The Los Angeles Clippers built a championship contender that history said could never be created and our eyes say may not really exist.
We can see what this franchise has built, but we don't quite know what that is. Three-plus months of mixed bag results has left us with a team whose ceiling stretches up to greatness and whose basement drops to disastrous levels.
It's incredible the Clippers have even made it this far. History and logic said it could never happen, but someone found a way to open the bank of owner Donald Sterling.
The notoriously frugal owner finally eased his death grip on his wallet, and suddenly the Clippers started reaping the rewards of having a Hollywood address.
Drafting starting bigs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan helped, but prying Chris Paul away from the New Orleans Hornets in 2011 (with an assist by former commissioner David Stern) was the turning point.The Clippers quickly became a talk-show audience, and Sterling did his best Oprah impression—a max contract for Blake Griffin, another for CP3, $27 million for J.J. Redick and $21 million for coach Doc Rivers.
Sharing the Staples Center with the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to be rubbing off on the Clippers. L.A. had fans who had seen this type of spending before.
Of course, the money isn't the main story here. In fact, it's only the introduction.
What happens next will determine if Sterling sees some vindication for all those scribbled checks or puts his wallet back under lock and key. As the payroll has grown, so, too, have the expectations.
The Clippers are fully engaged in the title chase, but just how close are they to the finish line? The individual pieces are brilliant, but how will we know when the complete picture resembles a full-fledged championship contender?
Just because it should go without saying, doesn't actually mean it should be left unsaid.
The Clippers haven't collapsed since Paul suffered a separated shoulder on Jan. 3, having gone 12-6 without their floor general. But a break in the schedule (only three of those wins came against teams currently holding a winning record) has perhaps played the biggest role in keeping this ship afloat.
L.A. is learning to survive without him, but there is no championship ceiling without Paul as the foundation.
He makes the game exponentially easier for his teammates. He was tossing out a league-best 11.2 assists per night before his shoulder forced him off the floor, and he was providing a stronger scoring (19.6) and rebounding (4.6) presence than he did for last season's 56-win team (16.9 and 3.7, respectively).
"C.P. is one of the great point guards in our game," Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade said earlier this season, via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "And to be able to put a team around him where he has so many different options, from bigs to guards, it makes them a special team."
The supporting cast is strong, but Paul can make it special. Luckily, he should be getting the chance to do just that (again) very soon. According to ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi, Paul will likely make his hardwood return in Sunday's game with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The "point god" is a pivotal piece in L.A.'s championship blueprint, but he can't be the only top-shelf contributor on the team either.
Griffin and Paul have two-plus seasons together under their belt and one of the league's greatest coaching minds leading them along. Even with CP3 missing more than a month, there shouldn't need to be a prolonged reacclimation period.
There will be one change for the Clippers to make, though.
"Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought," ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz wrote.
Whenever Paul returns to the fold, he won't be joining the same Griffin he left behind.
Since Paul went down, Griffin has raised his game higher than many thought the high-flyer ever could. He's tallied 27.5 points on 55.4 percent shooting and 4.3 assists over his last 18 games and poured in at least 36 points in three consecutive outings.
Griffin won't retain all of these offensive chances—it's easier taking the ball out of Darren Collison's hands as opposed to Paul's—but he can't sacrifice all of this newfound production. If L.A.'s dynamic duo finds enough touches to both be dynamic scorers and distributing threats, the Clippers can throw nearly unsolvable puzzles at opposing defenses.
As soon as that happens, they can shift their focus to tightening up their own defense.
L.A.'s defense doesn't show too poorly on the stat sheet.
The Clippers are 10th in defensive efficiency (102.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and seventh in opponents' field-goal percentage (44.5). The numbers say criticizing this unit might equate to nitpicking, but the figures are a bit deceptive.
At times, L.A. has been the proverbial immovable object. During a nine-game stretch in December, the Clippers allowed just 90.8 points per game (a shade above the Indiana Pacers' league-best 90.7 average points against), held all but one opponent under 100 points and picked up seven wins in the process.
In the last week alone, the Clippers have yielded triple-digit outbursts to all three of their opponents, including the 116 allowed in losses to both the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat.
The defense has championship ability, but it doesn't always show it.
"We can be a good team the way we're playing," Rivers said, via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "But if you want to be elite, you have to have something, a standard defensively. That's what we have to set."
If setting the standard is the first step, living up to it on a nightly basis is the next. Consider both of these boxes still unmarked on L.A's championship checklist.
With the "Lob City" nickname still appropriate as ever, the Clippers are a team that can generate—then feed off of—loads of energy from the crowd.
When Griffin's making his flight plans and Jamal Crawford is redefining the term "yoyo handles," this team can send the Staples Center faithful into a frenzy. Once the fans get going, astronomical point totals (and eventually wins) typically follow. The Clippers average 110.8 points at home and own the NBA's fourth-best home winning percentage (.840).
Somehow, that winning formula never seems to make it inside their luggage.
On the road, the Clippers manage just 102.5 points a night. Given their aforementioned wavering defensive focus, that's a bit of an issue. If they aren't overwhelming with offense, then oftentimes they're left dying with no defense.
The Clippers are just 14-14 away from home. They're one of only two teams currently in the Western Conference playoff picture (along with the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks) without a winning road record.
With 5.5 games (and two other teams) sitting between them and the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers face an uphill battle to claim home-court advantage. This team must figure out how to create its own energy on the road if it hopes to realize its true potential.
Some teams (cough, Miami Heat) need to feel challenged before hitting back with their championship might.
The Clippers, on the other hand, struggle to find their fight after weathering blows for three quarters. While true contenders would search for a second (or third) wind, the Clippers too often reach for the towel.
On the season, L.A. has been on the wrong side of the scoreboard after three quarters 15 different times. It has escaped with a victory just once in those 15 games.
That's a putrid .071 winning percentage. The other seven current Western Conference playoff teams have a combined 41-91 record when trailing after three—a .311 winning percentage.
It's not necessarily a fourth-quarter problem. In fact, L.A. holds a plus-7.2 net rating in the final frame, fifth-best in the league, via NBA.com (subscription required).
It seems to be a matter of responding to adversity, or rather running from it. That would fall in line with previous criticisms of this team's resolve.
"The Clippers are softer than tissue paper," TNT's NBA analyst Charles Barkley said, via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "They've got the toughness of a flea."
Orchestrating some successful fourth-quarter comebacks could help quiet their critics and validate their position as legitimate contenders.
Think of those first slides as assignments, and this as L.A.'s final exam.
The Clippers have been afflicted with one of this season's worst cases of split personality disorder. One night, the team seems destined for a title. The next, it looks like it's playing for draft lottery balls.
Championship contenders come in different shapes and sizes. There is no "right" path to the podium.
There is, however, a common characteristic of all championship teams: consistency. Stability. Steadiness.
The regular season isn't always the perfect lens to find that consistency, but elite teams look like elite teams more often than not. There are peaks and valleys along the way, but nothing as volatile as L.A.'s roller-coaster campaign.
The good news is the Clippers have time on their side. The postseason is still a couple of months away, and its prize won't be rewarded for another two months after that.
With Rivers and Paul leading the charge, L.A. stands as good a chance as any championship-hopeful of making the right self-assessments and implementing the necessary corrections.
The talent is in place to make this dream a reality, but that potential needs to appear with much more regularity.