Apr 9, 2012; Memphis, TN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph (50) and point guard Gilbert Arenas (10) during the second half at the FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 94-85. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE
Each SBNation NBA playoff team blog will be publishing playoff previews over the next few days. And for once, I actually get to participate! A great moment in Clips Nation history! (I actually started my original blog during the 2006 playoff run. Clips Nation was established the following September, so this is the inaugural playoffs for this venerable site. About time.)
Team Record: 40-26. Second in the Pacific Division, fifth in the Western Conference.
First round opponent: Memphis Grizzlies.
How would you describe the Clippers in the regular season?
It was a bit of a roller coaster for the Clippers this season. This is a team that was 32-50 last season, and had had a winning record just twice since moving to Los Angeles 28 seasons ago.
The moment that the Chris Paul trade was announced, the hype machine started going full throttle. The entire situation was magnified by the aborted trade of Paul to the Lakers. Within a period of a week, Paul was a Laker, then not a Laker, and then a Clipper, and suddenly there was another team worth talking about (and writing about and blogging about and even screaming about if you're Stephen A. Smith) in the nation's second biggest market.
But amid all that hype, it was far from clear exactly what the Clippers had here.The team that started the season was an odd mix of way too many combo guards and way too few legitimate big men beyond Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. My own assessment of the Clippers directly after the Paul trade was that they were certainly a playoff team, but would have difficulty getting out of the first round.
Then they started winning some games, and expectations went way up. The Lakers had clearly gotten worse, losing Lamar Odom without adding anything of value, the Clippers beat some high visibility opponents in January like the Heat and the Lakers and the Thunder, and it looked like they would win the Pacific Division and challenge for a two two seed in the Western Conference.
Those newly lofty expectations came crashing back to earth during late February and early March, when the condense post lockout schedule caught up with them and they went through a very bleak stretch -- nine games in twelve days will make any team look confused. Right on cue, the same media that prematurely labeled the team a serious contender in the playoffs, started talking about how coach Vinny Del Negro had lost the locker room, how they'd struggle to even qualify for the playoffs, how they knew all along that the Clippers weren't really all that good.
And then they righted the ship again. Just as the "Fire Vinny" rhetoric was at it's most fever pitch, the Clippers started on a 14-5 run that closed the season, beating seven Western Conference playoff contenders along the way including two wins over the Thunder.
Theories abound for why the Clippers fell into a funk and why they then snapped out of it. The conventional wisdom held that the season ending Achilles tendon injury to Chauncey Billups was the cause of the Clippers mid-season malaise, but the numbers don't really bear that out. The real answer would seem to be pretty straightforward -- the Clippers are a very good team when their perimeter players are hitting shots, and a very beatable team when they are not. The stars, Paul and Griffin have been very consistent all season, but wings like Randy Foye, Caron Butler and Mo Williams went ice cold in late February and into March. Not surprisingly, those jump shots stopped falling about the time the schedule got really crazy and the legs got tired. When the shots started dropping again, the team started winning again.
So who is this team? Is it the Pacific Division leading darlings of January? The rudderless mess with the anarchic locker room from the middle of the season? The team that won 13 of 15 and trounced the Thunder in April? Or the one that fumbled the ball on the goal line when it lost three of its last four to cede home court advantage to the Grizzlies?
I think it's the same team that started the season. Solidly in the playoffs, but with some obvious flaws, and right on the cusp between the first and second round. Blake Griffin will attract double teams and Chris Paul will break down defenses with penetration, we know that much. Which means that shooters will get open looks. If the Clippers are hitting jump shots they can beat any team in the league. If they are not, they are very vulnerable.
What are the Clippers strengths? Are there any areas that concern you?
The biggest strength of the Clippers is Chris Paul, plain and simple. It's a superstar driven league, and moreover, you need a star who has the ball in his hands. Blake Griffin, for all of his talent and jaw-dropping excitement, won't get a lot of touches in the fourth quarter of a close game. The Clippers have a player to will always have the ball down the stretch, and odds are good things will happen when he does. You really can't put a value on that in the playoffs.
The Clippers front line, with Griffin and Jordan, is probably the most athletic in the league. Few duos can finish plays around the rim or pump up a home crowd the way these two can. They also make the Clippers a good rebounding team, particularly on the offensive glass, where they are fourth in in offensive rebounding percentage.
And Griffin has quietly been adding to his game as well. Griffin has gone from hitting 33 percent of his 16-23 foot jumpers last season, to 37 percent this season. More importantly, he has made 50-102 of his mid-range jumpers, 49 percent, in the last 25 games. Believe it or not, Griffin has hit a higher percentage of his mid-range jumpers this season than Kevin Love or Zach Randolph. Some would point to Griffin's decreased scoring average (from 21.3 to 20.6) as evidence that he hasn't developed in his second season -- but take a look at his field goal percentage (from 50.6 percent to 54.9). That's a major improvement in a single season, and ranks him sixth in the NBA.
Perimeter shooting, as I alluded to above, can be a strength or a weakness of this team. Foye, Butler, Williams and Nick Young are all very capable of hitting shots, but they all tend to be streaky as well. How those four wing players shoot during the playoffs will be an absolute key to the team's chances.
Depth is not the concern it once was for the team. Throughout the season they have added Reggie Evans (signed just before the season started but injured for the first week) and Kenyon Martin; they acquired Nick Young from the Wizards at the trade deadline. In addition, Eric Bledsoe has returned from off-season knee surgery to improve team depth. It's not the best bench in the playoffs, nor is it the worst, which early in the season it looked like it could be.
Although the team defense has improved significantly, it is still a concern. The Clippers finished the regular season 18th in defensive efficiency -- which is a major improvement over where they once were. They've actually been in the top 10 for the last five weeks, but remain a suspect defensive unit. There's not enough size on the wings, rotations are spotty at best, and both Griffin and Jordan show their youth and inexperience when it comes to post defense. But when Bledsoe and Martin are in the game, the defense improves dramatically.
And then there's the foul shooting. Griffin, after shooting almost 70 percent after the All Star break his rookie season, crashed all the way down to 52 percent this season. And it's not as if Del Negro has any options for avoiding the bad free throw shooters at the end of a game, as every Clipper big in the rotation (Jordan .525, Evans .507, Martin .370) is as bad or worse. The Clippers are the second worst worst free throw shooting team in the league at 68 percent -- the worst when you consider that Dwight Howard is no longer around to drag down Orlando's percentage. It's difficult to imagine that missed free throws will not cost the Clippers at least one playoff game.
Finally, although Del Negro managed to save his job when the team began to play well in late March, few would list 'coaching' as a strength of the Clippers. The Clippers have Chris Paul, which can do wonders for an unimaginative offense, but if in-game adjustments are going to be necessary during the playoffs, let's just say the Clippers will be at a disadvantage.
What is your likely playoff rotation? Who is likely to see their minutes increase? Who might fall out of the rotation completely?
The starting lineup is set. When Chauncey Billups was injured in February, coach Vinny Del Negro at first inserted Mo Williams into the starting lineup in the backcourt alongside Paul. That experiment lasted one game. Likewise Nick Young got a brief chance to start at the two shortly after he arrived in L.A. In both cases Del Negro quickly returned to Randy Foye as the starter, leaving Williams and Young to come off the bench as 'instant offense' guys. The rest of the starters have been the same since Christmas Day: Paul at the point, Butler at small forward, Griffin at power forward and Jordan at center.
When everyone has been healthy, Del Negro has tended to play a ten man rotation, fielding a full second unit of reserves. However, in some close and important games in the last month, he has tightened up that rotation some. It's safe to say that Williams and Martin will get plenty of minutes, and more often than not will be the closers in place of Foye and Jordan. Likewise Nick Young will get his chances -- Del Negro will likely close with either Butler or Young at the small forward depending upon who he feels is playing well that day. Eric Bledsoe will get the minutes backing up Chris Paul, and may play next to Paul and in some three guard lineups. Bledsoe can be a real game-changer for the Clippers. Reggie Evans will likely see his minutes shrink to near zero as Del Negro goes with a three big rotation of Griffin, Jordan and Martin.
Who is most likely to step up their level of play? Do you have a potential "breakout" peformer this postseason?
Chris Paul has been a great regular season player during his NBA career, but regular season Chris Paul doesn't hold a candle to playoff Chris Paul. In 12 playoff games in the 2008 playoffs, Paul's PER of 30.7 was more than 2 points higher than his already tremendous regular season PER. Likewise last season Paul saved his best for the playoffs, when he almost single-handedly stole two games from the Lakers playing on a Hornets team that had lost David West. His playoff PER last year was 28.9, and in both 2008 and 2011 Paul led all NBA players in playoff PER. Throughout his first season with the Clippers, Paul has tended to defer to other players early in games, but take over in the fourth quarter. You can expect to see fourth quarter Chris Paul from the opening tip once the playoffs start.
It's difficult to know what to expect from some of the younger Clippers. Starters Griffin, Jordan and Foye as well as reserve Bledsoe, will be experiencing their first post season play. How will they respond? It's worth noting that Griffin was red-hot the final week of the season, averaging almost 29 points while making almost three-fourths of his shots in the final three games. The conventional wisdom might hold that Griffin won't be prepared for how physical the playoffs will be, but given that most teams already play Griffin about as physically as they possibly can, he's probably plenty prepared.
As for potential breakout performances, keep an eye on Bledsoe. He's an athletic freak second only to Russell Westbrook at the point guard position. It took him a few weeks to regain his athleticism and his recklessness when he returned from off-season meniscus surgery, but he's all the back at this point. His energy and defense helped to turn around several games for the Clippers down the stretch. He averages almost as many steals per minute as Chris Paul, and Paul led the league in steals per game this season. He's also by far the best offensive rebounder his size in the NBA. He could definitely surprise some people this post season.
How far can you realistically see the Clippers advancing in the playoffs?
As far as Chris Paul and their wing shooters can take them. Paul has been to the playoffs healthy twice in his NBA career, and both times he was the best player in the postseason, period. He has demonstrated the ability to raise his game to another level in big situations, and that will give the Clippers a chance in any game they're in.
He also tweaked a groin muscle on Tuesday in the Clippers' penultimate regular season game -- he'll have five days between that game and the start of the playoffs, and it was considered a mild strain so it's possible that he'll be unaffected by the injury. But if he's limited in any way, it will be a huge blow to the Clippers chances.
Realistically, the Clippers should be able to handle the Grizzlies in the first round. After that, they'll likely be underdogs in their subsequent series, but CP3 will give them a chance against anyone. You're talking about a single game in the standings that is the difference between fifth seed and third seed in the West, and the Clippers were very good against the Thunder this season, and not bad against the Spurs. I'm not expecting it, but it would not be shocking to me to see this team in the NBA Finals.