As I mentioned above, Randolph's injury is on top of the season-long loss of Darrell Arthur, leaving Memphis with Dante Cunningham and the newly-acquired Marreese Speights as their power forwards.
Stephen Curry - Something is just not right with Curry's right ankle. He twisted it four times last season, had off-season surgery on it, and has now twisted it three times since Dec. 20th. He keeps toughing it out - he's only missed one game so far this season - but that doesn't seem to be the best course. Of course Curry and the Warriors THOUGHT that the off-season surgery would stabilize the ankle, but clearly that's not the case. Who knows what needs to be done to get him past these issues, but at a minimum it seems he needs to shut down for a bit rather than just rushing back onto the court every night. The Warriors probably aren't a playoff contender with Curry, but they certainly aren't one without him.
So where does this all leave the Clippers?
The Clippers have caught a huge scheduling break in having the fewest games of any NBA team over the season's first two weeks. While the Clippers will play just their sixth game on Saturday, every other team has played at least seven, and the Lakers and others will be on nine. They'll pay for this leisurely early pace later of course, but with three new starters (two of them added just 10 days before the first game) the extra practice days are exactly what they needed to start the season. The team has looked significantly more comfortable, both on offense and on defense, in their last two wins than they did to start the season.
But the Clippers have a series of tough games looming next week. Milwaukee without Andrew Bogut Saturday should be a gimme (the kind of game in which the old Clippers were notorious for choking), but the next three are against the best record in the West (Blazers), the best record in the NBA (Heat) and the big brothers (Lakers). Those three games will tell us a lot.
Until then, it's hard to know if the Clippers are in a position to battle for a top spot in the West, or merely a lock to make the playoffs. With Dallas off to a poor start and the Lakers looking as vulnerable as we thought they might be while Memphis and San Antonio are missing key players, that leaves Oklahoma City as the only clear favorite in the field. Phoenix, Houston, New Orleans and Utah, all teams that finished well ahead of the Clippers in the standings last season, all look to have dropped off about as much as most people thought they would. So depending on your feelings about Portland and Denver, it's not too difficult to make a case for the Clippers above any team in the conference other than the Thunder.
But now we're getting way ahead of ourselves.