Is health the biggest obstacle of the Los Angeles Clippers as it pertains to winning the championship?
The Clippers own the second-best scoring differential in the league (plus-7.2), and they appear to be on their way to finishing the regular season with the third seed in the Western Conference standings.
Their record certainly suggests that they are a team to be reckoned with, and there is a sentiment that they are every bit as good as they look.
On a telecast of Inside the NBA in early March, Charles Barkley offered as much, via Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times: “The two best teams in the Western Conference are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder…in that order.”
Prior to examining perhaps L.A.’s biggest roadblock, we will first look at what makes the Clippers such a formidable team.
The Blake Griffin Effect
Blake Griffin’s ascension might very well make the Clippers the favorites to come out of the Western Conference.
Griffin has demonstrated tremendous growth during his career, and that prompted multiple individuals to latch onto the high flyer for an opportunity to win a title. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins explains:
They all bet something on Blake Griffin. Chris Paul wagered the rest of his prime. Doc Rivers gambled the goodwill he earned in Boston. Danny Granger risked a title shot, Glen Davis ventured some minutes and J.J. Redick put up a little cash. Stakes varied, but terms did not. Everybody who signed new contracts with the Clippers banked on Griffin's becoming a top-five player. If he did, they'd be compensated richly. If he didn't, they'd lose their shirts to the Grizzlies again.
Griffin’s athleticism made him the perfect guy to star alongside Chris Paul—and Griffin has not disappointed on that end. Indeed, he’s been a terror in the pick-and-roll because of his ability to catch passes and finish over the top of even the toughest defenders.
However, there were some concerns about Griffin’s ability to carry the half-court offense. Paul is a terrific catalyst, but teams hoping to contend for titles need multiple options on offense, especially in the face of heightened defensive pressure.
For instance, the San Antonio Spurs snuffed out an L.A. offense predicated on the wizardry of Paul during the 2012 playoffs. Thankfully for the Los Angeles faithful, it seems as though the franchise addressed this issue.
Paul missed roughly six weeks starting in January, and it put Griffin at the forefront of the offense. Griffin disproved every myth (simply a dunker, has no post moves and cannot be the focal point of an offense) associated with his game during the absence of arguably the best point guard in the league.
With Paul sidelined, the Clippers won 12 of 17 games. During that stretch, Griffin averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 55.8 percent field-goal shooting, per NBA.com.
Griffin used Paul’s injury as the perfect opportunity to showcase how far along he’s come as a player, and people certainly noticed. Grantland’s Zach Lowe offered his observations:
Griffin has post moves and countermoves. I repeat: Blake Griffin has actual post moves. He prefers to work from the left block, as most righties do, and if he’s backing you down there, he’s probably going for his righty jump hook in the lane.
Sit too blatantly on that, and he’ll fake it, watch you jump, and go to a lefty up-and-under layin. He’s gotten stronger as a back-down force. You can’t guard him with weaker post defenders anymore, and he even knocked Joakim Noah off-balance with shoulder blocks last week in Chicago.
Watch below as Griffin muscles his way through Noah:
The scoring is certainly fantastic, but Griffin also operates as the hub of the offense because of his ball-handling and passing. The Clippers can simply put him in the high post and run actions for his teammates and trust Griffin to hit them in stride.
In this next video, Griffin quickly assesses the situation and flashes to the top of the key to deliver the lob pass to DeAndre Jordan:
Contrary to what some may believe, none of this happened by accident. If anything, the franchise knew exactly what it was getting from Griffin entering the campaign, as ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz notes:
Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.
With Griffin being the epicenter of Los Angeles, the pieces certainly fit better. Jordan gets a few easy looks at the rim each game because of the attention directed at Griffin.
Other Clippers such as Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger get open looks from long range, and they even occasionally get an unimpeded path all the way to the basket. To be fair, Rivers deserves part of the credit.
The coaching staff has built an offense that maximizes the strength of its two best players all the while incorporating the ancillary parts.
Thus, Lob City is practically an unstoppable scoring machine, and they have used that offense to carry them to an impressive record (6-3) against the Houston Rockets , Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
At less than full strength, the Clippers looked like a team that could take out the best squads in the league, which explains why the Hollinger playoff odds give them the second-highest odds of winning the title.
Griffin and Co. might have the best overall team in basketball. Still, the Clippers have a very big roadblock to overcome if they wish to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Even the Smallest of Injuries
The Clips’ fortunes will be decided by health.
The ever-present prospect of injury worries the Clippers most in the backcourt given recent history. J.J. Redick has only appeared in 30 games this season, but his return might be enough to propel Los Angeles to the title. The 2-guard faced a broken bone and torn ligament in his right hand earlier in the season, and Redick's been shelved because of a bulging disk in his back since around the All-Star break.
Redick is an underrated defender who does a good job of covering shooters. Indeed, he takes away their airspace and chases them wonderfully through screens.
Redick’s real value comes on offense, where his shooting opens up the floor for teammates. The sharpshooter is hitting 39.6 percent of his treys, and in addition, defenses have had tough time keeping him contained.
Redick is averaging a career-high 15.7 points because teams are focused on stopping Paul’s penetrations coupled with Griffin’s paint touches. Hence, Redick has been afforded an abundance of open looks where he is quite lethal.
Consider this interesting nugget: The Clippers score 113.3 points per 100 possessions with Redick on the hardwood, per NBA.com. Projected over an entire season, that figure would be tops in the league.
Needless to say, Redick is a vital cog for the Clippers, and his inability to play is a big obstacle. Jamal Crawford can replicate some his shooting (36.5 percent from long range), although he is not in the same class as Redick.
He does bring another dimension to the offense with his ball-handling and creativity. Crawford can back up Paul every now and then, and he can provide some scoring punch even against elite defenders.
However, he too has missed time due to a strained left calf. Granted, Crawford has only sat out eight games, but given that he is Redick’s replacement, the Clippers simply cannot survive with him in street clothes if Redick is already out.
The combination of Danny Granger, Matt Barnes and Reggie Bullock is serviceable, but promoting them into the starting lineup weakens the bench.
Crawford and Redick might be the difference between a second-round exit and a title, but make no mistake—the most important guard of them all is Paul. Without him out there to orchestrate things against the stingiest defenses, the Clippers aren’t going anywhere.
Paul’s nagging injuries could be a source of concern, but in actuality, that might very well be overstated. To be clear, Rivers needs a healthy Paul to make a strong playoff push, but Paul understands his body extremely well.
Paul has never played a full regular season, and it’s hardly mattered. In 40 career playoff games, he is averaging 20.9 points, 9.5 assists and 2.2 steals on 48.2 percent shooting from the floor.
Paul uses the 82-game schedule as preparation for the postseason and does so masterfully. Even if he does enter the playoffs with an ailment, the evidence suggests that Paul will still rise to the occasion and deliver.
But the same cannot be said about Redick, and he might just be the wild card.
What Lies Ahead
In the event the Clippers lose some of their guard play, it will likely remove them from the championship discussion.
Los Angeles is far too imposing from an offensive standpoint when it has shooters complementing Griffin on the interior. An offense that already ranks second in the league has the potential to literally blow the doors open in the playoffs provided it has its three guards.
Rivers hasn’t had the luxury to play Paul, Redick and Crawford a lot together this season because of injuries, but on the few occasions he has, it’s been impressive, to say the least. According to NBA.com, in the 96 minutes the trio have shared the court, the Clips have scored 120.7 points per 100 possessions.
That figure smokes the Miami Heat’s league-leading 109.6 points per 100 possessions. It’s extremely important for L.A. to put out as much firepower as possible, because its defense is not yet championship-ready.
Rivers shared as much with Dan Woike of the Orange County Register prior to the All-Star break:
Our numbers say we’re better than what I think we are, at times. I think we’ve shown that we can do it, in quarters, even in games and even in stretches. We’ll go three or four games doing it, but it has to be a consistency thing. That’s our next step.
The three-guard lineup is at the mercy of big perimeter players, and that could hurt L.A. on the boards and in the low-post area if opponents decide to post up their perimeter players. The Clippers have a top-10 defense, but they are prone to breakdowns. The rotations aren’t always crisp, and as a result, teams can get easy looks.
Against mediocre teams, the Clippers' frontcourt athleticism helps erase of some their mistakes, but playoff opponents will seize on their shortcomings and relentlessly attack them.
Rivers might very well get his unit ready by the start of the postseason, but in the event that proves to be a failure, L.A. will have to reach the mountaintop with a blistering offense and a defense that is great in spurts.
The Clippers have the talent to pull it off—they just need to be at full health.
Statistical information accurate as of March 22, 2014.