There's no denying the championship chatter that miraculously, but deservedly, floats around the Los Angeles Clippers.
The roster seems forged together by a gamer hell-bent on virtual domination. There's a ruthless executioner running point, a heavily armed arsenal of snipers and two of the highest flying finishers in today's game.
On the sidelines stands a battle-tested championship coach, reborn from the challenge of trying to mold a talented but not always cohesive collection of players into an NBA champion.
But if you peel back the layers of glitz, glamor and everything else an L.A. icon has to offer, just what will you find underneath—a championship contender or an overhyped pretender?
The talent here is undeniable.
Chris Paul's held the label of the NBA's best point guard so long that any debates about the position start with which player should come behind him. Blake Griffin's killed by critics as a flashy product of the highlight reels, but I'd love to hear how a player dunks his way to 20.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists a night.
The supporting cast has been a bit spotty, but its value is best captured in the team's overall performance. Like L.A.'s seventh-ranked plus-4.2 points per 100 possessions net rating. Or that the Clippers are one of only five teams with a top-10 standing in both offensive (104.9, eighth) and defensive (100.7, eighth) efficiency.
That pretender label often hits teams with an inflated record built by dominating inferior competition. Signature wins for these clubs come few and far between.
But L.A. has already slain some of the best from the West.
The Clippers have dealt a pair of double-digit losses to the Houston Rockets. They handed another to the then-full strength, championship hopeful Golden State Warriors. They're one of just four teams owning a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Under Doc Rivers' direction, Paul has added two points (18.9, up from 16.9) and nearly two assists (11.4, up from 9.7) to his 2012-13 production levels—a season in which he finished fourth-most in the MVP race.
Lead assistant Alvin Gentry has pushed the tempo, and Paul's numbers have responded in kind. Then again, a star this bright shines in any weather.
Griffin is a showman in every sense of the word.
While that boosts his marketability, it also seems to lower his basketball stock. But the numbers speak for themselves. He's one of four players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and is the only member of that group converting more than half of his field-goal attempts (51.8 percent).
DeAndre Jordan (12.9 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals) looks every bit like the Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rivers envisioned before the season. Jamal Crawford (16.0 points in 27.3 minutes a night) is crafting another compelling case for Sixth Man of the Year honors.
And this roster has yet to hit full stride.
Both J.J. Redick (35.9 three-point percentage, 38.8 for his career) and Jared Dudley (31.8 and 39.8, respectively) are still finding their rhythms. Rookie Reggie Bullock (10.3 minutes per game) and veterans Antawn Jamison (13.7) and Stephen Jackson (17.5) have been eased into the action.
L.A.'s ceiling is high and it's growing. But its basement is hard to ignore.
The Clippers have the numbers to justify an elite status. But their membership in that exclusive club is far from a majority decision:
Hit this team and it doesn't always hit back. Sometimes it never even makes it back up off the canvas.
If Rivers wasn't always staking the sideline, it would be tough to remember that he actually coaches this team.
There have been a number of bends and far too many breaks by this defensive unit. Jordan's highlight-ready swats haven't stopped opposing teams from finding steady streams to the basket.
The Clippers are allowing their opponents to shoot 61.1 percent inside of five feet, tied for the sixth-worst rate in the league. Whenever a team takes its attack inside, the Clippers struggle to find stops.
Sometimes it's a lack of focus. Help is coming too late or never coming at all.
L.A. has been shredded for 1.17 points per possession by opposing pick-and-roll men (29th overall), via Synergy Sports (subscription required). Off-ball cutters have poured in 1.26 points per trip (25th).
Rivers relies heavily on support and communication in his defensive schemes. Players have to know that someone has their back so they can make the right reads and snuff out attacks.
That's a process this team is still learning on the fly.
"It’s easy to play individual defense," Rivers said, via ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. "It’s hard to play team defense because it requires trust and you have to build it.”
There's a lot of truth in the latter part of that quote, but the former doesn't really mesh with the team's numbers.
The Clippers are giving up 0.83 points per possession on isolation plays (18th). On post-up plays, that number climbs to 0.87 (23rd).
Maybe individual defense really isn't that easy.
That, or the Clippers just decide when they want to play it. For as talented as this team is, it doesn't have the light switch that the Miami Heat often flick with ease. It can't sleepwalk its way to a win. There's a focus that's not always visible, a fight that doesn't always arise.
The Clippers can be as good as they want to be. But there has to be an effort that goes along with that desire.
It's important to remember just where we're at in the season. Championships aren't decided in December.
There's also a number of moving parts still falling into place, not the least of which is that ring-wearing man on the sideline.
Rivers' words are still being processed. It will be a while before they're implemented. Paul's still learning the sweet spots of his shooters and the pace these players prefer.
L.A. could look like a different team come playoff time, not from personnel changes, but the approach this team takes to the floor every night. Frankly, it needs to see that transformation through. Right now, the Clippers just don't belong in that elite group of contenders.
L.A. needs a backbone. Adversity is unavoidable, but good teams know how to respond to it.
It needs more hands in the half-court pot. Paul can't always be called on to make magic out of thin air.
The Clippers need to find the focus, intensity and heart of a champion—three items that most assumed were part of Rivers' luggage.
But the coach can't change these players; that transformation only comes from within.
Those championship talks are running through the streets of L.A. for a reason. But until these players fully believe in themselves and trust one another, that chatter will never be anything more than empty words.
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