With one quarter of the NBA season in the rear view mirror, the Clippers stand at 9-12. Depending on your inclination, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. There are, as always, myriad considerations, and you can take an optimistic or pessimistic view of almost any of them.
Optimistic view - The Clippers 9-12 mark, a vast improvement over their record of 4-17 last season, has come without a single minute from Blake Griffin and with Eric Gordon missing nine games and limited in three others. There's little doubt that Griffin and Gordon are the franchise cornerstones, so having them miss games is a major blow to not only the talent level on the court, but also the team's confidence, chemistry and psyche. Considering that the team lost it's first four games and has played slightly better than .500 ball since then despite these injuries, the prospects look good for January when Griffin returns.
Pessimistic view - Injuries happen and you have to deal with them. Houston has a better record than the Clippers with $40M in salary hurt, and Sacramento is tied with LA despite significantly lower expectations and an injury to their leading scorer, so don't be complaining about injuries. Besides, compared to recent campaigns, this Clippers' team has been relatively healthy. Then there's the little fact that Griffin and Gordon are each merely 20 years old, and while they are certainly of paramount importance to the FUTURE of the franchise, their absence this seaosn surely shouldn't have such a devastating impact on a team with Marcus Camby and Rasual Butler to step in. Griffin's never played a minute of NBA ball - isn't it arrogant to assume that this team is suddenly playoff caliber when he takes the court?
Steve's take -There is no correct answer on this one. Yes, injuries happen... unless they don't. Yes, the Clippers will be better - much better - with Gordon and Griffin healthy. The difference with Gordon and without him is pretty stark. Griffin, despite his youth and complete absence of experience, is clearly a special player, who happens to do a lot of things this Clippers team is missing. He's a great rebounder. He plays with energy and intensity. He's quick enough to defend 'stretch fours' (and he's about the only player on the entire roster who can do so). We know Gordon makes a difference. Griffin will make a difference as well. Is it too much to ask that the Clippers have a decent run of injury free games when Griffin returns? Perhaps, but we can hope for it anyway. Some teams actually get to have all their good players at the same time. True story.
Optimistic view - If the goal is making the playoffs, you have to consider not just the Clippers but also the rest of the Western conference. Unlike last season when the team had long since lost contact with the playoff contenders, this season there is very little separation between the Clippers and the playoff race. The Clippers have 12 losses. Houston, Utah, Oklahoma City and Utah all have 9 losses, and the Trailblazers have 10. That's four playoff teams from last season within three losses of the Clippers. A fifth playoff team, the Hornets, have 12 losses just like LA. The Clippers are currently one decent winning streak away from being in the top eight in the West, and in the zero sum game of NBA playoffs, there are plenty of candidates for who might be missing the playoffs this season. There's ample reason to suspect that the Rockets and Thunder are overachieving and are vulnerable, and meanwhile Portland has more injuries than any team in the league right now and could easily drop in the standings. Unlike last season when nine teams in the West separated themselves from the pack and it was clear they were simply the class of the division, this playoff race is wide open.
Pessimistic view - The standings can be very deceiving. The simple fact of the matter is that the two teams most people were hoping would drop out of contention, the Suns and Rockets, are right in the thick of the playoff race. Sure, San Antonio is only 11-9, but that's fool's gold. Does anyone really expect the Spurs to miss the playoffs when all is said and done? They almost always look mediocre for a time - and then they turn it on, because they're the Spurs. Likewise, are you really going to bet against Chris Paul and the Hornets? How about Portland? Despite their injuries, as long as none of the injuries are to a guy named 'Brandon Roy' the Blazers are a playoff team. So while the race is indeed more open, that's only because some teams like the Thunder and the Grizzlies are much more talented, meaning that there are fewer easy wins in the conference than ever. Indeed, the Clippers are a mere 3-6 against UTA, HOU, OKC, NOH and MEM. If LA can't manage a winning record against those teams, helping their own playoff chances while damaging a direct competitor for the final spots, then the playoffs just aren't a realistic possibility.
Steve's take - Both views are correct. There's no question that a top eight slot is more achievable this season than last season. Even if you assume San Antonio is safe and Utah is probably OK, that leaves the door cracked open a bit. Portland has their starting center and about ten small forwards out. Houston and Oklahoma City are winning, but I don't look at those rosters and think 'playoff lock'. And while New Orleans may be currently underachieving, there are some decent reasons for their decline and they seem vulnerable. So it's not unreasonable to think that the Clippers can finish the season ahead of most of those teams in the standings. There are 61 games left after all, the vast majority with Blake Griffin. BUT... they simply must start winning the head-to-head matchups. Two losses in two games against the Hornets already is devastating. If LA can't win against the teams they hope to supplant in the standings, then forget it.
Optimistic view - There is ample reason for optimism up and down the Clippers roster. Chris Kaman has played inspired basketball at times, adding a consistent 18 footer to the rest of his post moves and punishnig man to man converage. Baron Davis has bounced back big time from his terrible first season in LA. Eric Gordon is a budding star, adding relentless attacking of the rim and a post up game to his picture perfect long distance shooting. Al Thornton has played as consistently as at any time in his career since breaking out of his season-opening slump. Marcus Camby continues to defy his age as he is among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots and has been the Clippers best player at times. The bench is much improved, led by Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith. Only Rasual Butler can really be said to be underachieving at this point.
Pessimistic view - Kaman's season-opening run was a mirage, and at this point it's killing the team because MDsr keeps thinking it's going to happen again, when it's not. After all, which is the better data set? 10 games of stellar play this season, or 6 seasons of inconsistency? Baron has been better, but not good. He's still hovering around 40% shooting, which is abysmal. Thornton was so terrible at the beginning of the season that of course he looks better by comparison. But he's still a ball stopper who doesn't do a lot to help the team. Camby is great, but he's a bad fit at power forward where Rashard Lewis and Troy Murphy keep taking him out to the three point line. The bench has been weaker than advertised, and Butler has been a disaster. Only Gordon has played consistently well, and he's been hurt. This team might look good on paper, but the parts just don't fit together.
Steve's take - This team is all about the dreader P word, potential. They have talent at every position, which gives them the potential to be pretty good. But they haven't figured out how to play together, and frankly they don't look like they're getting much closer to figuring it out. Who is the go to scorer? What do you do when the defense clamps down in the fourth quarter? It's not clear that these questions have answers, nor does it seem like they're going to find the answers any time soon. Either Gordon or Griffin probably needs to be his stamp on this team. Until then, the roster is anti-synergy - the whole adds up to less than the sum of the parts.
Optimistic view - After opening the season against four of the top five teams in the West, the Clippers are 9-8 despite the injuries. They have a road win against the Thunder, and a huge home win against Denver. And although the November schedule was easier than the first four games, in retrospect it wasn't as easy as everyone thought. With Oklahoma and Memphis both much improved, five games against those two teams was not quite the vacation that people assumed it would be.
Pessimistic view - You're kidding, right? 13 home games versus 8 road games, two games against Minnesota, two games against Indiana, two games against New Orleans, a road game against Detroit missing three starters. You just can't find a weaker schedule over the course of a month than the Clippers saw in November. And they managed to go 8-6 despite all of those advantages. The Denver win is literally the only good win the team has on the season, if you assume that Oklahoma City won't be above .500 when all is said and done. Stack that one good win against all the bad losses (New Orleans without Chris Paul, Indiana without Danny Granger, Memphis, Toronto, etc, etc, etc.) and it's obvious that the Clippers are headed for trouble when the schedule gets tougher as it will the rest of the season. 6-7 is a terrible home record - and that's pretty indicative of who this team is.
Steve's take - Hard to be an optimist on this one. The Denver game looks like an outlier. Meanwhile, the team has no discernible home court advantage, but probably isn't good enough to regularly overcome the home court advantage of other teams. So they've squandered the home friendly and definitely Charmin-soft November schedule and there's every reason to think that the record will take a corresponding hit in December as they go on the road and face tougher teams.