L.A. Clippers Can't Settle for Record-Setting Regular Season
In a sense, Chris Paul has done exactly what the Los Angeles Clippers had hoped he would do when they traded three players and a first-round draft pick to the New Orleans Hornets in exchange for the All-Star point guard.
He's taken the franchise to heights it had never before seen:
And he's even delivered them the keys to the city, as the Los Angeles Lakers have taken two steps back with every Clippers progression.
But his work, and the work of the Clippers as a whole, is far from over.
At one point this season, coach Vinny Del Negro's team was the talk of the basketball world. Their 17-game winning streak, which started on Nov. 28 and finished on Jan. 1, saw them cradling an incredible 25-6 record through the end of 2012.
But 2013 hasn't been nearly as kind. Frankly they've been nothing more than a mediocre team this year, posting just a 25-20 record since New Year's Day.
The Clippers are one of the league's most potent offensive clubs. They're a top-five group in both offensive rating (107.3, fifth-best in the league via NBA.com) and field-goal percentage (47.7, fifth in the NBA).
But they've had difficulty in extending that same energy level to the defensive end. After limiting opponents to just 92.3 points per game in their first 31 outings, they have allowed 96.6 in their last 45.
And things are still trending in the wrong direction.
Since posting an impressive 95.0 defensive rating for the month of December (via NBA.com), they've helplessly watched that number increase with each passing month. It climbed to 101.7 in January, then 102.5 in February.
By March it grew to an unsightly 106.2 (which would stand as the seventh-worst mark if stretched out over an entire season) and has jumped to an indefensible 112.1 in their first two games of April.
The worrisome aspect of all of this is that there is no easy solution for Del Negro.
It's certainly not due to a lack of talent. The Clippers have assembled a collection of riches that extends well beyond Paul.
And it's not an X's and O's issue, either.
It's a matter of effectively blending that talent together, which has proven even more difficult off the floor than on it.
According to T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are at the root of this apparent rift.
Jordan's unhappy with his limited playing time (24.2 minutes per game) and chooses to blame that on Del Negro's handling of him rather than his free-throw issues (39.1 percent) that make him impossible to play in late-game situations.
Griffin, one of the budding poster children of the league in every sense of the phrase, often feels that he can do no wrong on the basketball court.
Given the amazing things that his body is capable of, sometimes it's hard to argue that.
But, as Simers points out, this also leads Griffin unable to accept the slightest hint of criticism. And given that he views undesirable calls from the officials as criticism, he takes his attention away from the game's events and incessantly barks at the referees.
Paul, a fiery leader, would be the presumptive favorite to get his bigs back on the right track.
But he's never been one to hold his words, a leadership style that works with veterans who appreciate his body of work but presents obvious problems when directed at immature players.
Of course there are some on-court issues lurking here as well.
The Clippers have arguably the most exciting frontcourt in the NBA. But what they don't have is the kind of low-post offense that can lift some of the scoring burden off of Paul and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford.
And the loss of Chauncey Billups, who has played a total of 20 minutes in L.A.'s last nine games, cannot be overstated. Not only does he bring a championship level of experience to this group, but he's the best pure shooter of the bunch (career 38.8 three-point percentage). When the offensive sets break down, he's one of their strongest bail-out options.
Without that scoring threat near the basket or Billups' stroke on the wing, L.A. simply tries to outrun its opponents. It's not a bad strategy, either, considering the Clippers usually enjoy a sizable edge in terms of athleticism.
But playoff basketball is a far more controlled (see: slower) style of play that puts a strong emphasis on half-court execution.
The Clippers have spent the last two seasons forcing the basketball world to rethink its perception of what this organization is all about.
The biggest question for the franchise is simply: Why stop now?
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