Are LA Clippers Becoming the Western Conference Favorite?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

It's easy to look at the Los Angeles Clippers' big win over the Houston Rockets on Feb. 26 and conclude Chris Paul and Co. are looking more and more like the West's top dog.

But L.A.'s growing presence in the "contender" conversation is about much more than one win—even if that win was the Clips' third in a row over their conference rival Rockets.

The truth is, Doc Rivers' boys are building a pretty strong case lately that they're the team to beat in the NBA's tougher conference. And with some of the other top-end squads showing weakness, Los Angeles' position is looking stronger than ever.


The Usual Spurs Concerns

For what seems like the 29th year in a row, the San Antonio Spurs appear to be a legitimate title contender. And in another trend that has persisted forever, the only things standing between them and the promised land are age and injuries.

Tony Parker is nearing a return to the lineup, but he's been sidelined by what head coach Gregg Popovich entertainingly termed "a variety of maladies." We all know that simply means Pop wanted to rest his most important player, but that justification actually favors the Clippers as well.

The Spurs are always more concerned with reaching the playoffs at full strength, than they are with seeding. If they have to sacrifice some positioning in the standings by giving their vets a few days off here and there to do so, they're fine with that.

So as guys like Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili get their sporadic rest during the stretch run, L.A. will get the opportunity to make up some ground in the standings.

It's crazy to discount the Spurs while Popovich and the team's core are still intact. And we've seen San Antonio do plenty of damage with its "B" team on the floor. So maybe a few extra off days for various maladies and sundry afflictions won't create enough slippage for the Clippers to overtake the Spurs.

Still, there's a viable scenario in which San Antonio sacrifices a few games during the season's final weeks in exchange for better postseason health.

Saying the Clips can capitalize on that possibility by moving up in the standings isn't the same thing as saying they're the conference favorite.

But if they wind up with the No. 1 seed, it can't hurt their chances.


OKC's Inexplicable Struggles

Russell Westbrook's return didn't propel the Oklahoma City Thunder into the stratosphere. In fact, OKC has put together one of its roughest stretches of the season during the three games since Kevin Durant's running mate rejoined the starting lineup.

Oklahoma City has lost three straight home contests with Westbrook on the floor—a truly bizarre result for a team that was red-hot without its second-best player.

There's potential for all of the tired "Durant's better off without Westbrook" storylines to re-emerge with a vengeance now. OKC can't pin its recent struggles on the lack of a solid second option for Durant. The team is at full strength and failing to produce.

The Thunder are a tight-knit group with enough experience in the spotlight to weather the storm of uncomfortable questions looming on the horizon. But they certainly don't look invincible atop the conference.

And keep in mind: Kendrick Perkins is now out up to six weeks following groin surgery. You'd typically cite Perk's absence as a positive for the Thunder, but if he's as valuable to the locker room's chemistry as OKC would have us believe, isn't it fair to wonder if his absence might allow some Durant-Westbrook bad blood to boil over?

After all, Durant was (and probably still is) on an MVP track. Westbrook's comeback should have made KD's life easier and led to more wins for the Thunder. The fact that it hasn't might cause Durant to bristle a bit, or even lend credence to the suggestion that Westbrook is holding him back.

Nobody's saying the Thunder are primed to fall apart. They're too good for that.

But maybe they're a little more vulnerable than they appear—especially on defense of late.

Per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman head coach Scott Brooks is less than pleased: "We have to be better defensively. That’s three games now it’s not up to our level and we have to fix that immediately.”

That's a good sign for the Clips.


The Rest 'O the West

We know for sure the Rockets can't handle the Clippers. Three L.A. wins in a row this year proved that beyond doubt; and the further back you go, the more obvious Los Angeles' dominance against Houston becomes:

The bigger issue here is Houston seems to come up short against most of the other top-tier teams out West. The Rockets are now just 5-6 against the top four teams in the conference. They can't be considered favorites until they prove their mettle against good competition.

The Portland Trail Blazers have split two games against the Clippers this year while occupying a current spot in the standings above L.A. At the risk of being dismissive, we can, well, dismiss the Blazers as serious contenders.

Until they prove themselves capable of defending at a break-even level, the Trail Blazers aren't serious threats to the conference crown.

The Golden State Warriors are the most intriguing pseudo-contender remaining in the West, at least in terms of their comparison to the Clippers. The Dubs have taken two out of three from the Clips this season, and their elite defense (currently ranked No. 3 in the league, per makes them capable of beating absolutely anybody in the conference.

If there's a dark horse club L.A. should worry about, it's Golden State.



It should go without saying that the most important consideration in the Clippers' status as potential West favorites is the way they've been playing. After all, it won't matter if the other top outfits in the conference fall apart unless the Clips are in good enough shape to take advantage.

Recent signs suggest they are.

Paul has been a beast lately, controlling the offense and basically unwilling to make mistakes:

As long as he's on top of his game, Los Angeles is a serious threat.

Plus, Blake Griffin clearly benefited from his trial as team leader when CP3 was out with a shoulder injury. Griffin is having the best all-around season of his career, and it doesn't appear that Paul's return has Blake fading into the background. If anything, the Clippers now have a second star who's more confident than ever.

In addition, Los Angeles isn't finished adding talent to its roster. With the widely respected Rivers in charge and a realistic title chance, L.A. is drawing interest from plenty of buyout candidates. Glen Davis has already signed on the dotted line, and Danny Granger is another possible upgrade on the horizon, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:

The Clips are already rich with talent. If the rich get richer, watch out.


Lingering Doubts

If the preceding reads as an unqualified endorsement of the Clippers as West favorites, I apologize. L.A. is definitely among the West's best teams, but it still has a handful of questions to answer before we all agree to run out and bet the farm on a Clippers appearance in the Finals.

We still don't know if there's enough wing scoring to force defenses to play Paul and Griffin honestly in the pick-and-roll. And DeAndre Jordan's inability to knock down foul shots could still result in the Clips going small down the stretch. That'd be a fine move on offense, but L.A.'s vastly improved defense would take a major hit without the big man's presence in the middle.

Moreover, it's hard to know if Los Angeles is up to the task of playing consistent offense in the postseason. Much of the Clippers' success (and, indeed, most of their blowout wins) are a result of a nearly unstoppable transition attack.

Even the best up-and-down teams find themselves forced to slow the tempo in the playoffs. We don't know how the Clips will respond when things bog down in April and May.

Ultimately, though, the Clippers are equipped with star power, experience and the best defense they've had in years. There are plenty of questions at the moment, but it seems like L.A. is better suited to answer them than at any point in the past.

The Clippers still probably check in behind the Spurs and Thunder as West favorites, but they're making up ground in a hurry.


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