This almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s still remarkable to think about: after the Dwight Howard trade, did anyone honestly imagine the Clippers, not the Lakers, would be, hands down, Southern California’s best basketball team? I mean, heading into this season, Vinny Del Negro had no job security, Chauncey Billups was battling back from his torn Achilles, suffered in February 2012, and L.A. had to integrate 7 new free agent contributors. Headed into Thursday’s game against the Lakers, the Clippers are 38-17, leading the Pacific Division by 6 games, finally getting healthy and all but locked into the No. 3 seed.
L.A.’s +6.4 points differential is 3rd in the NBA, even ahead of Miami’s +6.3 mark. Balance is key: the Clippers possess the league’s 10th-ranked scoring offense, 100 points per game, and the 4th-best defense, 93.6 per game. Their roster boasts 2 All Star starters, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a fringe snub in likely Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.
At 40.3 points per game, Del Negro has the league’s 3rd-highest scoring bench, and on any given night has the potential to go 12 deep — 13 Clippers’ players have appeared in at least 6 games. Oh, and now they’re all finally getting healthy — only Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan have played in all 55 games this season. (Willie Green started 49 games this season, but now that Billups has returned from injury, he’s been relegated to not playing at all.)
Paul, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is likely to return, and, unlike his L.A. counterpart Howard, has ducked the distracting speculation of his impending status. In spite of Kyrie Irving’s ascendance, Paul still has to be considered the league’s best 1-guard; his play warrants MVP consideration, though LeBron James is a runaway favorite to win the award. Paul’s 26.53 PER is 3rd-best in the NBA, trailing only LeBron and Kevin Durant. Paul’s averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 assists in a career-low 33 minutes per game, and his fundamentals — career-high in free throw percentage and career-low in turnovers — are still (scarily, I might add) improving. (Paul recently missed a 9-game stretch due to a bruised right kneecap; the Clippers finished 3-6 in those games, with only 2 of the opponents likely playoff teams.)
Blake Griffin’s development from a highlight dunker to a franchise offensive talent is also worth noting. Griffin, 23 and in only his 3rd full season, has the NBA’s 10th-best PER, tops among all Western Conference bigs not named Tim Duncan. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career, 32.5, but still averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 boards on 54% shooting. His free throw percentage, 66%, is still less than desirable, but nearly a 14-point improvement over 2011-12. His mid-range jumper continues to improve, posing a challenge for opposing defenses: guard him closely to see him blow by you and dunk in your face, or let him settle for a face-up jumper, which he’s also likely to drop in your grill.
At the other frontcourt spot, Jordan continues to disappoint despite a solid start to the season. The 24-year-old center is still a strong interior presence defensively, with sheer athleticism and an ability to finish around the rim. Jordan’s shooting 60% from the field, though he’s not at all an offensive threat outside of 5 feet, and his sub-43% FT shooting means he’s a liability on the floor in close games. Free agent acquisitions Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf are capable reserves who can rebound and defend, but Lamar Odom, and his team-low 38.7 FG percentage, has seen his struggles from Dallas last year continue in a new uniform.
At the 3, Caron Butler is a bit of a wash at about 10 points per game, but reserve Matt Barnes has been surprisingly effective off the bench, averaging 10.4 points per himself, the highest mark of his 10-year NBA career. Between the two (and veteran Grant Hill), Del Negro has a core group of veterans who can hit outside shots and defend (look no further than Hill’s shutdown 4th quarter defense of Carmelo Anthony from Sunday), which is more important than more isolation scorers, especially on a team that already has Griffin, Paul and Crawford.
In the backcourt, the Clippers carry 4 more guys — Crawford, Green, Billups and Bledsoe — with scoring chops and playoff experience. (Amazingly, all 13 players to log minutes for L.A. this year have played postseason basketball.) Crawford is normally paired with Paul in the big moments, as his 17 points per game trails only Griffin. The ball often sticks in Crawford’s hands, but his 43% FG percentage is more than 2 points above his career average, and his one-on-one isolation skills are easily the best on this team.
Billups is one of the most important pieces to this puzzle. His veteran leadership (just watch guys flock to him during timeouts and huddles) and 3-point shooting will be important factors in the playoffs. Bledsoe, the team’s 2-guard of the future, is a fireball of energy off the bench; to put his athleticism into context, he’s 6’1″ and averages 0.9 blocks per game in 21.2 minutes. His 19.0 PER is 3rd best on the team, behind Paul and Griffin, and he’s averaging career-highs in every major statistical category besides assists. Shooting-wise, his FG percentage is up 6 points over last year, his FT percentage 16 and 3-point percentage 23.
Financially, the Clippers are about where should be expected, with $45.3 million on the books for 2013-14 before Chris Paul’s (projected) max deal this summer. L.A.’s stuck with Butler’s $8 million per through next season and probably regretting Jordan’s roughly $11 million per through 2014-15. Crawford’s signed for cheap next year ($5.25 million), as is Bledsoe ($2.6 million) and Hill ($2.1 million). The Clippers will more than likely sign a few ring-chasing veterans for minimum deals again this offseason. (Whether Billups retires is a story worth keeping an eye on.)
But back to this year. Del Negro’s team is likely to square off with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in Round 2. The Clippers are 2-0 against the Spurs, the same team that swept L.A. out of the playoffs last year, this season, but 0-2 against OKC. Whether the Clippers can get through both of these teams and then Miami is what ultimately lies in their championship path.
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