The star-studded Los Angeles Clippers look the part of championship contenders. With Doc Rivers now calling the shots, they sound like it, too.
But playing that role has been the problem. Playing it consistently, at least.
Some nights the franchise looks like the world beater it claims to be. Take L.A.'s 11-point handling of the Golden State Warriors, 19-point rout of the Houston Rockets and 39-point slaughter of the Chicago Bulls for instance.
Other times, though, this group seems like the not-so-lovable losers long-time NBA fans remember. Look no further than the Clippers' 0-2 mark against the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic for that evidence.
The pieces are in place for this team to embark on a title run. But there's a lengthy list of changes to be made in order for that plan to come to fruition.
Plug Defensive Gaps
Forget the supercharged Lob City offensive attacks, this team prides itself on its defensive play. That's their story, at least.
If that's the case, there might be a pile of hats spread across the Clippers' locker room floor.
L.A. is allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions. Only nine defensive units have been more generous this season.
Thanks to their ability to score points in bunches, a leaky defense doesn't always guarantee a Clippers' loss. L.A. is 7-6 on the season when opposing teams reach the century mark.
But this team is nearly unbeatable when it bunkers down at that end of the floor. When they hold the opposition to double digits, the Clippers are a championship-caliber 5-1.
This defense is plagued by split personalities. One night it's a stone wall, the next night it's a sieve.
What's behind these multiple identities? It's simply a matter of reliable execution.
"We know what we [need to] do," Paul said, via Markazi. "We just got to do it. We've got to stop talking about it and we have to figure out how to stop teams."
The front line of L.A.'s defense has been stout. As it should be.
The roster features a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in DeAndre Jordan (12.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals), a perennial All-Defensive selection in Paul and an underrated stopper in Jared Dudley.
Opposing teams are shooting just 38.8 percent from the field out of isolation sets, via SynergySports (subscription required). But when the Clippers have been required to make second and third reads, that's when it's broken down and been picked apart.
L.A. has been torched by pick-and-roll roll men to the tune of 1.16 points per possession. That's the second-worst mark in the league. Cutters have enjoyed even more success against this defense, pouring in 1.30 points per possession (fifth-most in the league).
Rotations are coming late, or never coming at all. Rivers' defensive system relies on help defenders knowing when and where to make their moves. That kind of precise execution allows the initial defender to sell out on stopping his man, knowing that he has four other players to protect him.
But that knowledge comes from trust. That trust comes from repetition. Neither aspect has come with any regularity early on.
Until that trust factor settles in, the Clippers will have no reason to entertain title hopes. But that's not the only thing keeping them on the outside looking in on the championship picture.
Solve Road Woes
Winning away from home is tough. Even the great teams don't always travel well.
But good teams don't get battered around on the road the way the Clippers have.
L.A. is 4-5 in away games on the season, a number that's actually worse than it sounds.
One of those losses came inside the Clippers' home arena, a 116-103 defeat to their Staples Center roommates, the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers. Half of those road wins came against the 4-12 Sacramento Kings; one of those victories needed an extra session to be decided.
L.A. needs to start exorcising these demons immediately. The Clippers just kicked off the first of two seven-game road trips they'll take this season, a journey that began with an unsettling 107-97 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 4.
Rivers doesn't subscribe to the theory that his team should go searching for a certain number of victories on the road.
"'Let's go .500.' Why?" he said, via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "Try to win them all...It's harder to play on the road. But you should try to win them."
Trying and doing are two completely different things. That's what separates dreamers from contenders, good teams from elite ones.
Just like winning away from home does.
Four teams have a winning road on the season: Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. Guess which four teams own the highest overall winning percentages this season? The Pacers, Heat, Trail Blazers and Spurs.
A lengthy road trip can be daunting, but the Clippers have to keep things in perspective.
"It’s our job, C.P., myself and DeAndre [Jordan] to keep reassuring everybody that we can’t look ahead,” Blake Griffin said, via Clippers.com's Eric Patten. "You can’t win them all without winning the first one."
You can't win a lot without scoring, either.
The Clippers need to start packing their offensive explosiveness for these road trips. L.A. is averaging a pedestrian 100.1 points in its away games. That's more than 11 points fewer than the nightly servings they cook up in front of their home fans (111.2).
With the defense tightened and the road blunders solved, it still feels like something's missing from L.A.'s championship puzzle. Oh right, more help.
The Clippers couldn't have foreseen a fractured wrist shutting sharpshooter J.J. Redick down for the next six-to-eight weeks. So it's tough to fault this team for the fact that Willie Green (32.0 field-goal percentage) and rookie Reggie Bullock (36.8) look like anything but competent replacements.
But did L.A. really think its reserve frontcourt was set with Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins and Antawn Jamison filling the ranks?
Hollins might be serviceable if the Clippers don't ask too much from him. Jamison's impact—if the 37-year-old can make one—was never expected to be felt before the stretch run.
But Mullens has been an unmitigated disaster. He's the easily moved object and the self-stopping force.
No player on the roster has caused more self-inflicted wounds than him. During the 117 minutes he's spent on the floor this season, the Clippers have been outscored by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.
So while Rivers—who happens to also be the senior vice president of basketball operations—says he "wouldn't mind" keeping this roster intact, via Turner, he's hardly ruling out the possibility of making an addition.
Maybe that player is Lamar Odom. Maybe it's someone else.
The real key is that it's someone.
It's hard to pin potentially shattered championship dreams on a reserve like Mullens.
It's even harder to see those plans come to fruition the longer they involve him.