If ever there was a team award for "most improved," the Clippers would own that hands down. This year, that award should be given to the Clippers General Manager.
In this case, that role is handled mainly by the Vice President of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey. He has done a masterful job at putting the pieces together to formulate a puzzle that so far this season is the biggest draw in road attendance in the entire league, just above the Lakers and the Heat.
He has done what Los Angeles seemingly always does, get the right players to contend for a title. The irony is, the Lakers are the Los Angeles team that always gets just the right player to fill the current void.
Maybe by sharing the same arena and checking some surveillance video, we might catch a glimpse of the Clipper management listening in on the way the Lakers usually handled their player acquisitions with their heads pinned to the wall.
In any case, the Clippers have gained a grade of B+ so far. They are currently third in the Western conference and first in the Pacific division. They have also beaten their cross-hallway rivals, the Lakers, three out of four times this season (two of which were preseason games).
They now have two players starting in this year's All Star game (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin). They have tremendous depth, blue-collar workers off the bench, a great shot blocker and the best point guard in the game right now.
Not only do they have a great point guard, but they have not just one superstar, which the Clippers have never had, but two justified superstars. Chris Paul is a superstar on and off the court.
He has carried a franchise (New Orleans) and went to battle for the Players Association, so leading the Clippers is a small task for him.
Why not give them an A? There are two major areas that need to be addressed and one minor area that could use tweaking.
One: The coaching staff needs to improve.
The players and management have done their part by putting themselves in position to be a strong playoff team and possibly hosting a series or two. Now, the coaching staff needs to step their game up.
The Clipper offense is very predictable and stagnant at times. If not for Paul constantly instructing players where to go or bailing the team out at the end of the shot clock with one spectacular shot after another, the team may have a record similar to last year's.
Even though the Clippers have guys that are either adequate or very good at shooting three-pointers (Paul, Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, and Eric Bledsoe), they are too athletic to settle on that type of shot.
There are times when the obvious advantage is in the post and they only go to Blake Griffin a few times before settling for more threes.
There have also been too many occasions when the team is ice cold from beyond the three point line and the opposing team is in the midst of a run.
Head Coach Vinnie Del Negro will call a time out, seemingly to set up an easy attempt or a trip to the free-throw line. What has happened is a play is set up...to shoot a three pointer.
Del Negro and his staff will have to do a better job of designing ways to get easier baskets without settling for threes as a way of bailing themselves out of a bad three-point shooting night.
Two: The Clippers need to improve defensively at the shooting guard position.
The absence of Chauncey Billups is not only felt in lack of floor leadership, especially when Paul is out of the game and with his impeccable timing of his clutch three-point shooting, but on defending opposing shooting guards.
Most may be puzzled by this assertion, since Billups is actually a big, strong point guard playing the shooting guard position and was never known for his defensive prowess, but here's how his absence leaves a defensive hole.
Billups was capable of putting up big numbers, if the situation called for it, at any time. Just this year in a game at Denver, he put up 32 points while scoring 19 of those in the second half.
His point production cancels out the production of most shooting guards, so many nights that match up is a wash. Billups will score between 15 and 25 on a given night while opposing shooting guards will do the same.
On nights he faces an elite shooting guard, like Kobe Bryant for example, he most likely will be outscored. Especially if that shooting guard is the opposing team's best player, which is a situation less seen in today's NBA as opposed to the NBA during the 90s.
But again, Billups' production will mitigate some of the damage done by a "Kobe" type, while usually that player's back court mate will be largely inferior to Chris Paul.
In that instance, Paul will shoulder much of the scoring burden and Billups will be more of a facilitator, thereby largely outplaying the opposing team's backcourt.
For example, when the Clippers defeated the Lakers earlier this season, it was Paul who led the team in scoring and carried them down the stretch with 33 points while Billups added 18. On that night, Bryant had a huge game scoring 42 points while his backcourt companion, Derek Fisher, only scored 7.
Billups' efficiency on offense actually served as his defense against the opposing shooting guards production.
Randy Foye, the current starting shooting guard, isn't quite as savvy as Billups on offense and while he is more athletic and can cause some shooting guards many problems on the defensive end, his size allows for the bigger shooting guards to shoot over him.
The minor adjustment needed is to get scoring from another front court player besides Blake Griffin on a consistent basis. I think that will happen the more Kenyon Martin plays with this team and gets used to Mo Williams, Chris Paul and Randy Foye.
If these issues can be adjusted in the second half of the season, there is no reason the Clippers won't be in the Western Conference finals playing for a spot in the NBA finals.
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