The Clippers are good. The Lakers are average, until proven otherwise. This was an unthinkable dynamic one year ago. That's right, the Chris Paul trade went down on Dec. 15, 2011. A lot has changed in less than a year.
A year ago, the Clippers were fresh off slotting the third-worst record in the Western Conference. Their 2011 No. 1 pick had gone to the Cleveland Cavaliers via trade, followed by disastrous (from the Clipper perspective) lottery-ping-pong results. Though Blake Griffin had wowed all observers in 2010-2011, there were rumblings about his future health with the Clips. Blake had, of course, already missed a season due to knee injury. The Clippers had, of course, a nasty history when it comes to injured players.
The other Los Angeles needed a miracle, and it got one in the form of David Stern's veto, followed by his acceptance of what looks like a bad deal in retrospect. Eric Gordon may never play again for the Pelicans. While the putridity they reaped in losing Paul ended up landing them the No. 1 pick, the Hornets could have gotten a better deal and still played terribly in 2011-2012.
I pity the Pelicans because the Clippers have been beyond big winners in their trade for Paul. Not only has he played better than he did in that last Hornets season, but he's totally altered the sense of what's possible in Clipperland.
We all know that Chris Paul exhibits a certain unique mastery over an NBA offense. The numbers certainly speak to it. His PER is best among point guards for the sixth year running. His win shares average (a statistic that's like PER, except it rewards shooting a bit less) these past two seasons is far better than any since his 2008-2009 year with New Orleans.
Those numbers are nice, but they don't do justice to what Paul has accomplished. It's easy to think "Lob City" and assume that running L.A.'s offense is easy. Not so, not when they have a dearth of frontcourt shooters.
In the past, Paul's offense was buoyed by David West and West's ability to shoot off the pick-and-roll. The threat of West's jumper allowed Paul the space he needed for drives and for finding other teammates.
This is not so in Los Angeles, with the DeAndre Jordan-Blake Griffin frontcourt providing no such threat. Space is harder to come by in "Lob City," so Paul did what people tend to in cramped urban areas; he built upwards.
Paul is leveraging the threat of lobs to Griffin and Jordan so as to find space for teammates elsewhere. Despite carrying no frontcourt shooters, the Clips are fourth in offensive efficiency this season, just as they were last season (via ESPN.com).
Not only that, but Paul's brand of unselfishness may be rubbing off on the rest of his team. The Clippers are fifth in team assist rate. In the season prior to Paul's arrival, they were 18th.
Under Paul's wing, Eric Bledsoe has blossomed into a far better player than anyone had the right to envision. He's notching a 24.45 PER, second to only Paul among point guards. The two have certainly developed a chemistry together, one that was even honed in the offseason.
Today, the Clippers are on a hot streak, having won their last eight games. It will be a massive surprise if the Clips miss the playoffs, a statement that's as shocking as, "It will be less surprising if the Lakers miss the playoffs."
It could all go awry, of course. Griffin could get hurt. Paul could suffer the same fate. Vinny Del Negro always looms as a figure who may thwart positive events. But regardless of what happens from here, Chris Paul has forever changed Clippers culture because he's made the positive seem attainable.
Good things can happen in Clipperland, even with a terrible owner and questionable coach. A player can trump a bad situation, thus making the situation a little bit better for the knowledge that such a thing is possible.
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