Holding onto the No. 3 seed, in the deep Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers will be looking to finish the season strong en route to a deep postseason run.
Lob City has been one of the league’s better surprises this season, stealing Showtime headlines in Los Angeles, and turning L.A.’s other team into a marquee destination.
Not everything is perfect in Clipper Country, however.
Despite a recent four-game winning streak, the Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies are right on the Clips’ heels for the No. 3 seed. While the Clippers have somewhat exorcised their San Antonio demons, and knocked off the Spurs in both contests this season, LAC just recently got whipped by the Miami Heat and are yet to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder this season.
With just 26 games left in the season, the next two months will be especially telling, as questions hover over Lob City.
Here are six post All-Star break predictions for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Statistics used in this article were accurate as of Feb. 18th, 2013.
Head coach Vinny Del Negro likes to employ hockey lineups, substituting all five starters for five bench players. As such, it is no surprise that the team’s second most used lineup this season, Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Lamar Odom-Ronny Turiaf, happens to be five bench players.
Once Chris Paul went down with a knee injury, the second unit began to falter, however. Bledsoe was logging heavy minutes and could not be used in the type of short bursts that the team became accustomed to.
Consequently, the Clips’ bench put up a series of duds in the team’s eight-game Grammy road trip.
In a no-show loss against the Toronto Raptors, A Tribe Called Bench put up a pedestrian 24 points. In a heartbreaker loss in Boston, the Clips’ potent bench scored just 29 points, 23 of them coming from Crawford.
LAC seems to have righted the ship for now, finishing with a strong pace heading into the All-Star break. During the Clips’ recent four-game winning streak, the bench has averaged a respectable 38.8 PPG on 45.7 percent shooting.
With the toughest part of the schedule out of the way, and 15 of their final 26 games at home, the bench should start producing at its early-season level.
With Chauncey Billups finally healthy and back in the lineup, the Clippers are looking for Mr. Big Shot to resume his role as backcourt running mate to Chris Paul.
Billups has played just six games this season, but it is no surprise that the Clippers are 5-1 with him in the lineup.
Billups scored 19 points on a torrid 6-of-9 shooting from the field. The next night, Billups lit up the Lakers on his way to 21 points on 70 percent shooting.
With a bevy of young talent at their disposal, the Clippers can make a major deadline move this week by dealing Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan.
In the weeks leading up to the All-Star break, there has been no shortage of trade rumors surrounding these young guns.
Garnett would make the Clippers all the more lethal, and give them a big man to contain Tim Duncan in the post. However, any deal for the Big Ticket, would be contingent on Garnett waiving his no-trade clause, making a deal all the more tricky.
Certainly, Millsap would give the Clippers some front-line versatility, and give Lob City a legitimate back to the basket and rebounding threat.
Despite the rumors, however, the Clips are likely to stand pat at the deadline. With no official guarantee that Chris Paul will be staying in Lob City beyond this season, the Clips should be cautious before they deal any of their precocious talents.
Having dominated the Pacific Division for the entire season, it would be surprising if they fall from the top this season.
LAC has enjoyed some breathing room from the Golden State Warriors and the Lakers, and looks primed to lock up its first division title in franchise history. According to John Hollinger’s playoff odds, the Clips have a 99.2 percent chance of winning the division.
Surprising, however, Lob City has just an 8-4 record against its division, with three losses coming to the Warriors.
Nevertheless, a division crown is all but inevitable, another franchise record soon to be accomplished by Chris Paul and Co.
Presuming the Clippers hold onto the Pacific Division crown, they will likely finish with the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, behind the front-runners in San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
Barring a major upset, the No. 3 seed all but ensures a second-round date with either the Spurs or the Thunder.
This pick your poison type of situation really should worry the Clips, as injuries and bad losses to the likes of the Phoenix Suns and the Orlando Magic might have derailed this team’s chance at the No. 1 seed.
The Clippers have proven that they can compete with these conference juggernauts, however.
Despite getting swept by the Spurs out of the postseason last year, the Clippers have won their first two games against San Antonio this season. Although Lob City has dropped both of its contests to the Thunder this season, the team is a respectable 3-2 against OKC with Chris Paul in the lineup over the last two seasons.
Jockeying for playoff position down the stretch will be key. Supplanting either the Thunder or the Spurs for the No. 2 seed—and home-court in the second round—will require near perfect basketball, but is still a possibility.
James is playing at an unprecedented level of efficiency, and appears to be head and shoulders above his competition. Durant has quietly kept the Thunder plugging along in the wake of the James Harden trade, and is nearing entry into the 50/40/90 club.
Heading into the All-Star break, Durant was shooting 51.9 percent from the field, 42.7 percent from downtown and 90.7 percent from the free-throw line, unbelievable for a 6’9” forward.
Although Paul has missed time with injury, his impact on the floor should keep him in the conversation for MVP.
Paul’s numbers do not jump off the charts, but he is quietly leading the league in steals again, and is third in the league in PER, behind James and Durant.
His MVP-type performance in the All-Star game should not be cast aside either. Paul took the game over in the fourth quarter, leading the Western Conference to a 143-138 victory while putting up 20 points and 15 assists.
While the All-Star game is an exhibition, Paul’s ability to rise above the rest of the stars has become almost routine for the Clipper faithful. If the Clips continue to surge, then Paul could add a third horse to this two-man race for MVP.