For most people, the NBA preseason might not even be an afterthought.
The games count now, and even then we knew that teams tend to operate differently than they do in the regular season.
Whether it's resting veterans, focusing on development, or just running vanilla sets to avoid showing too much of the playbook, it's a challenge to put preseason performance into proper context.
The Clippers have been an interesting case study for this so far.
Without question, their preseason standouts were 22-year-old guard Eric Bledsoe and 24-year-old center DeAndre Jordan. They challenged the notion that preseason can't tell us anything. Whether it was the loose exhibition atmosphere, the extended minutes or just the natural evolution of young and supremely talented players, things were clicking and it made a lot of sense.
Take a look at Bledsoe in the preseason opener against Denver. You'll notice that, for the most part, the Nuggets played their regular guys and he was flying past all of them.
Pressuring ball-handlers, getting out in passing lanes and turning mistakes into points, pushing the pace and slashing to the hoop, his energy really flashes.
As he's matured, his outstanding vision as a passer has led to more assists and fewer turnovers, and we've seen a developing mid-range shooting stroke and a runner in the lane that can be especially deadly with his ability to penetrate.
His position is an issue in L.A., with Chris Paul locked in for 35-plus minutes at the point, so his preseason was about lobbying for time off the ball. (More on this in a minute.)
DeAndre Jordan, on the other hand, has had his starting center spot locked up since at least last winter, when he signed a new four-year, $43 million contract. His preseason was all about showing off some new tricks in the post and a more focused commitment on the defensive end.
Take a look at the highlights of an 8-of-8 game from the floor against the Miami Heat in China. Note the right-handed jump hook that was not a part of his repertoire before the preseason.
Until about a month ago, it was dunks, primarily, and a sweeping hook to his strong (left) hand sprinkled in here and there for Jordan. Not only was he incapable of scoring outside of the restricted area, but he could hardly be trusted to hold the ball outside the paint.
But in the preseason, he showed growth.
Not just in some improved footwork or a new wrinkle, but in his approach to the game. You heard Ian Eagle say that he "owned the paint" against the world champion Heat, and he did so with consistent effort that suggested he's ready to handle a more prominent role in a thin front court.
Last season, he logged 27 minutes a night, but with Ryan Hollins (who rebounds like a guard) and Ronny Turiaf (whose primary contribution is energy) backing him up, the Clippers will need him for 30 or more.
Del Negro's faith in his uber-athletic but sometimes disengaged center has been fleeting to this point. He rarely left Jordan on the floor down the stretch in games last year, which is usually attributed to poor free-throw shooting—just under 44 percent for his career.
But it also spoke to a more general mistrust in Jordan. Del Negro, like many coaches, tends to lack patience with young players, so it's Jordan's job to string together strong performances to win him over.
As you'll see from a sampling of plays from the Clippers' win over the Blazers on Thursday night, both Jordan and Bledsoe have continued to play well. As have others.
Aside from the fact they both rank fourth in the league in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), the Clippers' offense through six games looks nothing like it did a year ago.
They used to grind out possessions at the hand of Chris Paul, trusting that his judgement would yield few turnovers and plenty of high-percentage looks. Through six games this year, they are leading the league in pace factor and rank third in transition scoring, per Synergy.
In the half court, we are still seeing Paul probing, and looking for his own shot if opponents blanket his pick-and-roll partner—still usually Griffin. But we are also seeing others emerge, and the result, to this point, has been a much more dynamic offense.
Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes have been successful as this year's Randy Foye and Mo Williams. Wings playing with Paul and Griffin tend to get clean shots at the basket, and so far, they've been knocking them down.
When they've gotten opportunities, Bledsoe and Jordan have been great, too.
But the biggest fundamental difference between the preseason and regular season is that since the outcome doesn't matter, coaches are less inclined to make substitutions based on individual matchups.
Del Negro, trying to balance a 10-man rotation, has seen both of them carry over the things that made them so impressive in the preseason but been slow to adjust when it comes to doling out playing time. Instead, Willie Green continues to start at the two and Bledsoe's role on any given night is a total crapshoot.
After leading the team with 30 minutes a game in the preseason, Bledsoe has played fewer than 20 minutes four times out of six. Yet he continues to blow past defenders, draw contact and finish in traffic—in addition to being their best perimeter defender.
Without a player like Chris Paul blocking him on the depth chart, Jordan is the starter and, for the most part, has been exceptional. He recorded his first two career 20-point games on Wednesday (against the Spurs and Tim Duncan) and Thursday, and it's looking like he can get around 30 minutes a night if he can stay out of foul trouble.
With such a small sample of games, it's difficult to project how playing time will be affected by a few performances going forward. Jordan has been active so far, and his success bodes well for what he can do on the low block.
Bledsoe's opportunities have come primarily as Paul's backup, which means not only does he miss out on minutes he could be playing off the ball, but he gets to play with an inferior caliber of teammate on the second unit. He and Jordan, especially, showed a strong rapport when playing together in the preseason, but haven't had many chances to show it.
What we have seen, though, is a strong carryover from the preseason in terms of style and general success. The team that used to walk the ball up is thriving in an uptempo system and nearly everyone is getting involved.
If healthy, it could be that the Clippers' biggest problem will actually be having too many good players. Which, when you think about it, was pretty clear by the end of the preseason.
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