In order to assess the Clippers' success in the first half of the season, your Clips Nation editorial staff and a guy who spells "Eric" wrong discuss five key Clippers questions.
1. What grade do the Clippers get for the first half of the season?
Steve Perrin: I'm tempted to give the team an A+ -- I mean, they finished the first half of the season tied for the best overall record, so it's hard to ask for more than that. However, they have lost some home games against teams they should have beaten so I can't really give them a 100%. They get a very high A, and they're wrecking the curve for everyone else against the good teams.
Lucas Hann: A. Solid A. The Clippers have been tremendous so far this season. They've exceeded expectations even with some absences (notably Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill). I won't give them the A+ because they've had some bad losses. It hasn't been perfect but it's been about as close to that as you could ever want.
John Raffo: A. Or A+. Anything else would be ludicrous.
Erik Olsgaard: A. Solid A. 95%. Top marks. Way to go, you get a gold star. I shouldn't have to say more than, "17 in a row," but I will because I am obnoxious. The Clippers have played extremely well, and they haven't even really overachieved that much. Crawford was shooting out of his mind earlier, but he's come down to earth and they're still winning. This team is the real deal.
2. What has been the biggest surprise so far this season?
Steve Perrin: While the performance of individual players like Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe have been exceedingly pleasant surprises this season, the biggest single surprise of the season has got to be the team defense. The Clippers were near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency last season, and while they began playing better in the second half of the season, they still finished in the bottom half of the league. To turn that weakness into a strength as a top five defense this season is astonishing. Part of it is individuals -- Blake Griffin is a much better defender this year, while Barnes and Bledsoe and Lamar Odom are all plus defenders who are new to the roster, or in Bledsoe's case, healthy and playing consistent minutes. But the coaching staff deserves credit too for having the defense working well at the team level.
Lucas Hann: I think that the biggest surprise this season has been the bench lineup as a whole, especially defensively. I mean, we knew heading into the season that the Clippers had a great bench and one of the deepest teams in the league. And we knew that would be an advantage almost every night, especially with Jamal Crawford's scoring. But I've been surprised both with Vinny Del Negro's decision to give 5 backups big minutes together on the court every night, and even moreso with their effectiveness in those minutes. I mean, a couple weeks ago that Bledsoe/Crawford/Barnes/Odom/Turiaf was the best defensive fivesome in basketball among the top 60 played lineups.
John Raffo: Hmm. There's three things that come to mind: a) Matt Barnes, b) Blake Griffin's improved defense (and the maturation of his court attitude). And c) the Clippers team defense. I will choose letter "c".
Erik Olsgaard: I was going to say Matt Barnes' late-career breakout, or Eric Bledsoe's big step, or Crawford/Odom's crawl out of the basement... but it's got to be the defense. Teams win with offense, but offense can be streaky, as the Houston Rockets are showing us. Defense, on the other hand, is never streaky. Teams often get crazy hot offensively and later cool off -- hi, New York Knicks -- but teams don't usually put together streaks of forcing turnovers or preventing points in the paint. No, instead the Clippers have a system where they attack the offense at the perimeter and rotate to keep everything within 10 feet contested. While they sacrifice the mid-range jumper and the drive-and-kick jumper, it's not a bad strategy to force teams to beat you with spot-up jump-shots. They just need to tighten up on limiting second chance points, and I think they'll take the next step defensively. For now, top 5 will just have to do.
3. Would you make a roster change before the deadline? For what or whom?
Steve Perrin: I'd stand pat unless something great dropped into my lap. The Clippers made it through the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, tied for best overall, and that was with a total of 8 games played between Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill. With Hill now healthy and Billups to follow soon, not to mention the expectations of a stronger second half from Odom, I'm hard pressed to think of what move the Clippers could or would make. I guess the other argument there is that they have more bodies than they can fit into their rotation, so trading three good players for one great one would be a possibility. But with Bledsoe being the primary trade chip, and with his stock likely to be just as high over the summer as it is now, I'm inclined to play this hand.
Lucas Hann: I'll say no, but if I'm the front office I'm not opposed to the idea. There's no urgent needs to fill, the Clippers are playing well, and there's no need to make a trade that could possibly make the team worse (like trading DJ for Paul Pierce and being left centerless). Even packages for a Danny Granger-type small forward are intriguing but the other team would have to sweeten the pot- the Clips have leverage. One deal I would love is something along the lines of DJ for Kevin Garnett. I think both teams would do it, but Garnett has a no trade clause and he would likely void the trade. Oh well.
John Raffo: No, I'd like to see the Clips add a shooter, but I'm not in favor of giving up a draft pick, a young player on a cheap contract (Eric Bledsoe), or taking on a bad contract in order. Chemistry is a crazy thing.
Erik Olsgaard: No, I wouldn't. My reasons are twofold. First, with Dwight Howard not exactly loving sub-.500 life with the Lakers, and Atlanta set to have room for both Howard and Chris Paul to team with Al Horford, I'm not going to assume that Chris Paul will re-sign with the Clippers. For many reasons, Chris Paul will almost certainly re-sign, but I'm still not counting my chickens before they hatch. So until he does, Bledsoe trades will have to wait. And second, I don't want to mess with what has become a top 3 team in the NBA. With no team substantially favored over the Clippers in the West, why risk changing anything unless you can hit a home run to all but guarantee victory over the other top teams in the West?
4. What adjustment (stragegy or rotation) should the Clippers make for the second half of the season?
Steve Perrin: With Hill back and Billups on his way, the rotation will have to change. The one thing I would have done differently all along would have been to get Bledsoe more minutes, specifically at the expense Willie Green. Green's been great in his role, but Bledsoe is a high impact player who just needs more minutes. It will be even tougher to get him those minutes once Billups returns, but I still think it needs to happen. If the return of Billups keeps Bledsoe on the bench more than he already has been, then I think it's a net loss for the Clippers. In the playoffs you need difference-makers on the floor, and Bledsoe is one of the Clippers difference-makers.
Lucas Hann: I've been saying this for a while and I'll say it again: take the ball out of Chris Paul's hands when you need a score. Let someone else facilitate the offense, and run Paul off of a curl or off-ball screen so that he can get the ball on the wing where he's within shooting range and already has a step on his man. There's so many options from there and it takes a lot of pressure off of Paul when you aren't asking him to make something out of nothing 40 feet from the rim.
John Raffo: There's some questions that go along with this... when is Chauncey Billups going to become available? Will he play at all this year? To that point, haven't we seen enough of Willie Green in the starting lineup? Isn't there a way to move one of the reserve wings into a starter's role (Barnes, Hill, Crawford) and/or give Eric Bledsoe some time at the off-guard? I'm also sick of watching Ronny Turiaf heaving bricks from the free-throw line. I'd rather watch DeAndre Jordan heave bricks from the free throw line. Jordan's better than Turiaf but is only averaging 24 minutes a game. And I don't think it has anything to do with his inability to shoot.
Erik Olsgaard: This is a tough question. There are a few things that I wish the Clippers would do better (rebound, close out on shooters, make free throws, etc.), but like DJ's free throw shooting, they aren't things that you can magically fix. So what I'd like to see changed is the way the Clippers play the opening quarter. I don't think it's really necessary to try and feed DJ early in the game, or to try and see if Caron Butler is hot early in the game. Rather, I'd like to see the ball go to Blake early in the game more often, so that he can start generating double-teams and getting the defense on their heels. DJ or Caron scoring a bunch early isn't going to make the defense change their strategy, but getting Blake going absolutely will. The Clippers do frequently get the ball to Blake early, but not after they've burnt a few on DJ or Caron. This isn't the end of the world, of course, but it's one change I'd make if I were head coach.
5. What are your expectations for the second half of the season?
Steve Perrin: The Clippers have established themselves as an elite team through the first half of the season. They'll have a target on their backs and will get the best shot of all of their opponents going forward, but they've got the talent and the depth to keep winning. They won't go 32-9 again; there are no 17 game winning streaks there for the taking because there are no schedule stretches nearly that soft in the second half. I expect the team to skip right over the 50 win threshold (which the franchise has never reached) and make it to 60 wins. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be enough for the first overall seed. I think they'll finish behind the Spurs for the best record in the West.
Lucas Hann: I don't see any reason why the Clippers shouldn't win 30 more games to close out the year. They aren't getting worse, the schedule won't get that much tougher (though there is the Grammy's road trip), and the team should continue to get healthier as Grant Hill gets his mojo back, Lamar Odom continues to slim into shape, and Chauncey Billups hopefully returns sometime soon. I am worried, however, that if Billups doesn't return, the Clippers will be starting Willie Green in the playoffs. In my opinion, in that scenario, the Clippers should start Matt Barnes on the wing and stick with a backup lineup of Bledsoe/Crawford/Hill/Odom/Turiaf.
John Raffo: I'd hate to see the Clips go into maintenance mode but I think Chris Paul needs rest. It's not an expectation, but I'd also like to see the Clips develop some halfcourt chops. The Clips seem to rely on two plays: Toss the ball to Griffin and watching him back in. Or give the ball to Crawford and get out of the way.
Erik Olsgaard: Considering that the Clippers still have played one of the tougher schedules to date, according to ESPN's Power Rankings, I expect them to play at least as well as they have. Tied with OKC for the best road record in the league, and with easier opponents on the back-end, life shouldn't be any more rough for the Clippers than the first half. Still, teams will be gunning for them, and as players get healthy, minutes-distributions will become even more important, so one never knows what could happen. But I'm not ready to predict any sort of demise for these Clippers. I think they'll end up with around 58 wins, with maybe a few stinkers to close the season if their playoff seed is locked up early.