Why LA Clippers Are and Aren't Title Contenders
Yes, Chris Paul and Co. reeled off a 17-game winning streak in December, but they've also endured a pair of four-game losing skids and have played .500 ball in the month of March. And after an ugly 93-80 win over the woefully depleted New York Knicks Sunday afternoon, the Clips don't exactly look like world-beaters at the moment.
But the overall credentials are impressive: 46 wins, a stranglehold on the Pacific Division and the fourth-best per-game point differential in the NBA all point to the Clippers being an elite team.
The difference between being "elite" and contending for a Larry O'Brien Trophy, though, is significant. A title contender is a team that wouldn't surprise the basketball world by winning it all. At present, the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder seem like the only clubs that easily fit that description.
L.A. is close, but it might not be there yet.
As the Clippers head down the stretch, it's worth dissecting the arguments for and against their status as true title contenders.
Why They Are: Balance
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Statistically, the Clippers are a team that lacks a significant weakness. Sure, it'd be nice if they made a few more threes—they're 20th in three-point percentage—but that's hardly a damning flaw.
Offensively, L.A. thrives in transition but plays reasonably well in the half court, too. Chris Paul makes all the difference in the world when the game slows down, and his leadership (especially at the end of games) makes the Clips effective enough to get by with any style.
Overall, the Clippers rank seventh in offensive efficiency.
On the other end, L.A. checks in as the league's eighth-most efficient defense, allowing just 100.5 points per 100 possessions. That's not quite up to the level of the league's stingiest clubs, but considering their excellent offensive production, the Clippers defense is nothing to sneeze at.
Gimmicky teams don't go far in the postseason, so it's definitely a plus that the Clippers boast some of the best two-way balance of any team in the NBA.
Why They Aren't: Too Top-Heavy
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Don't be mistaken: Star power is probably the key ingredient to any title contender. Top-end talent wins in the NBAm and without a legitimately transcendent player, it's almost impossible to make it all the way through the playoff gauntlet.
The problem with the Clippers is that they're entirely too dependent on Paul.
If LeBron James suffered a minor injury that forced him to miss an early playoff series, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would have enough juice to get the Miami Heat into the next round. Similarly, a slight nick to Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook wouldn't be catastrophic for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But because the Clippers rely on Paul to run the offense, direct the defense and essentially coach the team, the tiniest physical hindrance could doom L.A.
Blake Griffin is a star in his own right, but he, like all of the Clippers, needs CP3 to maximize his abilities. If the playoffs started today, does anyone really believe the Clippers would be able to get through an opening-round series against the Golden State Warriors without Paul?
Look, every team needs full health to make a title run. Nobody's arguing that the Heat could win a championship without James, but they could probably win a first-round series. The same can't be said for the Clippers and Paul.
Why They Are: Veteran Experience
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The regular season is one thing, but the playoffs are a different animal, and it takes some real veteran experience to tame it.
Fortunately, the Clips have a pair of crusty old vets who know what it takes to succeed in the high-intensity environment of the postseason.
Chauncey Billups has played in two NBA Finals and took home a ring with the Detroit Pistons at the conclusion of the 2003-04 season. When Detroit took out the Lakers in five games that year, Billups was named the Finals MVP.
Along with Mr. Big Shot, the Clippers have Lamar Odom, a man with a couple of rings in his own right. Granted, he collected them with that other team in L.A., but they still count.
Why They Aren't: OKC Is in the Way
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Ready for a quick study in the obvious?
OK, here it goes: The Clippers can't win a championship this year unless they make it out of the West first. Still with me? Good.
The problem with that little logic game is that L.A. simply can't beat the Thunder, who happen to reside in said Western Conference. The Clips are 0-3 on the year against OKC, and they've lost those three games by an average of eight points.
The issue is basically one of style. If the Clippers try to run against the Thunder, Durant and Co. will do it better than L.A. does. And at the end of games, when the pace slows down, it's almost impossible to devote enough attention to Russell Westbrook and Durant in the half court to prevent a good look from one or the other.
Every team has a nemesis, and OKC is definitely the Clippers'. Because L.A. hasn't shown the ability to hang with the Thunder, and because the path to the NBA Finals runs through Oklahoma City, it's hard to see the Clippers going all the way.
Why They Are: Chips and Shoulders
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The Clippers are ornery.
Thanks to Paul's defiant attitude—which sometimes borders on a full-blown Napoleonic complex—L.A. plays with a feisty edge.
That attitude—often taken a bit too far by players like Matt Barnes—gives the Clippers a chance against almost anyone. It's hard to quantify how valuable a chip on the shoulder really is, but it's got to be worth something.
When the games get tough and things start to look grim for the Clippers, their "we'll show you" attitude could come in handy. That isn't enough to win them a title by itself, but if everything else breaks right and they rely on their balanced attack, the Clippers could get a little extra boost from their brashness in the postseason.