Have the LA Clippers Figured Out NBA's 'Secret?'

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2013

The Los Angeles Clippers are the most exciting team to watch in the NBA. They have the potential MVP in Chris Paul. They have a slam-dunk machine in Blake Griffin. They also didn't lose a single game in the month of December as part of a 17-game winning streak.

So how did they do it? After all, you can't win games by alley-oops alone.

Paul's scoring average is down from last season. So is Griffin's. Yet the Clippers are battling the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference.

As for the preseason favorites in the West—the Clippers' crosstown rival, the new-look L.A. Lakers—they're below .500 and in 11th place.

Yes, the NBA is quite a puzzling league. How can we account for the Clippers' dominance? After all, it's not as if they have a genius like Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson coaching them.

Vinny Del Negro was widely maligned last season for his perceived shortcomings. At one point after the All-Star break, the Clippers lost 11 of 16 games, prompting Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times to pen an article titled, "Should the Clippers fire Vinny Del Negro?"

She was far from the only one asking that question too.

Now, Del Negro has been named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for December. Compiling a 16-0 record in one month will do that.

So do the Clippers know something that other teams don't?

That just may be the case.

In 2009, acclaimed sportswriter Bill Simmons published The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.

In that book, Simmons recounts a meeting he had with Isiah Thomas, who had been a frequent target in Simmons' columns for his disastrous mismanagement as president and coach of the New York Knicks.

Instead of coming to blows, Thomas revealed to Simmons the "secret" of basketball. What is it?

That basketball is not about basketball.

It's not about having the best players. Rather, it's about having the best team. It's about a roster coming together selflessly and buying into a scheme. It's about having each player doing something well and all players doing so in unison.

Thomas would certainly categorize his "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons as a team that was aware of this "secret." They won back-to-back championships in 1989 (sweeping Magic Johnson's Lakers in the finals) and 1990 (besting the Portland Trail Blazers in five games).

In '89, the Pistons swept Larry Bird's Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. In '90, they swept Reggie Miller's Indiana Pacers and took down Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks in five games. And in both years, they beat Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals.

Perhaps Jordan and the Bulls weren't aware of the secret yet, but they did win six titles in the next eight years. Miller and Ewing, on the other hand, never got a ring.

So what's so secret about the secret?

Sure, Thomas had elite talent around him, including Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. But he also had role players and other contributors with him like Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, Mark Aguirre and John Salley.

And they all bought into Chuck Daly's coaching scheme.

OK, so it's not so secret. You need a really good team. But achieving that balance between superstars and role players is difficult.

Getting the megabucks players to sublimate their egos for team success can be extremely challenging, especially in today's NBA of media supersaturation.

But basketball is arguably the ultimate team sport. It's more fluid and democratic than football, and a team that wants to win requires as many as 10 players to execute their roles in unison.

When the Miami Heat formed the Big Three with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was a foregone conclusion that they'd win the championship in 2011. But in the NBA Finals, they ran up against the Dallas Mavericks, who seemed much more aware of the secret that teams win, not individual players.

Dallas took away LeBron just like Detroit took away Jordan, and the Mavs dared the other players to beat them. The other players could not.

So what about this season's Clippers?

They have CP3 and the high-flying Griffin. But they also have players like Jamal Crawford (16.5 points per game) and Eric Bledsoe coming off the bench. Either one could start for almost any team in the NBA, but they provide the Clips with tremendous depth and versatility.

Matt Barnes came over from the Lakers and is stuffing the stat sheet nightly (10.9 PPG, 50.4 FG percentage, 5.0 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK). According to the "simple rating" used by 82games.com, Barnes has been the 14th-most productive player in the league, ranked even higher than Griffin, who is 52nd (Paul is ninth, Crawford is 19th).

For what it's worth, ESPN.com's John Hollinger uses a somewhat similar "player efficiency rating" that puts Griffin in the top 20 and Bledsoe in the top 40, but has Barnes 69th. At any rate, they're all playing pretty well.

Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan have been solid in the frontcourt along with Griffin, and Ronny Turiaf has done a nice job off the bench. Chauncey Billups provides veteran leadership; even Lamar Odom has remembered how to play basketball.

And if you want the definition of selflessness, look no further than Willie Green. He is the starting shooting guard but averages just 17.9 minutes per game. This allows Crawford to provide a scoring spark while some starters observe from the bench.

All this combines to make the Clippers much, much better than their opponent on a nightly basis. They are electric on offense and stingy on defense.

They're shooting 48.0 percent from the field and allowing a shooting percentage of just 42.6. Per 100 possessions, they average 111 points on offense and give up only 99 points on defense (per 82games.com).

After finishing fifth in the West last season with a point differential of 2.6 per game, they're now in second place and outscoring their opponents by 8.4 points a game.

This offseason, something clicked. Or maybe Thomas told them his secret. Or perhaps they simply read Simmons' book. 

Whatever happened in the offseason, this year's Clippers exhibit renewed effort and an altruistic tendency. This attitude among the players makes them a juggernaut of a team.

They're second only to the Spurs in team assists per game. They have the second-highest point differential in the league, behind the Thunder.

While the Thunder are still coming together as a team, they have a tremendous collection of young, athletic talent. The Spurs, on the other hand, embody the team concept. They seem to have known the "secret" for a couple of decades now.

But it's tremendously exciting to watch the Clippers this season, as they're a team realizing the secret and unlocking its limitless potential.

Now, if Griffin and Jordan ever learn to shoot free throws, the Clippers might never lose again. 

Note: All statistics accurate as of January 4, 2013.


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