The LA Clippers are about to leave on on a brief but tough road trip. Where will they be a week from now?
I want to believe, I really do. I want to believe that the Clips are as good as the record indicates, and I want to believe that victory's over the Lakers, Spurs, Heat, and Grizzlies are indicators of the Clippers burgeoning superiority as an NBA franchise... but I'm not sure. Why? Because the Clippers have yet to play a game outside of the Pacific time zone. One away game was in Portland, the other was "away" in only the clinical sense... it was in their home Staples Center, but on the Laker's floor. While the Clips are now 7-2, one of their best starts ever, and they've beaten some superior teams, they've yet to face the trial of the open road. Because in the NBA, the road is where it's at. Daily thirty-thousand foot parabolic leaps in a pressurized tube, fractured internal clocks, whacky start times, unreliable food, strange beds in strange cities, back-to-backs in different time zones, angry away-arenas filled with hostile fans... this is the stuff that makes or breaks an NBA season. These are the things that make good teams average or average teams lousy.
Don't get me wrong. I'm on the bus. I love what the Clippers have shown so far this year. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are superstars, who look better than last year. DeAndre Jordan looks like he may have turned a corner. Eric Bledsoe's continued the good play from the playoffs last year, Jamal Crawford's looks as good or better than the guy who came on like a grease fire off the Atlanta bench a couple of years ago. Matt Barnes can play defense and contributes at both ends. Caron Butler looks fresh and in better condition than last year. Even guys like Ryan Hollins (six hard fouls) and Willie Green have made positive contributions. Lamar Odom might not be what we'd hoped but seems enthusiastic. Perhaps he'll contribute yet. And we haven't even seen Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups might be capable of.
For the record, I was publicly and determinedly disappointed by some of the Clips off-season moves (while I liked the acquisitions of Crawford, Odom, Hill, Barnes, and Greene, I was disappointed with the signings of Turiaf and Hollins). But I was more upset with the extension of head coach Vinny Del Negro and the refusal to bring in a name GM from outside the organization. I believed then that Del Negro might be the weak link that keeps the Clips from moving into the NBA hierarchy... and I thought the failure to bring in a powerful, single-minded GM was or is an act of both arrogance and a sign of the continued
penurious penuriousness of ownership. I'm not yet willing to admit that I'm wrong about these issues. But I will say that, so far, empirical evidence lays to the contrary.
I don't know think a four-headed GM of Gary Sacks, Andy Roeser, Vinny Del Negro, and Chris Paul can offer sustained leadership in the front office, but the roster is obviously stacked... and the team seems to not just have an improved bench, and better individual play, but have remarkably renewed focus on defense. Overnight Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have gone from mediocre team-defenders to some of the best-defending big men in the league, using their superior quickness and strength to fill the paint and cover the floor. How did that happen? Is it the hiring of Bob Ociepka? And Del Negro's handling of a deep lineup has been efficient, almost... masterful? His finding time for jacknife Matt Barnes and confronting an out-of-shape Lamar Odom has been uh... really good.
But let's look at the next seven days:
Nov 18 Sunday - Travel
19 Monday - Clips at San Antonio Spurs
20 Tuesday - Travel
21 Wednesday - Clips at OKC Thunder
22 Thursday - Travel
23 Friday - Clips at Brooklyn Nets
24 Saturday - Clips at Atlanta Hawks
25 Sunday - Travel back to LA (next game Monday night vs. Hornets)
Four games in six nights, including two games against Western Conference powers, OKC and San Antonio, who are (right now) a collective 15 and 5. And then you get on your horse and play a back-to-back in Brooklyn (5-2) one night and Atlanta (4-4) the next. Those teams are both Eastern Conference threats, both likely to make the playoffs and both want to beat you badly.
It's a relatively short road trip, just four games, but it will tell us a lot about who this team is, and about how far they're gonna go this year.