They may have salvaged what could have been a truly disheartening week with a sloppy win over the Bulls, but the Clippers are going to need to show marked improvement in several facets of the game if they’re going to once again ascend to real Power Rankings relevancy. First and foremost, the defense has continued to struggle despite Chris Paul’s return. Whether it’s the physical toll of a long season or a larger schematic issue, this team can kiss hopes of a first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance goodbye if there isn’t a significant change on that end of the court. Sure, it’s no easy task to keep up defensively against the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets, but that’s precisely what the Clippers will need to accomplish come playoff time.
Further plaguing the Clippers productivity is a bench unit that has reeked of inconsistency in recent weeks. Jamal Crawford may have bailed the Clippers out on Saturday, but that was his first double-digit outing in his previous four games. Speaking of double-digit droughts, Mo Speights is mighty thirsty, having not broken that barrier since February 6th thanks to a three-point stroke that’s nowhere to be found. In addition to those two, Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton are having a difficult time adjusting with fewer minutes available in the backcourt. I’m of the opinion that both would benefit for more minutes with Jamal off the floor, but the three guards are going to need to learn to effectively coexist if the bench can reach the dominant level that they teased us with early in the season.
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 9 Last Week: 9
Chris Paul is back and Blake Griffin is in a great groove, but the Clips are 1-4 since the All-Star break thanks to a rather brutal schedule that forced them to deal with Golden State, San Antonio and Houston in three of the first four of those games. According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, L.A. has a 6 percent chance of winning a playoff series against Golden State, which puts it fourth in the league among the Warriors' main rivals behind the Spurs (23 percent), Rockets (12 percent) and Cavaliers (7 percent). I have to admit it: I'd have expected that figure to be lower given the manner in which Golden State has dominated the matchup lately, winning the teams' past 10 meetings.
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 10 LW: 10
The Clippers got a much-needed, ugly win in Chicago on Saturday, but have seen the league's biggest NetRtg drop-off (from plus-4.2 to minus-7.2) since the All-Star break, with the bigger drop-off coming on defense. Their four post-break losses have been against the four top-10 offenses they've faced, and they'll host another top-10 offense on Monday before heading back out for their second central time zone back-to-back in seven days. They have the league's worst aggregate bench NetRtg (minus-18.7 points per 100 possessions) since the break and have been outscored by 24.5 points per 100 possessions with Chris Paul off the floor in the six games, with Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers holding the worst two-man NetRtg (minus-25.8) among combinations that have played at least 100 post-break minutes.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 10 LW: 11
They have had a brutal schedule since the All-Star break — Warriors, Spurs, Rockets — but with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the court and healthy the Clippers are starting to find a groove again. At least the starters are. On offense. The Clippers need more consistent bench play — not just the Jamal Crawford show, he needs some help — and better defense to climb back up the standings and get home court in the first round.
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 15 LW: 14
The Clippers are 1-5 vs. Western Conference playoff teams since January 17 and have been outscored by 80 in those games. Granted, most of that was a 46-point whipping by Golden State, but the fact remains that the Clippers have had a lot of straight-up embarrassing games the past two months.
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 14 LW: 12
Fans are antsy, the Clippers have been flat, and it was Jamal Crawford to the rescue to bail L.A. out against the Bulls this weekend. The ageless bench specialist dropped 24 of 25 in the second half against his old team and remains one of the more uniquely talented guys in the league.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised the Clippers didn’t get knocked more drastically for their embarrassing efforts against the Rockets and Bucks. It wasn’t that they lost, but that they essentially rolled over in consecutive games. Regardless, the rankers took note of the starters’ strong play and seem to have given the benefit of the doubt to the bench in the meantime.
As always, Marc Stein and John Schuhmann rustled up some telling stats regarding the Clippers prospects against the Warriors and the bench futility that paint a fairly accurate picture of where the team stands at this point in the season.
There hasn’t been much to be optimistic about as of late, but as the schedule eases up for the remainder of March, the Clippers will have plenty of opportunities to find their footing and gear up for the postseason. Looking ahead, the Clippers follow tonight’s game against Boston with games at Minnesota and Memphis before facing off with Philadelphia at Staples Center. Those are four winnable games (though it’s never easy to play the Grizz on the road), and if the bench suddenly begins to jell again, the Clippers should have plenty of success. I’m anticipating a bounce-back week for a struggling squad that needs a couple of impressive wins to prove that they belong in the contender conversation.