Why It's Too Early to Anoint Los Angeles Clippers as NBA Title Favorites
To be sure, there's a lot to like about this squad. The Clips' 112-100 win over the Denver Nuggets on Christmas Day was their franchise-record-extending 14th in a row. It also marked the first time L.A. had allowed an opponent to hit triple digits since Dec. 3.
Since their last loss (an embarrassing 105-98 result at home against the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Hornets), the Clippers have pounded their opponents by an average of 15.4 points per night. That demolition has helped the Clippers up their point differential to plus-8.8 and overall record to 22-6, which is just ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Clippers boast the best point guard (Chris Paul), the most productive bench led by the top sixth man (Jamal Crawford), an All-Star at power forward (Blake Griffin) and an improving, defensive-minded center (DeAndre Jordan). They rank in the Top Four in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They lead the NBA in turnovers forced—thanks in no small part to Paul's league-best 2.7 steals per game—and points off turnovers, both of which serve to fuel one of the most lethal fast breaks in all of basketball.
And if the Clippers should ever have to concern themselves with a half-court game, they can always count on CP3 to orchestrate the offense while the team's slew of leapers screen and cut their way to the hoop.
Ignoring head coach Vinny Del Negro and owner/Scrooge-incarnate Donald Sterling, the Clips are the most complete, most entertaining and most likable team in the Association right now.
But even all of that doesn't make L.A.'s "other" team the title favorite, not as long as the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat have something to say about it. As impressive as the Clips have been of late, they'd fit in better along the outskirts of the championship conversation, at least for the time being.
For one, surviving the path to the Larry O'Brien Trophy requires experience beyond what the Clippers currently have. Of their active roster, only Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins have played beyond the second round of the postseason. None of the three, however, would be considered integral to L.A.'s success at this juncture.
To its credit, the core of this club has tasted some semblance of playoff success together. The Clips won two road games—a 27-point comeback in Game 1 and an impressive, grind-it-out result in Game 7—on the way to ousting the Memphis Grizzlies this past May.
Unfortunately, the Clips had no such luck capturing even one contest against the streaking San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals. L.A. looked dazed and confused opposite a seasoned squad from the Alamo City, piling up miscues while the Spurs executed them into oblivion.
Granted, this year's edition of Lob City is far more veteran than the one that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and company took to the cleaners this past spring. Better yet, the Clips have already upended the Spurs twice this season—by 22 points at home and by five points on the road.
If such success continues, the Clips can all but bank on having home-court advantage in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
Still, concerns over the team's current construction linger. The play and praise of L.A.'s second unit belies the notion that too much of a good thing might not be a good thing after all. The Clippers rely rather heavily on their reserves to hold leads, if not build them, over the course of a game.
Not that such is at all a poor strategy—during the regular season, anyway. The Clips' second unit (Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom) has outscored the opposition by 20.2 points per 100 possessions amidst a 184-minute sample (per NBA.com's stats database).
It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that these guys have been so productive. After all, three of them (Crawford, Barnes and Odom) have started regularly at times during their respective careers, while a fourth (Bledsoe) has shown that he deserves to do so. Put this crew up against another team's scrubs and, surely, they should make hay as a matter of routine.
Even more so if/when Grant Hill heals up and Willie Green returns to the end of the bench.
That's all well and good during an 82-game schedule, when managing minutes and protecting key players from injury are of the utmost importance. Having such a productive bench allows Vinny Del Negro to rest his stars and still come away with easy wins on a nightly basis.
However, L.A.'s advantages in this regard may not hold up in the postseason, when the game slows down and the role of reserves shrinks. At that point, this "Tribe Called Bench" won't have the luxury of going against five-man units consisting of substitutes from middling opponents. Instead, they'll have to contend with no fewer than three or four of the other team's starters at a time, as coaches shorten their rotations to include seven or eight players, at most.
When that time comes, it will be much more difficult for Crawford, Bledsoe, Barnes and the like to beat up on their foes and extend leads into double digits.
Which doesn't exactly bode well for the starters, either. According to NBA.com, the five-man unit of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Willie Green and Caron Butler has scored only slightly better (108 points per 100 possessions) than the team average (107.5), but has been significantly less stingy defensively. In fact, that group's defensive rating (104.6 points per 100 possessions) is 7.6 points worse than the team average (97) and would rank 24th in the NBA overall.
That still gives the starters a net advantage of 3.4 points per 100 possessions, albeit one that hardly screams title. Come playoff time, the Clips will be playing a dangerous game if they're to count on their reserves to do most of the damage while the starting five continues to hemorrhage points, particularly against top-tier scoring squads like the Thunder and the Spurs.
Then again, L.A.'s current top five isn't the one that will ideally take the floor come playoff time. Willie Green is but a placeholder for Chauncey Billups, who's been battling peroneal tendinitis in his left foot since a brief return from an Achilles injury that ended his 2011-12 season prematurely.
The Clippers' sample with Mr. Big Shot in the mix is small, but impressive nonetheless. In 49 total minutes, the five-man unit of Billups-Paul-Butler-Griffin-Jordan outplayed the opposition by an average of 16 points per 100 possessions; that group scores an impressive 118.2 points per 100 possessions, but allows 102.2 points per 100 possessions—a number that, while improved over the current starting five, is disconcerting for a team with alleged title hopes.
But the bigger problem here, aside from the defensive deficiencies, is the reliance on Billups. His feet have been troublesome enough so far this season and, at 36, he can hardly be counted on to play from day to day, much less contribute to the cause at a championship caliber.
Clearly, the Clips don't need a healthy Chauncey to win right now, having racked up the league's best record without him. But, once the spring of 2013 rolls around, L.A. will need him on the floor with its preferred five-pack. He's the only potential starter of theirs who's been there and done that as far as rings are concerned.
Which team should be considered the title favorite right now?
His sage leadership will be crucial when the rubber meets the proverbial road once the regular season has run its course. He'll be needed to provide some outside shooting and general direction in the half court when the pace of play slows, the defenses clamp down and dunking in transition becomes less a consistent right and more an occasional privilege.
However, that may be too much to ask of Chauncey given his recent run-ins with his own corporeal reality.
This isn't to assume that Billups won't be ready to go by April or that the Clippers won't tighten up some of their loose screws. There's still plenty of room for improvement in L.A., and even more time during which to grow.
Who knows? Maybe general manager Gary Sacks will make a move for some size before the trade deadline arrives on Feb. 21. Maybe he'll pounce on a more viable starting shooting guard if Billups' foot doesn't mend, or if his play remains subpar when it does. Maybe he'll leave the roster alone entirely, and it'll congeal into a championship darling on its own.
But, as of the day after Christmas, the Clippers can't yet be considered in quite so flattering a context. As well as they've played and as high as their ceiling may be, they've yet to prove that they can get the job done in the playoffs or that their starters can make headway against their opposing counterparts.
In due time, they may well find themselves on par with the two teams—the Heat and the Thunder—that most recently went head-to-head for all the marbles. They'll have 54 regular-season games in which to demonstrate as much.
For now, though, the surging Clippers are built for the regular season and, as such, still fit in better alongside the Grizzlies and the New York Knicks than next to those squads helmed by LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
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