I no longer write about them every day, but it turns out that I am still considered (by some at least) to be something of an expert on the LA Clippers. As such, I have fielded a fair number of questions lately that can be boiled down to some variation of the following: What’s wrong?
The answer, as it happens, doesn’t actually require a ton of expertise. The Clippers have played a whole bunch of games lately without their two best players (and a couple without their third leading scorer as well). That’s what’s wrong, and it doesn’t take a basketball genius to know it.
I’m oversimplifying a bit of course. The sudden switch from 14-2 in the first four weeks to 8-12 since was certainly vertiginous. But the idea that the Clippers went from the first or second best team in the NBA to 15th (as they were in Marc Stein’s Power Rankings last Monday) is just silly. Consider this: when Stein ranked them 15th, they were actually sixth in point differential and still ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, despite the six game
winning losing streak in which Chris Paul played one game and Blake Griffin played none. I mean, I get it that Power Rankings are partly about a snapshot of a point in time, but did anyone (even Stein) truly believe that the Thunder and/or the Grizzlies let alone the Hornets, Hawks, Bucks, Wizards and/or Pacers were actually better than the Clippers as of Monday? Come on. (And sure, it helps that they’ve won four straight since the six game slide.)
When the Clippers were 14-2 I thought they were in the discussion for second best team in the West. Now that they’re 26-14 I think they’re in the discussion for second best team in the West. The only thing that is different and surprising is that Houston is also in that conversation — I did not see that coming, and it certainly does matter.
(I’m focused on the West for the simple fact that it is what actually matters. But even if you want to zoom out to the entire league, there aren’t many surprises. The Cavs are the defending champs and odds on favorites to go to the Finals. Toronto is better than I thought they’d be. That appears to be the list of possible East champs and for what it’s worth, the Clippers are 2-0 against them.)
Let’s just be clear about the correct expectations for a team playing without its star (or stars). The Cavaliers are halfway through the third season of LeBron James’ second tenure. In that time, Cleveland is 4-18 when they play without their MVP. (And one of those wins came in a completely meaningless meeting with the Wizards during the final game of the season.) They have won zero games — as in never, not ever, have they won — when any two of their three best players (James and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) have been absent. OMFSM, the Clippers lost six in a row in a stretch when Griffin and Paul and J.J. Redick combined to play five times in total! No shit they lost. The story is really that they had a chance to win any of those games.
Compared to the Cleveland situation, LAC’s record without Griffin (48-31 over the last 6 seasons), record without Paul (24-23 since his arrival in L.A.) and record without either (4-9, tragically 0-2 in the playoffs) is downright spectacular. I mean, they just beat San Antonio with Griffin missing the entire game and Paul sitting out the fourth quarter. Let’s give Doc and the scrubs some credit.
Paul is back. Hopefully Griffin will be back before too much longer. And we’ll see what happens then. The Clippers are good — exactly how good remains to be seen.
Back when the team was 14-2 there were a couple of things I didn’t really believe. I didn’t believe that the second unit was as good as the early numbers suggested. And I didn’t believe that the defense was truly at an NBA best level.
Looks like I was probably right about both of those things, but while the defense is likely to settle into a top third sort of ranking, in a strange way I’m more comfortable with the bench now then I was then. I think Ray Felton and Jamal Crawford are who they are. But in recent weeks Marreese Speights has made a believer out of me, and more importantly, it seems like Austin Rivers is turning a corner. I’m still not sure who the fifth member of the second unit should be (please FSM don’t let it be Paul Pierce) but you don’t actually need ten guys — certainly not in the playoffs. I think the second unit will be better when Griffin returns than they were during that crazy first month.
Which is not to say that the 8-12 stretch didn’t matter — it certainly did, mostly because Houston has been so scorching hot. Now, I happen to believe that the Rockets are going to come back to earth, and even have a bad stretch at some point — let’s face it, most teams do. I love Mike D’Antoni and I love the additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to that team, but the Rockets are a mere 8-8 against teams above .500 (with one of those eight wins coming against the depleted Clippers), while also going 7-2 in three point games and 2-0 in OT games. That tells me that they’re not quite as good as their gaudy record implies. A five game lead in the loss column is a lot — but the Rockets have 43 games left to play, and they haven’t experienced any significant hardship yet. We’ll see what happens when they do.
We’re halfway through the season. What’s wrong with the Clippers? Not much. They’re not as good as the Warriors, but if healthy, I’d pick them over any other team in the West. Sadly, if they can’t get out of the four seed, that will probably mean another season without a conference finals. But there’s still half a season to go.