Is the L.A. Clippers' Starting Lineup Good Enough to Win an NBA Title?
Head coach Vinny Del Negro has found success in utilizing his bench to its fullest extent, on top of getting the best out of his starters. Matt Barnes is playing well on both sides of the floor, Lamar Odom has provided tough interior D and Jamal Crawford is making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year.
But this has all happened during the regular season, when Del Negro and his staff can afford to tinker with the rotation and see how the reserves play when given significant minutes. Come playoff time, the man will need his starters to be the go-to guys, with the second unit contributing only as necessary.
At that point, the Clippers will face their ultimate test. Can their core five win battles with those of other elite NBA teams and finish with a championship?
Let's assume that by the start of the postseason, Los Angeles' starters will be as follows: Chris Paul will run the point, Chauncey Billups will return from his foot injury to start at shooting guard, Caron Butler will man the 3, Blake Griffin will be at his usual power forward and DeAndre Jordan will play center.
At the point, you can't really get much better than Paul. Out of all of the current Western Conference playoff teams, he is the best facilitator of them all. Rather than look to do it all like Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, Paul's primary focuses are his passing and his defense. He'll do his fair share of scoring, but won't make it an absolute priority.
However, what if the Clippers are matched up against Parker or Westbrook at some point in the playoffs? Parker has three championship rings, and Westbrook is on a team looking to get back to the NBA Finals after a crushing defeat there last season. Paul will need to match or outdo both players in every single category, and his going cold in just one area leaves the Clippers without a key weapon.
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At shooting guard, it's going to be interesting to see how the situation plays out. Billups is a 39 percent career three-point shooter, but has not been effective as a 2-guard in Del Negro's offense. He has only appeared in a total of 23 games due to injury, since joining Los Angeles Last season, and has shot just 35 percent from the field as a Clipper.
More importantly, what about Jamal Crawford? He has logged over 30 minutes of playing time in 16 of his 29 games thus far, and his 16.6 points off the bench are hard to ignore. If Billups' health and/or consistency remains an issue, then limiting his minutes in favor of giving Crawford more playing time is something that will just have to be done.
The situation at small forward is similar, but not as complicated. The Clippers have a pure shooter in Caron Butler, but also an experienced veteran leader in Grant Hill. Hill has a skill set similar to Butler's, but is 40 years old and has yet to play this season due to a bruised knee.
Even if Hill comes back fully healthy, Butler's shooting 39 percent from long range this season is enough to keep him as a starter. Regarding the rest of the lineup, starting anyone over Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is just a ludicrous idea.
Throw in necessary bench production from Barnes, Odom and even Eric Bledsoe and Willie Green, and it certainly does appear that the Clippers do have what it takes to win a championship.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
I hate to say it, Lob City fans, but it's just not going to happen. As great as the Clippers have looked during their streak, it's not as though they have been mowing down top competition in doing so.
In fact, the number of playoff teams Los Angeles has defeated the past 15 games is pretty low. Of those defeated by the Clippers during the streak, the only ones that would make the playoffs if the season ended today are as follows: the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.
Throw in the fact that each of those teams is either shorthanded or not among the elite this season, and that further takes away prestige from the victories.
The Clippers' manhandling mostly lottery teams during their winning streak is just the tip of the iceberg.
The team's offense gets very predictable, and Blake Griffin's weaknesses in the low post are bound to be exposed at some point. Even if he improves in that area over the course of the season, his lack of experience will come back to haunt him should he be matched up against someone like Tim Duncan, who thrives in the paint.
Can the Clippers win a title with their starters?
That isn't to say that the Clippers' current group not winning a title is set in stone. Paul and his teammates have been full of surprises this season, and have indeed played a lot better than they did last season. Everyone is focused, the team itself is deeper and everyone is buying into the fast-paced style of Lob City.
Unfortunately, their starting lineup pales in comparison to those who will be battling them for a spot in the NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs are the definition of depth, but Gregg Popovich has ridden quality production from his starters and minimal work from the reserves to four championships. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have carried the lineup for years, and young Kawhi Leonard plus Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter have been helping in crunch time lately.
Similarly, the Oklahoma City Thunder's crew has been playing together for years. Despite their youth, they know how to get the best out of their starters and only relying on a small number of bench players to get them deep into the playoffs.
No matter how you look at it, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kevin Martin (though the last two are bench players, as are Ginobili and Splitter for San Antonio) is a five-headed monster every team dreads dueling.
Even the Los Angeles Lakers could give their city rivals a run for their money this season. Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun system is heavily reliant on the starters, and he has the ultimate playoff weapon in five-time champion Kobe Bryant, plus Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. So long as Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are bringing in consistent offense from the wing and keeping up their respective defensive efforts, then Los Angeles becomes a team to beat.
Nothing against the Clippers, but their dependence on their bench can and will come back to bite them come playoff time. The fact that Crawford and Barnes are second and fourth on the team in scoring says it all. These two don't start for a reason, and that will shine bright in the postseason, when Del Negro looks to them to pick up the slack once Billups and Butler start stalling.
That all being said, the best group of five the Clippers can put out on the floor at any time is as follows: Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes. Given how both Crawford and Barnes' offensive games heavily rely on consistency, the two of them simultaneously going cold will sink the Clippers in a close game. Butler and Billups cannot step in and pick up the slack accordingly, so Los Angeles is pretty much done if that circumstance goes down.
Elite starting lineups will take full advantage of this, and while the Clippers may definitely go deep into this year's playoffs, to say that they will win a championship with their approach is quite far-fetched.
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