Before the season, the Clippers seemed to be stuck in the "next" group of teams, behind the Heat, Thunder, Spurs and Lakers. Ten games in, the Clippers suddenly look like legitimate title contenders.
Just days prior to the beginning of this NBA season, I felt pretty confident that I knew more or less where this Los Angeles Clippers team would end up. Although it was pretty clearly the most talented team in franchise history, having made several definitive improvements over last year's team that set a franchise high in winning percentage and won an exciting first round playoff series against a very good Grizzlies team, it seemed inevitable that the 2012-2013 Clippers were barely a notch below the three or four teams at the very top of the league. And given that several of those top teams were in the Western Conference, the Clippers seemed destined to be about where they were last season -- likely exiting the playoffs in the second round.
This wasn't really a knock on the team or even a bad thing, but rather an assumption that they just weren't quite as good as some very talented teams in Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Miami. The consolation would be that the Clippers window would remain open for many years while several of those teams had expiration dates. Being the third or fourth best team in the West, perhaps the fifth best team in the league, would have to suffice this year, because those top teams looked unassailable. So a season of progress would have to be enough -- the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era was just beginning, and there was plenty of time.
In the days before the season started and in the two weeks since, several things have changed and suddenly the expectations for the Clippers are through the roof.
The most shocking development that affected the Clippers expectations was the sudden trade of James Harden from the Thunder to the Rockets just days before the season started. Harden's situation was clearly one of the reasons that Oklahoma City looked potentially vulnerable in the future -- it was always difficult to imagine that the Thunder would be able to keep Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Harden together in small market Oklahoma City. But everyone assumed that the expiration date on that foursome was July 2013 -- by trading Harden in October 2012 for Kevin Martin, prospects and picks, Sam Presti made a terrific long term move for his franchise, while making them much more beatable in the short term. Suddenly one of those teams that seemed all but guaranteed to be better than the Clippers, no matter how good the LAC were, didn't look so daunting.
In contrast to Oklahoma City's sudden and shocking change of fortune, the Lakers own reversal has been painfully slow and just as shocking. A winless preseason. Injury worries for Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Confusion in their new offense. A 1-4 start to the regular season. A fired coach. A botched search for his replacement. The news from the purple and gold halls of STAPLES Center has been constant and dismal. When Mitch Kupchak pulled off the deals that brought Nash and Howard to L.A. while retaining Bryant and Pau Gasol, the big unknown was always how the pieces would fit together. Sixteen days into the season, the answer is not well, but now that seems to be the least of the team's worries. I happen to be a big fan of Mike D'Antoni and would not be surprised if the Lakers turn things around once D'Antoni and Nash are both up and running, but the expectations have got to be recalibrated at this point as well. After all, how much of D'Antoni's offense can be implemented midseason with no training camp? Meanwhile those injury worries persist and that bench is not getting any better.
On the other hand, the Spurs, a team that the rest of the Western Conference keeps hoping will show its age, continue to defy the calendar and have looked great so far. So while it seemed plausible that the Clippers might overtake the Spurs based on the general affects of age on that roster, the Spurs instead have the best record in the West with just a single loss. It would all be quite disconcerting were that one loss not a 22 point drubbing at the hands of the Clippers.
And that in fact is the primary source for the increased expectations around Clips Nation -- the Clippers have been flat out terrific. Even as Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan were tearing it up in preseason, we had to remain circumspect, because preseason isn't the regular season. Well, the regular season has begun, and Crawford and Bledsoe and Jordan are still tearing it up. The Clippers as a team are 6-2, with their two losses coming in lackluster home performances against teams who missed the playoffs last season. Leaving aside those two disappointing outings where clearly the team made the simple mistake of not being ready to play, the Clippers are 5-0 against 2012 playoff teams and 2-0 on the road. Their plus 7.9 point differential is the third best in the league, coming against the fourth most difficult schedule so far.
It's early yet; we're less than one tenth of the way through the marathon that is the 82 game NBA season. But even at this early date, consider a few things that seem important:
- Consider the teams that the Clippers have defeated so far and the manner in which they beat them. The Heat (the defending champions), the Spurs (the team with the NBA's best regular season record last season), the Lakers (the defending Pacific Division champion with their superstar-laden lineup) and the Grizzlies (a team with only one loss this season) have all fallen victim to the Clippers -- and none of the games were close. The Grizzlies and the Spurs are the only two teams in the Western Conference with a better record than the Clippers at present -- and the Clippers handed both of them their only loss.
- Consider the depth of the Clippers. The team's leading scorer through eight games (and the tenth leading scorer in the league despite playing fewer than 30 minutes per game) is sixth man Crawford. Meanwhile, Bledsoe may actually be more valuable than Crawford given his defensive abilities. The Clippers currently have 11 healthy players on the roster -- ten of them have played in every game they've been eligible for, while the 11th has played in seven of eight. Against the Heat, it was a lineup of five reserves, playing against Miami's big three, that put the game away in the fourth quarter. And that has been the pattern in almost every Clipper win, with the backups sealing the win early in the fourth.
- Consider that they're still not a full strength. There are four Clippers on the All Star ballot this year -- two of them have yet to play a game. Inclusion on the ballot is far from an exact science, and Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill probably don't deserve to be there any more than at least four other Clippers other than for name recognition, but the fact remains that an already incredibly deep roster will very soon get even deeper. And add Lamar Odom to the list of players who will hopefully contribute more later in the season -- Odom has provided very little so far after coming into training camp out of shape, but if he can eventually work his way into shape, anything he provides will be a bonus over where the Clippers are now.
- Consider that the stars have not had to carry the team. Last season Paul and Griffin each averaged over 36 minutes per game. Through eight games this season, Paul is under 33 minutes and Griffin is under 32. A ten percent reduction in playing time may not seem like a lot, but it will pay dividends later in the season and in the playoffs. Not to mention that Paul and Griffin have more they can give in individual games if the situation calls for it.
Could this all be fool's gold? Is it possible that the Clippers are overachieving now and will not be able to sustain this level of play? Of course it's possible -- after all, there are 74 games left, and at the end of the season November games will be long forgotten. It goes without saying that Crawford, a career 41 percent shooter, is not going to continue to make better than 51 percent of his field goal attempts. It's possible also that Jordan and Bledsoe will level off a bit (though I think it's possible that Jordan can sustain his current level of play and I actually expected Bledsoe to be this good if not better). But there aren't a lot of outliers on the stat sheet so far. Griffin's productivity is down, even on a per minute basis, and there's every reason to expect that he'll increase his output. Odom is another obvious candidate for increased productivity. Paul is Paul -- a PER near 28 seems gaudy, but he was at 27 last season and posted PERs of 28 and 30 in New Orleans, so this is nothing new for him.
The schedule has been difficult in terms of opponents, but incredibly friendly in terms of location. The Clippers have played seven of their eight games in STAPLES Center (though once they were officially the road team) and have yet to travel out of the Pacific time zone. We'll know a lot more about the team at the end of next week when they return from a difficult four game trip that takes them to San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Atlanta.
It's great fun right now, that's for sure. At this early stage of the season, the Clippers sport legitimate contenders for many of the NBA's top individual honors: Paul for MVP, Crawford or even Bledsoe for Sixth Man, Jordan for Most Improved. But more important than individual performances, the Clippers have been playing incredibly well as a team. The offense has been great, the defense has been much improved. The bench has been arguably the best in the league.
So for various reasons, expectations are now higher for this team. The West is still loaded; the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers could still be the teams to beat come May. The Grizzlies, a team I assumed the Clippers had surpassed this summer, have looked better than anyone in the league since their season-opening loss in L.A. But it's no longer a case of assuming that the Clippers will have to wait another year or two for their shot at a title. For the first time in franchise history, the Clippers are ready to compete for a championship -- right now.