Stuck in a tight race for the top seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers will need a total team effort if they hope to thwart off the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 1 spot.
A midseason mark of 32-9 was the best record at the halfway point in the franchise’s history. For a team that has never had a 50-win season, a 64-win pace has put the Clips among the league’s top contenders this year.
Given the development of Blake Griffin, the surprising efficiency of Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, and the leadership of Chris Paul, the Clippers have held the top spot in the Pacific Division for the entire season.
Yet if the Clippers have any hopes of keeping up with Kevin Durant’s Thunder or the machine-like Spurs, then they will need some timely and consistent contributions from players not named Griffin and Paul.
Here are the Clippers players who must step up in the second half of the season.
After a slow start to the season, Lamar Odom has begun to come on of late.
While Odom is still a shell of the player he was when he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Los Angeles Lakers, his versatility and high basketball IQ has made him a leader on A Tribe Called Bench and a staple of coach Vinny Del Negro’s crunch time lineup.
Odom has made a noticeable jump since his horrid November in which he averaged just 1.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 0.7 APG. LO’s numbers do not jump off the map in January, but this month he has more than doubled his numbers in points, rebounds and assists per game, putting up a quietly efficient 4.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 2.4 APG.
The stretch four’s improvement is not one that should be undermined, especially given his miserable campaign in Dallas last year.
The Clippers need Odom to start contributing at a higher level if they want to act on their championship aspirations.
He is the team’s best big at defending the pick-and-roll, and his passing skills make him a threat as a distributor. Getting his legs under him for more contributions on offense will be key moving forward.
At this stage in his career, Caron Butler has largely turned into a glorified jumpshooter for the Clips.
A whopping 35.5 percent of Butler’s attempts come on mid-range shots outside of the painted area, per NBA.com. While Butler is shooting a decent 43 percent from that range, the Clippers could really benefit from him taking more efficient shots.
Tough Juice has knocked down 53 percent of his corner threes, one of the most efficient jump shots in the game. Unfortunately, Butler takes less than 12 percent of his shots from those spots.
The UConn product is averaging just 9.7 PPG, the second worst mark of his career, as his PER of 11.75 continues to hang below the league average.
Nevertheless, despite Butler’s struggles on the floor, he is still held in high esteem within Lob City as a leader and a consummate professional. Butler adds another level of physicality to a team that has had to fight a flopping reputation in the past.
This was perhaps best demonstrated by Butler’s decision to return to action after sustaining a broken hand while defending Rudy Gay in Game 1 of the team’s first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies last postseason.
The Clippers need Butler’s intangibles for the postseason, but some better shot selection will only improve this team’s already stellar offensive efficiency.
Even in a suit, Chauncey Billups has been a leader for the Clippers. Despite his impact on the sideline however, the Clips would much prefer to have Mr. Big Shot on the floor.
Billups adds another element of poise and control to a team quickly learning from the earnest and detail-oriented Chris Paul. With Billups in uniform last season, the Clips jumped out to a quick start and looked like viable contenders for the Western Conference crown.
Perhaps the best player-coach alive, Billups has still made his impact felt on the team, always chatting up Paul and mentoring the young Eric Bledsoe.
Given the disappointing season of starting placeholder Willie Green, the Clips could use Billups back sooner rather than later.
Despite putting up career low numbers and playing subpar defense, Willie Green continues to get the nod from Vinny Del Negro as starting shooting guard.
Green is averaging just 6.5 PPG on 45.1 percent shooting from the field. Regarded as something of a three-point specialist, Green is shooting a decent, but unspectacular, 39.6 percent from behind the arc.
Incredibly, Green was getting more minutes than young guard Eric Bledsoe for most of the season.
Although Bledsoe has passed Green up in minutes (19.3 MPG for Bledsoe compared to 18.2 MPG for Green), the small discrepancy is enough for Clipper Nation to collectively groan and second-guess Coach Del Negro’s rotation decisions.
Green really is more of a placeholder for Chauncey Billups than he is anything else. This was best illustrated by the three games in which Billups returned from injury.
When Billups reclaimed his position in the starting lineup, Green earned three straight DNP-Coach’s Decisions.
With no return date imminent for Billups, Lob City needs Green to rediscover himself and contribute more effectively with the starting five.
Perhaps early season expectations were too high for DeAndre Jordan.
After re-evaluating his game in the offseason, Jordan went back to the drawing board to add a refined postgame and rework his shooting mechanics.
The results were especially encouraging early in the season as he looked like a candidate for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award.
There was a noticeable difference in demeanor from the unassertive DJ of last year, and the rejuvenated one in the team’s first couple months.
Jordan was playing with an unprecedented amount of swagger, demonstrating a soft jump hook, sound footwork and a devastating up-and-under move around the basket.
For the first time in his career, Jordan was calling for the ball on something other than a lob. DJ rode his early season success to an average of 10.2 PPG in November, highlighted by back-to-back 20-point games in wins over the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Although Jordan’s numbers have not dipped too steeply, he is nowhere near as dominant as he was at the start of the season.
In a divisional loss against the Golden State Warriors, Jordan had just one point and three rebounds, while attempting no field goals. This was followed up by another dud, in a home loss against the Thunder in which Jordan managed just seven point and six rebounds.
Over the season, DJ has lost minutes to a revitalized Lamar Odom, and often finds himself on the bench in the fourth quarter.
While a lineup of Paul-Barnes-Crawford-Griffin-Odom might be more effective than one featuring Jordan in crunch time, Lob City needs Jordan to regain his early season swagger. DJ's athleticism and paint presence is too big of an asset to go wasted.