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Second in the Power Rankings

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In Week 2 of Marc Stein's Power Rankings, the Clippers have moved up to second, behind only the Spurs.  Given that the Clippers have won 5 straight, have a +7.7 differential compared to SA's +5.5, and that two of the Spurs wins this week were against the lowly Knicks (they don't get to play those guys again), you could easily make an argument for the number 1 spot.  Of course, the Clippers 5 wins have all been at home, so we'll see how they do on the road, starting Tuesday in Utah.

Six games into the season, the Clippers are in a great place.  There's a ton of good news, and an optimist would argue that any bad news just represents areas that are sure to improve.

The good news -

  • The team defense has been outstanding.  Dunleavy has been playing essentially 8 guys, and 7 of them were in the core rotation last season.  That means they all know the schemes and rotations, and only Tim Thomas has to be integrated.  Comparing this team's defense to the Clippers from 2 seasons ago, is night and day.  And even though Sam Cassell is a very poor on ball defender, the team concept covers for him, and he is very good on rotations because of his hoops IQ.  Even Maggette has played solid team defense so far.
  • Speaking of Maggette, he has accepted his sixth man role.  A little over a week ago he told Dunleavy that he wants to come off the bench, if it will help the team.  In the winning streak (the first game against Phoenix he was limited to 7 minutes by food poisoning), he's averaging 16.4 points and 9 rebounds.  The rebounding in particular is incredibly timely - with Rebraca and Williams hurt to start the season, the front court depth is depleted.  Maggette has been able to play power forward for extended stretches against the likes of Phoenix and Dallas, giving the Clippers yet another look.  If he continues to play well and the team continues to win, he's a lock for the Sixth Man Award.
  • The balance and depth have been outstanding, and it's safe to say there is not a team in the NBA with more talent through 8 players.  4 different players have led the team in scoring.  5 different players have scored at least 20.  5 players are averaging double figures (OK, I rounded up for Thomas) and it's a good bet that at least 6 if not 7 of these guys will average double figures on the season.  Even defensive stopper Quinton Ross is averaging 8 and shooting .475.  Team chemistry is always a concern at the beginning of a new season, but everything seems great there.  Winning is of course the best route to team harmony, and right now the eight guys in the rotation all seem sublimely content.  At the end of the bench, the Singleton's and Ewing's are young, and know their place.  They'll be ready if they get the call.
  • Sam Cassell appears to have gotten younger.  Sam turns 37 next Saturday, but he's averaging 20.8 points per game thus far, and seems to delight in schooling point guards more than a decade younger.  The things he did to Chirs Paul (21) and Devin Harris (23) in the last two games might qualify as child abuse in some states.  Has he lost a step?  Well, Sam's game was never predicated on lightning quickness or jumping ability, so in that sense there's really no step to lose.  He appears to be as good as he ever was, if not better.

The bad news (with silver linings) -

  • Elton Brand's productivity is down from last season.  But as Elton would be the first to point out, who cares?  The team is 5-1.  Last season was a major anomaly for EB.  He averaged 24.7, when in 6 prior seasons he'd never averaged more than a tick over 20.  So there were certainly those who expected some drop off.  But there are several factors at work here.  A healthy Corey Maggette means that the Clippers leading scorer from two seasons ago is taking shots again.  Plus, Tim Thomas is going to get more minutes and more shots than Chris Wilcox.  EB is shooting .514 through 6 games, so if that's a slump, then we'll take it.  His shots are down from 18 per game last season to 12 per game this season.  Teams are doubling, and he's passing out of the double.  Has he looked super sharp?  No.  But he's still been great, and he'll be there all season.  He always is.
  • Shaun Livingston has not broken out yet.  If, like me, you are completely convinced that Livingston is going to be a superstar in this league, this is not really bad news.  It is inevitable that he will break through.  The fact that the Clippers are 5-1 without that break through just means this team is going to be even better.  And let's be clear - although he has looked tentative on offense, Livingston's defense has been superb.  Right now, the Clippers are winning games on the defensive end.  Team defensive concepts are great - but you need enough outstanding individual defenders to really make it hum.  Livingston is one of those guys already.
  • Chris Kaman has taken a step back.  This is probably the most unsettling early season development.  Tough matchups against Phoenix and Dallas have certainly contributed to his slow start.  But 37% shooting on a variety of post ups is not good.  In my season preview of the Clippers, I singled out the ongoing development of Livingston and Kaman as the reason the Clippers would be better this year.  So far that has not been the case, but the optimist in me says that it'll happen, and the Clippers just have that much more headroom.
  • The offense has been sluggish.  Now, you may think I'm crazy criticizing the offensive efficiency of a team averaging almost 102 points per game.  But remember, two of those games were against Phoenix, one against Denver and one against Dallas, so high scoring is not a surprise.  Meanwhile, they're averaging only 19.5 assists per game to generate those 102 points (by contrast, the Lakers are averaging almost 24 assists per game). While the offense has gotten better since the first couple games, it is still very dependent on iso's and individual offensive skills.  The Clippers are blessed with so many weapons that this approach may work all season, but I'd certainly rather watch a team running plays to get guys open, rather than clear outs.  And in the end, those easy buckets win a lot of games.  The offense has looked particularly bad against zone defenses, where you can't isolate someone.  Against the Hornets, Tim Thomas made 4 threes to force them out of the zone.  But if Thomas' shot is not falling, the Clippers could be in trouble against a zone defense.

All in all, a 5 game winning streak, unbeaten at home, unbeaten with Cassell in the starting lineup.  It's all really positive.  The Utah game will be a great early season test against a good team, playing great ball, on the road in a place that has been a nightmare for the Clippers for years.  I'm getting ahead of myself, but if they win in Utah, the next three are in Staples, and the win streak could easily get to nine.  And they can certainly play better than they have.