5 Reasons the Clippers, Not the Lakers, Are the Best Team in Los Angeles
Friday wasn't a good day for NBA basketball in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Clippers stumbled to their second straight road loss with a clumsy fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, while the Los Angeles Lakers dropped their third in a row away from the Staples Center opposite the mighty Memphis Grizzlies.
Similar struggles aside, the hoops hierarchy in L.A. remains as topsy-turvy as ever. The Lakers may have more stars on their side (i.e. Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash), but it's the Clippers who've looked more like title contenders in the early going.
Seeing the Clips storm out to an 8-4 start is strange enough on its own. They've never so much as sniffed the Larry O'Brien Trophy since their founding in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves. The closest the Clips have ever come to a date with destiny was in 2006, when they pushed the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
As such, seeing the Clips playing like an elite NBA outfit is somewhat shocking, even if it shouldn't be with the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford on the roster. But have they upstaged their star-studded Staples Center co-tenants?
Well, maybe the Mayans knew what they were talking about after all. With that in mind—the Clips' rise, not the predicted apocalypse—let's have a look at how the Battle for L.A. has thus far been turned on its head.
Defense Is the Difference
It's often said that defense wins championships. At present, only one of L.A.'s two teams is playing any of note.
According to Team Rankings, the Clippers are sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 97.1 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers, on the other hand, are giving up 100 points per 100 possessions—"good" for 14th in the league.
The disparity extends far beyond just points allowed, though. The Lakers, with their age and lack of depth on the perimeter, have struggled mightily to pressure their opponents at the point of attack. To date, the Purple and Gold are 23rd in turnovers forced per possession and per offensive play and check in at 27th in turnovers created per game.
That lack of havoc has left the Lakers to spend more time and energy defending while allowing the opposition to pick them apart in the pick-and-roll.
As for the Clippers, they've had no such trouble thriving in that department. The quick hands of Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes, along with the young legs of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, have transformed the Clips into a miscue-forcing machine. They're in the top two in nearly every opponent-turnover-related category so far.
Not surprisingly, then, the Clips are second in the NBA with 17.5 transition points per game.
Which is to say, while one team (the Lakers) gets worked before giving up scores, the other (the Clippers) smothers its foes to fuel the fast break.
The Stench of a Bench
It certainly helps the Clippers' cause (on both ends of the floor) to have as many quality bodies as they have on the payroll. Vinny Del Negro has already fashioned a strong eight-man rotation that can extend to 10 or 11, depending on how the likes of Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf are playing on any given night.
And this is without having garnered a single minute from a pair of savvy veterans in Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill. With so many players worthy of minutes, the Clips can afford to get after it on the defensive end and work their substitutions accordingly.
The Clips' reserves have been equally effective (if not more so) on offense. Prior to Friday's game, they have the second-most productive bench in basketball, one that contributed 42 points per game (per Hoops Stats).
The play of Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe has been key, but Jamal Crawford has been the biggest catalyst of the bunch. The former Sixth Man of the Year is leading is team in scoring at 19.2 points per game.
Antawn Jamison was expected to serve in a Crawford-like role for the Lakers. However, up until his 16-point outburst against the Memphis Grizzlies, Jamison had tallied 45 points...in 12 games.
Not that he's been the only dud among the Lakers' subs. Steve Blake had played subpar basketball, to say the least, before suffering an abdominal injury. Darius Morris has shown signs of improvement, but he's still prone to mistakes at the point. The same goes for Chris Duhon, though that shouldn't be the case at his age (30). Jodie Meeks has only just begun to find the range on his shot.
All told, the Lakers' bench has been the second-least potent in the league, per Hoops Stats. The 30-point "outburst" in the Music City marked the first time the Lakers' second unit had outscored that of an opponent this season.
Age: More Than Just a Number
In theory, the disparity in depth won't matter quite so much come playoff time. Benches will shorten, rotations will tighten and having superior talent at the top of the roster will matter more than the ability to make wholesale, NHL-style line changes.
Except, there's a ton of basketball to be played between now and mid-April, and the Lakers are ill-equipped to handle the wear and tear to come. They've already stunk it up on the road (0-4 away from the Staples Center) and have looked atrocious when they've had to play on consecutive nights.
That isn't entirely surprising. Dwight Howard is still a far cry from 100 percent healed from his back surgery. Pau Gasol, at 32, is either out of shape, over the hill or both. Steve Nash is 38, isn't accustomed to a heavy workload and hasn't been on the court since the second game of the season.
And as phenomenally efficient as Kobe's been, at 34, he's no spring chick himself and has had foot issues of his own to fight through.
Throw in the Lakers' lackluster bench and Mike D'Antoni's penchant for riding his stars like rented mules, and you can see how this might not end so well.
We've already covered the Clippers' depth, though they don't exactly need it. Their current starters are aged 23 (Griffin), 24 (Jordan), 27 (Paul), 31 (Willie Green) and 32 (Caron Butler). That average age will inch upward once Billups (36) returns from his torn Achilles.
Even so, the Clips will maintain a solid mix of seasoned veterans, gifted youngsters and stars coming into their primes. And should those younger legs ever tire, there will always be fresher ones to call off the pine.
Pegs and Holes
It helps, too, that the Clippers' pieces fit so well together. They sport a heady blend of shot creators (CP3, Bledsoe, Crawford), perimeter snipers (Caron Butler, Willie Green), versatile forwards (Griffin, Odom) and hustling contributors (Matt Barnes, Jordan, Hollins, Turiaf).
Better yet, all of the Clippers' players can get up and down the floor, boosting the team's proficiency on the break.
The Lakers have had no such luck getting their players on the same page so far. Jamison had been playing out of position all season until Friday, when D'Antoni brought him off the bench at power forward against the Grizzlies.
Pau and Dwight haven't meshed so well, to say the least. Howard's taken up most of the space in the middle, though not always to great effect. Meanwhile, Gasol's been forced to float toward the perimeter—a development with which he's been none too comfortable (per Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register):
I’m getting most all my looks as jump shots. I would like to see something close to the basket, and not just by rolling – especially when Dwight is there. But we’ll see. We’ll figure it out. We just started, pretty much.
On the whole, the Lakers have yet to play a game in which each aspect of the team has performed to par. Only Kobe has done so from night to night, and he can't be expected to keep burning up the nets as he has this season.
As Gasol mentioned after the loss in Memphis, he and Dwight—like most of the current Lakers squad—have only "just started" together.
On the one hand, this means that the Lakers, now 6-7, should only improve from here on out as they figure out how to play together. On the other hand, there will still be no shortage of growing pains as the Purple and Gold wait for Howard to heal, get a feel for D'Antoni on the sideline and welcome Steve Nash back into the fold.
Such turnover of both coaching staff and core is never conducive to the sort of cohesion required of a title contender, at least not right away. Even the Miami Heat needed the better part of two seasons to jell.
Perhaps the Lakers will conjure up such chemistry in time. For now, though, the Clippers have no such concerns. Four of the starting five (save for Billups) are right where they were when the 2011-12 season started.
Bledsoe is the only holdover from last year's reserves, but there seems to be more than enough talent among them to speed up the process of getting to know one another.
Strangest of all, though, is the chasm in stability between the two teams' coaching staffs.
Who would've thought, coming into the season, that Vinny Del Negro would've outlasted Mike Brown? There'd been no shortage of insurrection in the Clippers' locker room last season regarding VDN, along with the cries regarding his mismatched rotations and lack of leadership from the bench.
The same could've been said of Brown, though his dispatching after five games was far more becoming of, well, a Clippers coach. With D'Antoni taking over for Bernie Bickerstaff, the Lakers have now employed three different men to mind the coaching duties this season.
But such is the nature of basketball in L.A. these days. What's up is down, wins and losses have been interchanged, and hues of hegemony have been shifted, until further notice, from purple and gold to red, white and blue.