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It's Finally Time to Accept the L.A. Clippers as Title Contenders

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It's Finally Time to Accept the L.A. Clippers as Title Contenders
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For the first time in the history of the maligned franchise, the Los Angeles Clippers are legitimate title contenders. 

A team that has won just two playoff series in its troubled past looks poised to make a deep playoff run come April. Led by the veteran leadership of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, the talent of Blake Griffin and the dominant A Tribe Called Bench, the Clips have taken the league by storm at the halfway point of the season. 

Despite a recent four-game losing streak, the Clippers still find themselves among the league’s elite, battling for the top seed in the Western Conference with the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

For a team that looked to have a ceiling of about 46-53 before the season started, even with the acquisitions of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill, the Clippers are exceeding expectations and have jumped into statistical relevancy. 

LAC has posted a 107.0 offensive rating this season, good for fourth-best in the league, per NBA.com. 

Although the offensive efficiency is impressive, the real improvement has been the Clippers' defensive efficiency. A year ago they sported a middle-of-the-pack defensive rating and were quickly eviscerated by the Spurs in a four-game sweep.

This season, they are forcing turnovers to the tune of a 98.8 defensive rating, good for fifth-best in the league, per NBA.com.

As a reference, the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies lead the Western Conference in defensive rating at 96.8, just two points better than the Clips.

The deep bench has also caused headaches for the opposition.

Harry How/Getty Images
Despite a reputation as a streaky shooter capable of taking his team out of the game, Jamal Crawford has improved his effectiveness and is a front-runner for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

A career 40.9 percent shooter, Crawford is shooting 42.2 percent on the season. While the Michigan product can still take his team out of the game with inefficient isolation plays, there is a notable improvement in his shot selection, especially with CP3 giving him easy buckets. 

When Paul went down with a knee injury in mid-January, Crawford answered the call and led the Clippers in scoring in three road wins over the Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets.  

Matt Barnes is averaging a career-high 11.1 PPG on 48 percent shooting. Even more impressive, Barnes is shooting 35.2 percent from the three-point line, the best since his “We Believe” days on the Golden State Warriors in 2006-07. 

Factor in the ball-hawking defense of Eric Bledsoe and the court vision of point forward Lamar Odom, and it is easy to see why the Clippers’ A Tribe Called Bench is giving opponents issues.

The Clips have ridden this success to the tune of a whopping average of 41.5 PPG from the bench, tops in the league per Hoopstats.com. 

The team’s new-found energy has put them in a league of their own in steals, notching an average of 10.1 per game, a full steal higher than the second-place Grizz. 

With Paul and Bledsoe bookending the top 20 leaders in steals per game, the dynamic backcourt contributes an incredible 4.1 steals per night.

The Clippers have turned those turnovers into easy points, giving Lob City a plus-7.7 in point differential, third-best in the league behind the ultra-efficient Thunder and Spurs, per ESPN.com. 

Game to game, the Clippers are also proving that they can hang with elite company. 

Against the league’s top five teams, excluding the Clips, LAC has a gaudy 5-2 record, including road wins in San Antonio and Memphis and a rout of the defending champion Miami Heat at home.

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The Clippers have had their fair share of bad games, however. 

Egregious home losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic have thrown Lob City a bit off the pace for best record in the West.

Still, the early successes of the Clips and their undefeated December have put the team in unprecedented territory.

The team is still acclimating Grant Hill into the lineup and waiting for the return of Billups at starting shooting guard. Once the rotation is refined, the Clippers might have the best 10-man unit in the game. 

Former ESPN.com writer John Hollinger’s playoff odds give the Clippers a 97.5 percent chance of winning the Pacific Division and a modest 21.8 percent chance of reaching the Finals.

Pretty good for a franchise with two playoff series wins and zero division titles to its name.

Entering this season, pundits and fans across the country thought there would be confetti falling in Staples Center this June. Surprisingly, it has been LA’s other team that looks like it might raise a banner this summer.

 

Statistics used in this article were accurate as of January 27, 2013.

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