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Clips Nation Roundtable: Are the Clippers a Real Contender?

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A slow start to the season sowed the seeds of doubt. Now the Clippers are on a roll, albeit mostly against a string of weak opponents. Are they back to being the powerhouse we all expected, or are they just better than the bad teams but not as good as the elite?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When the Clippers last hit the road exactly three weeks ago, they were a mess. Their record stood at 5-4, they had been demolished in their only true road game by division rival Golden State, and most recently they had looked utterly lost in a 16-point home defeat to a Chicago Bulls team missing All-Stars Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. Loyal fans and media pundits alike were at best perplexed and at worst writing them off as overrated underachievers.

That was then, and this is now: A 15-5 overall record, a 10-1 mark since the aforementioned rock bottom, and an eight-game winning streak prolonged by the most clutch (and luckiest) shot of Blake Griffin's career. So as the team prepares to head east yet again, we decided to check in with the Clips Nation staff to get their answers to the question on everyone's mind: Have the Clippers fixed what ailed them and rejoined the NBA elite, or is this recent streak a mirage fueled by a long stretch of games against horrible and/or injury-depleted opponents?

Steve Perrin: Have the Clippers fixed what ailed them? The short answer is yes, but that presumes that something significant was ailing them in the first place. The Clippers simply shot the ball very poorly early in the season, and in the light of that shooting everything looked wrong. Monday night's win over Phoenix was in many ways a mirror image of earlier losses to the Spurs and Kings: games the team had well in hand, and that they still would have won had they only made some open looks late. The Clippers are a very good team -- one that gets a hell of a lot better when they are hitting from the perimeter.

Johnny Stark: Until the game against the Suns, I wasn't ready to say the Clippers had reestablished themselves in the upper echelon of the NBA. While the victories have been impressive, they've mostly been front-runner situations against subpar competition. The only real adversity they faced, the game against ME/\PIS, saw the Clips crumble under pressure. What I am looking for is a solid response when the going gets tough. The overtime comeback against Phoenix now has me thinking the ship might be righted. That said, I'd still like to see a few more wins in competitive games before I'm ready to state they are truly back.

Erik Olsgaard: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, because I'm just so agreeable ... but no, I'm not sure they have. I love seeing the team on a win streak, but the Clippers haven't faced elite competition for a while now. Teams the Clips have beaten this season are 133-190 (.412), a.k.a. BAD. Teams the Clips have lost to are 73-31 (.702), a.k.a. GOOD.  And since the road trip, when the Clippers have gone 10-1? It's been more of the same. Post-road-trip teams are 101-134 (.430). Pre-road-trip teams are 105-87 (.547). What's worse, the only winning teams they've beaten during the streak were missing key players in HOU (Dwigt), NOP (Gordon), and PHO (Thomas). So yeah, the Clips have been beating bad teams and losing to good ones. I'm not worried at all, but I'm not about to put them in the same category as Golden State or MEMPIS right now either. (Yuck. I can't believe I just said that.)

Thomas Wood: Yes, the Clippers are one of the elites. An increasingly accepted statistical doctrine tells us that blowout wins over inferior opponents are just as telling, if not more so, than close wins against quality opponents. The Clippers have done what elite teams do: Smash the cupcakes. Before Monday night's close shave, they'd won 9 of 10 with a ludicrous point differential of +159, which includes the 16-point loss to Memphis. And remember, it's not like the Clippers were handling business this way against their easy early slate. You want overmatched and injury-depleted? Look at the first four games of the season. Not a lot of playoff quality in there. The Clipper offense has been righted and the defense is looking sharp in bursts. Questions will remain for the coming months about their ability to find playoff success, but this team is now who we thought they would be, a regular-season monster.

Danielle Greenberg: The Clippers are certainly looking better, but they have not yet rejoined the "elite" in the NBA. The Clippers have been pummeling weak competition, but they barely played well enough to defeat the Isaiah Thomas-less Suns, needing 45 points and a miraculous buzzer-beater from Blake Griffin to get the job done. They are a very good team, but they are not yet great. If they can start beating Golden State, Memphis, San Antonio, and Portland ON THE ROAD, then they can join the big kid's table. The biggest issue remains defense. Do the Clippers have the personnel to play shut-down defense consistently, and especially when it really counts down the stretch? The Clippers' lack size and athleticism on the perimeter, which remains a cause for concern. No team is perfect, but this hole is very obvious. It remains to be seen how well the Clippers can hide this deficiency.

Matt Heller: To paraphrase an X-Files movie that could also be the title of a Darius Miles biopic, I want to believe. We have definitely fixed whatever weird Space Jam malaise was hampering us throughout the preseason all the way through that horrific Golden State game. Yet in terms of rejoining the NBA elite? I suppose it depends on how you define elite. We are close to where we were last year. But believe it or not, I think the "elite" has actually gotten better in the West. Watching the Dubs play ... we are nowhere near the level they're on right now. Until I see some quality wins against fully-equipped Western playoff opponents, the jury is still out.

shap: Are the Clippers "back?" Well, that depends on how far you fell during their slip. I had little doubt about this team's capability of being an elite regular-season team. They brought back most of the pieces from last year and were essentially ready to go again. So sure, you can say they're back -- back to dominating the regular season, blowing out lottery teams, playing tight with playoff teams, rolling off their superstars' success. But I do want to see it against the elite teams, more so because I want them to be prepared for what they will face in the postseason. I'm surprised how quickly regular-season success has become ho-hum to me. Yes, I still enjoy the occasional game-winning 3-pointer that front-rims its way into the basket -- but to me, the regular season is a massive (though extremely entertaining) warm-up. I was disappointed that the team wasn't clicking out of the gate, and now that they're getting in a groove, I just want them to trim off all the fat so they know what they'll be up against in this year's delirious playoffs out west.

Larson Ishii: Like most things in life, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the Clippers have been playing a lot of average to subpar teams, but they have done what elite teams do against bad teams -- absolutely crush them. While their offense likely won't look this good against top defenses, their play has improved enough to merit them again being included within the NBA elite. Statistically, the Clippers are elite in many categories: They're fourth in the league in Point Differential and third in Offensive Rating. They lead the league in 3-point percentage and stand second in total 3-pointers made. And while many will say the jury is still out until they face tougher competition, that could be said of many "elite" teams this season. The Clippers' Strength of Schedule currently ranks 17th -- tougher than those of Portland (19), Houston (20), Golden State (22), and Dallas (25). I think the biggest change from last year is really how much the circle of contending teams has expanded. So far this season it looks like as many as a dozen teams have a real chance of making the Finals. The field will certainly narrow as the season wears on, but the Clippers have definitely launched themselves into the conversation as one of those contenders.

John Raffo: Have the Clippers fixed what ailed them? Partially. Their shooting got better, they look comfortable in their offensive sets, and they are what they were last year: one of the best (if not the best) offensive teams in the league. And they're better on defense too -- not quite at the level they reached at the end of last year, but better than they were at this point last season. Still, there are a lot of questions remaining. The bench seems somewhat blotchy. Jordan Farmar? Is that gonna work? Can anyone really play defense on this team? Using last night's game against Phoenix as an example, can the Clips find their way in crunch time? The "elite" question depends on how you define elite. They're one of the six best teams in the league, but they're not better than the three who matter most in the West right now: Golden State, Memphis, and San Antonio. But it's not a mirage -- the Clips are good and getting better.

FlyByKnight: They fixed what ailed them in the sense that the offense is now hitting all the open shots they missed earlier, but they've also played a stretch of meh opponents and that has inflated the results. However, either way, wins are wins and good performances are worthwhile building blocks. Gotta beat the teams you have on your schedule, and the Clippers are doing that right now. Portland's been beating up on bad opponents too. Same with Houston. And the Clippers beat both of them. Right now, the Clippers are playing like they should be playing and getting the results they should be getting. Opposition level helps, but good teams win these games.

boltsfan21: Do the Clippers still have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? Then of course they're among the NBA's elite, no matter what they did in October or November. Early in the season, when people were swearing that losing Alvin Gentry meant the end of civilization as we know it, the offense was no different than last year's. Shots just weren't falling. This did seem to shake the team's confidence for a bit -- some guys started passing up open looks, while others began chucking in a misguided attempt to break themselves out of the slump. And that's why we're so lucky to have Doc Rivers. He pushed exactly the right buttons, talking about trust and reminding the players to believe in themselves, their teammates, and the system. As soon as they did, they started getting the same open looks they were getting early on, but this time they started hitting them, and they haven't stopped since. Sure, we can beat the same dead horses -- small forward, small forward, small forward! -- but nothing that matters has changed since last year, except that an already loaded team added more shooting. Clearly we're not the best team in the league right now. But it's a loooooong season. Doc will tinker. We will get progressively better. So will the other contenders. And in April the real games will begin.