The Los Angeles Clippers have had plenty of success this season, partially due to the hiring of Doc Rivers and Alvin Gentry, and partially due to the improvement of a few important players. The addition of J.J. Redick paid dividends early, but his injury woes have reduced his impact. Darren Collison has been great behind Chris Paul, especially when Paul was out injured. However, there have been three players who have played above and beyond what anyone could have expected this season, let alone their production from last season.
Those who thought Jamal Crawford played well enough to earn the 2013 Sixth Man of the Year award— Crawford finished second to J.R. Smith—must be amazed that he is playing even better this season. Crawford’s scoring is up 2.2 points per game to 18.7, mainly because of the Clippers increased tempo. Crawford is also being used nearly the same way as last season, but the Clippers’ offense is slightly more efficient and he has been able to take more shots on a depleted bench unit.
Additionally, Crawford is averaging 4.6 free-throws per game, which would be his highest mark in the last five seasons, according to basketball-reference. Also, his stellar offensive production and high free-throw rate have sky-rocketed his true-shooting percentage to 55.9. Should his shooting efficiency continue at this rate the rest of the season Crawford would set a career-high in the category.
Although Crawford has played for five other NBA franchises, he has yet to find himself a home where he is a stable, yet integral, part of a rotation. Crawford seems to have found that with the Clippers despite his lack of defense, which surely irks the defensive minded Rivers. Regardless, Crawford’s offensive talents have been put on full display and he has curtailed his shot selection, something that has haunted him in the past. Crawford is not asked to be the primary option but has been given freedom to attack. It certainly does not hurt playing alongside Paul and Blake Griffin; the results agree.
It seems almost sacrilegious to put Paul on a most-improved list, but here he sits. Paul’s inclusion on this list warranted for many reasons, some based off his play last season. Vinny Del Negro allowed Paul to dominate the ball last season. Although the Clippers’ offense was good, it played at a pace dictated by Paul, which meant a lot of half-court execution. Paul managed a respectable, by his standards, 16.9 points and 9.7 assists.
Paul’s performance this season could be one of the keys to the Clippers winning the West and making a Finals appearance. Paul’s improvement—18.6 points and 11.0 assists per game—has allowed the Clippers to gash opposing defenses. More importantly, his recovery from injury combined with his still excellent play has the Clippers within striking distance of the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Statistics are a great way to measure improvement, but winning can do the same. The Clippers look improved this season. They are deep, talented and able to impose their will on opponents. Paul is the ringleader and the one who drives his teammates to muster every last bit of hustle and energy they have in order to win games. Typically, Paul is the one closing out games, as Griffin mentioned to ESPN Los Angeles’ Ramona Shelburne.
[Paul] has a huge role on this team, Griffin said Thursday in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. He's been the guy who has closed out a lot of games late for us. But in my mind, this is the year I need to step into that role and really help him shoulder that load. I'll be right there with him at the end of games, being the guy that he can always count on.
If Paul is the driver, then the next player is most definitely the supped up engine.
Griffin began the year with many questions surrounding his talents. While he did improve pieces of his game last season, most notably his jumper, he needed to prove that he could translate his improved skills into serving as a go-to option for the Clippers. That most definitely has happened this season, as illustrated and described by Grantland’s Kirk Goldberry.
In the Del Negro administration, Griffin was basically a post-up player and a screener on pick-and-rolls. But this season, Griffin’s role is more diverse. His teammates set screens for him, freeing him up near the basket and near the elbows. More than ever before, Griffin is a playmaker, and can also take advantage of his penetration and passing skills. As a result, his shot chart has changed. Of course he’s still consistently active near the basket, where he excels, but his behavior in the mid-range continues to migrate away from the baselines up toward the elbows.
Truthfully, Clippers fans have seen that version of Blake Griffin before. During his rookie campaign Griffin set career-highs in rebounds (12.1) and assists (3.8). There is no doubt his game has evolved since flashing moments of brilliance early in his career. It seems he has finally gotten over the hump and developed into a legitimate superstar player. Thankfully, this development coincides with the Clippers’ deepest and most talented team in quite some time.