How bad have the Los Angeles Clippers been this season?
Well, they haven't been good. And of course it's all measured against the expectations for this team. In Doc Rivers' second season as head coach, with some seemingly important roster upgrades in hand, with a new owner invigorating the entire environment, it just SEEMED like this was going to be the Clippers year. They were even the trendy pick to win it all in some circles, and with all the misfortunes that have befallen one of their primary rivals at the top of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder, they seemed poised for big things.
And of course it could all still happen. We're barely three weeks into the season. Championships are neither won nor lost in November, and no one blinks if the San Antonio Spurs get off to a slow start (which by the way, they did). But the Spurs have a special status in the NBA, one they've earned, and the Clippers most certainly do not.
It's worth asking: have the Clippers really been that bad? I mean, they're 5-4, and all four losses have come to against good teams (at least Sacramento appears to be good so far). Is it possible the Clippers haven't been as bad as it has seemed to die hard fans?
Actually, they've probably been worse. Consider this: no team in the NBA has played fewer road games than the Clippers (who have played two roadies, one of those against the Lakers in STAPLES Center, and have yet to play a game outside of the state of California). All that changes now, as the team heads out on a seven game road trip, where things could get really ugly.
Three home losses in their first seven games is pretty terrible considering they only lost seven games at home out of 41 all last season.
But to me, the biggest problem is that they have yet to play an NBA game season where they did not look dreadful for some sustained period of the game. Even in their "good" wins (yes, I put that in quotation marks for a reason) they had some truly frightening lapses. One almost gets the impression that they only difference between Phoenix win and the Chicago loss was time -- the Clippers seemed fully capable of allowing the Suns to go on a Bulls-esque 51-18 type of run, but Phoenix didn't have quite enough time to mount their comeback.
That and Chris Paul played the hero. Which seems like the other problem. In the Bulls game, even when the Clippers were up four, it felt a bit like fool's gold. Blake Griffin had hit a string of jumpers in the first quarter; then Jamal Crawford got scorching hot in the second; Spencer Hawes hit a couple of threes. The shots were falling, but the offense wasn't exactly clicking. When the shots stop falling, it was the Clippers who fell -- hard.
Statistically, the Clippers are a middle of the pack offensive team and a bad defensive team so far this season -- which feels about right. How to explain that, particularly the offensive futility, is beyond me. I just refuse to believe that the loss of Alvin Gentry is that significant. The Clippers just don't seem right. They've shown a few spurts lately -- notably in the Suns game. But even a blind big breaks a clock twice a day, as the saying goes.
It is early, and there is plenty of time to turn things around. But it is certainly disconcerting when you realize that the Clippers never had any stretch of games where they looked this bad last season -- not even close, really. They'd lay the occasional egg -- after which they'd invariably bounce back strong. Nine games in, the Clippers have played one, maybe two, good games, and both of them were badly flawed themselves. Whether it was Doc or some intrinsic element of the team, they did not allow themselves to slump badly last season. Which makes this start all the more of a concern.
Some things will work themselves out: J.J. Redick will not shoot 38 percent for the rest of the season, for instance. But others? Maybe not. For instance, the small forward position is a mess with no obvious solution.
And what of Paul and Griffin? Widely considered among the top five players in the NBA, that certainly won't be the consensus much longer if their collective efforts can't lift this team out of their current funk. Paul carried the Clippers with 32 points against the Suns, but he only has one other 20 point game on the season. And Griffin, for all his new jump shooting prowess, has allowed other aspects of his game to drop off. His per 36 minute rebounding average of 7.6 is more suited to a decent small forward than to a player who wants to be in the conversation for best power forward in the NBA.
Say it with me now: there's plenty of time left. If, at the end of the season, we look back and realize that November was when the Clippers were playing their worst basketball, then that's just fine. After all, some period has to be the worst stretch, and the further away from the post season, the better. Everything we know about year-over-year consistency in the NBA tells us that this Clippers team should be good -- posting a record within five or so wins plus or minus of last season's team. As of now, that doesn't seem to be the case. But it's a long season, and history tells us that good teams don't become mediocre teams overnight.
Maybe the road will be a bonding experience for the team. Maybe they needed to face some adversity. Or maybe Donald Sterling was the secret to the team's success all along.