The Los Angeles Clippers aren't there yet.
Appointed a Western Conference powerhouse before the regular season, the Clippers have simultaneously lived up to the hype and been decidedly disappointing. Chris Paul has been predictably sensational and Blake Griffin a double-double apparatus, but they're defending as if Doc Rivers isn't the head coach and scoring like it, too.
Inconsistency and systematic imperfections are typically sensationalized this early in the season. LeBron James' Miami Heat were vilified for losses to the tanking Philadelphia 76ers and built-to-feast-on-Heatles Brooklyn Nets.
Panic stopped soon because, well, they're the Heat. But there's also little value in decrying the struggles of a predetermined contender. Like the Heat, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, among others, the Clippers have loads of basketball left to play before they're deemed anything other than what they're supposed to be.
Part of the contending cachet, however, entails making an early statement. Something that resonates with the rest of the league and errs on the side of overly optimistic.
Five games in, the Clippers haven't offered one. There has been no trendsetting victory or hallmark performance worth standing by. Nothing the Clippers can point to, say, "This is who we are," and be comfortable with it.
Searching for that one convincing win, that single piece of evidence affirming their status, the Clippers head to Miami, where they'll either emerge feeling accomplished and validated or chapfallen with even more to prove.
You Won Three Games...So What?
Three wins. Cool. Great job, those who formerly resided in Lob City. You've shown you can play close to .500 basketball. So what?
Victories over the lowly and often submissive Sacramento Kings are to be expected. When you are who the Clippers supposedly are, you win those games or else. Wins over the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, two of Los Angeles' equals, were more telling. And you know what they said? The Clippers are good. And lucky.
Feel free to stop short of saying the Clippers should have lost those games. That's just not true. Los Angeles earned each of those victories in the most potent of offensive ways possible. But they also allowed at least 115 points in each; the offense carried the load by averaging 131.5 points in those wins.
Best of luck continuing that trend. Teams relinquishing 115-plus points a night usually don't leave the arena smiling. Defenses that allowed 115 or more points in a game last season were a combined 23-77, or won 23 percent of the time. Already, the Clippers are 2-1. Like I said, good luck carrying on like that, especially against fellow contenders. The Rockets and Warriors were a combined 27-6 when scoring at least 115 points in 2012-13.
Truthfully, the wins aren't as impressive as the losses are unhinging. Coached by Mike D'Antoni, there's no telling what the Los Angeles Lakers will do on any given night. Magic Mike's teams score; it's what they do. As far as rebuilding entities go, the Orlando Magic aren't your please-oh-please-beat-us tankers, either.
Panic button time in Los Angeles, then? For the Clippers, no. They've won most of their games and, once more, they've only played five. Season-long narratives don't write themselves in five games.
This isn't a time for confidence, though. There is little merit to be found in Los Angeles' start, both in the wins and the losses. To this point, the Clippers have been a revolving cliffhanger, one part offensively dominant and two parts oddly dissonant.
You've Scored Like Whoa...So What?
The Clippers offense has been truly incredible...and therefore unsustainable.
Their 113.9 points per 100 possessions lead the league, and if the mark holds, they'll be just the 20th team in NBA history to maintain the same average (or better) for an entire season. Impossible? No. Likely? Also, no.
Over the course of the season, the Clippers are going to meet defensively apt teams, and points won't be as easily notched. Just two of Los Angeles' first five opponents currently rank in the top half of defensive efficiency (Warriors and Magic). On one occasion, the Clippers continued to score in excess and won (Warriors); on the other, they barely hit 90 points and lost (Magic).
Their offensive production and how plausible it is that they keep scoring 113 points a night isn't the problem, though. Even if their totals dip, the Clippers are always going to score. Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison—this team is built to score. But they're not fit to defend at a high level, at least so far.
Los Angeles is allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions this season, the second-worst mark in the NBA. That has to be killing Doc Rivers, who was supposed to ingrain a sense of defensive purpose into the entire roster.
During his last six years with the Boston Celtics, Beantown never posted a defensive rating above 103.8, never finished outside the top seven in points allowed per 100 possessions and ranked outside the top five just once.
Similarly, the last 12 NBA champions have all ranked inside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Rivers was supposed to bring that type of mindset to Hollywood, and it wasn't thought to be difficult. The Clippers had an eighth-ranked defense in 2012-13. Under Rivers, they were only going to get better. Yet, they haven't.
Only one opponent has scored under 100 points against Los Angeles this season (Magic), and the Clippers lost. Despite scoring the most points in the league, their point differential stands at just plus-3.6 points per game. Last year, every team with an offensive rating above 110 had an average point differential of more than four. And the efficiency-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, which is what the Clippers are now, averaged a 9.2-point win.
Sure, it's still early. Super early. Making a mountain out of a molehill and inexplicably overreacting to a small sample size won't prove anything.
But neither have the Clippers. Their defense has been porous (at best), and they're relying on their offense to win games and yielding mixed results, which is uncharacteristic of a true powerhouse.
So You're Facing the Heat...Now What?
Your move, Los Angeles. Prove to the NBA, to the public, that you're for real or run the risk of continuously battling mounting skepticism.
This is the game that can silence most of the criticism. Offensive-oriented teams won't be railed at if they take down the Heat. Should this contest turn into a grudge match, where the Clippers aren't hitting shots and must lean on their defense, and they win, even better.
Miami will come to play. Following a poor start to the season, the Heat have responded by winning two straight. With each passing game, they look more and more like the Heat, the standard for all championship contenders.
Beating them sends a message.
This year is supposed to be different. The Clippers are ostensibly built to beat teams like the Heat consistently. Built to win playoff-type bouts in persuasive fashion.
Built for nights like these.
So far, they've yet to prove it. The Lakers ruined their opening night; they put a damper on the Clippers' fresh start. Questions arose.
Are the Clippers a legitimate NBA powerhouse?
Impressive, albeit imbalanced, victories over the Warriors and Rockets preceded a loss to the Magic. More questions.
"It's Game 5. Luckily we've got about 77 left," Paul said after the Clippers fell to the Magic, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "But we're not going to win games unless our defense gets better."
The quest for better defense and stable performances starts now.
*All stats in this article retrieved from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed and are accurate as of November 7, 2013.