At the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, oddsmakers set the two-time defending champion Miami Heat as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2014 title, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver. The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder entered the year as the biggest challengers to Miami, according to the preseason Vegas odds.
Now, with one month remaining until the postseason, it's not only time to add the Los Angeles Clippers to the list of legitimate contenders; it's time to consider them title favorites.
Since the All-Star break, the Clippers rank third in the league in offensive rating (averaging 110.6 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive rating (allowing only 99.7 points per 100 possessions). They've been thrashing opponents on both ends of the court, and it's not just a recent trend.
On the season, Los Angeles is second in offensive rating (111.7 points per 100 possessions) and tied for eighth in defensive rating (104.3 points per 100 possessions). In short, the squad has excelled both offensively and defensively all season and has maintained that dominance in recent weeks (unlike Miami and Indiana).
With a championship-winning coach in Doc Rivers at the helm, there's little reason to believe the Clippers aren't capable of making a deep run into May and June. A balanced approach and a glut of talent have Los Angeles' other NBA franchise dreaming big this year.
The Beauty of Balance
Unlike most of the other realistic title contenders, the Clippers don't have an easily exploitable weakness on either end of the court.
Rebounding could undo Miami's quest for a three-peat, for instance, while offensive stagnancy could prevent Indiana from breaking through to the Finals. Oklahoma City could meet its maker due to lackluster three-point defense, and free-throw shooting may hold Houston back from taking home the title.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is equally dominant on both offense and defense.
Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats
Offensively, the Clippers rank first in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77) and fourth in assist percentage, dishing out helpers on 62.8 percent of their baskets. They're fourth in both effective field-goal percentage (.526) and true shooting percentage (.566).
Their lone weakness on that side of the floor is free-throw shooting, as their 73 percent clip from the charity stripe ranks 26th in the league. Center DeAndre Jordan, who's shooting 45.4 percent from the free-throw line this year, is mostly to blame for that subpar mark.
Defensively, opponents shoot a league-low 33.2 percent from three-point range against the Clippers. Overall, the squad only allows opponents to convert 44.2 percent of their field-goal attempts, the sixth-best mark in the league.
The Clippers rank fifth in the NBA in opponent effective field-goal percentage (.484) and ninth in opponent turnover percentage, generating 14 takeaways per 100 possessions. Their major weakness defensively is the number of offensive rebounds their opponents corral (12.2 per game, tied for 28th).
The San Antonio Spurs are the only team aside from the Clippers to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating since the All-Star break. The Clips' well-roundedness will pay dividends as the Western Conference playoffs get underway, as the team can adapt its play accordingly depending on matchups.
An Embarrassment of Riches
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required) recently used three measures of player value—his wins above replacement player (WARP), Basketball-Reference's Win Shares and John Hollinger's Estimated Wins Added (EWA)—to determine the league's most valuable players this season.
The Clippers were the only team with two top-six players (Paul, fourth, and Griffin, sixth) and one of only two teams with two top-10 players (along with Oklahoma City).
Paul, widely considered the league's best point guard, is the engine that makes the Clippers run on offense. He leads the league in both assists per game (10.9) and steals per game (2.5), and also ranks fifth in player efficiency rating (26.14).
Ironically, temporarily losing such a vital cog appears to have only strengthened the Clippers.
When CP3 went down with a separated shoulder, the squad's remaining players had no choice but to survive and thrive without him, as center DeAndre Jordan told Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes: "Honestly, we learned how to play without him and everybody had to step up their game, 1-14, on our team. We’ll have to depend on each other throughout the playoffs and we know there will be games when people go down and other guys have to step up."
No one player exemplifies that mindset more than Griffin. Though he was already showing signs of improvement before CP3 went down, he vaulted himself into legitimate Most Valuable Player territory during Paul's absence.
Over the 18-game stretch in which Paul was sidelined, Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals per night. He posted an offensive rating of 122 and a true shooting percentage of .605 in that span, helping guide the Clippers to a 12-6 record without their star floor general.
Throw in Jordan, who leads the league in both rebounds per game (13.7) and field-goal percentage (.666), and Los Angeles has a veritable Big Three of its own, just as Rivers predicted before the start of the season.
The Clippers' strength isn't only in their Big Three, however. They also tout the NBA's deepest lineup.
Backup point guard Darren Collison and potential Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford each have above-average PERs this season. Rivers also expects shooting guard J.J. Redick, who's been sidelined since early February due to a bulging disc in his lower back, to return before the end of the regular season, per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi.
Assuming Redick can make it back by the playoffs, the Clippers would be adding a career 39 percent three-point shooter to their rotation. He'd only bolster the team's floor spacing offensively, which would be a case of the rich getting richer.
And speaking of the rich getting richer, how about Los Angeles' post-trade-deadline acquisitions of Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Danny Granger? Suddenly, the Clippers' flimsy frontcourt depth beyond Griffin and Jordan no longer appears to be a concern, as both Davis and Granger have proven deserving of spot backup minutes.
With the Paul-Griffin-Jordan triumvirate leading the way and a cast of capable complements surrounding them, the Clippers have the requisite blend of stars and sidekicks to win a championship this season.
What Can Stop Them?
Just because the squad is well-positioned to win a title doesn't mean Clippers fans should go out getting their "2014 Champion" tattoos just yet.
Internally, frontcourt foul trouble could prove problematic for Los Angeles in the playoffs, especially against teams with punishing post players, such as the Memphis Grizzlies.
Los Angeles leads the league in terms of frontcourt fouls per game (15.4), per HoopsStats.com. Griffin and Jordan average a team-high 3.3 whistles a night. If either player gets into early foul trouble, Davis or Ryan Hollins could be pressed into playing major minutes.
Even if the Clippers play up to par, the rest of the Western Conference won't go down without a knock-down, drag-out fight.
The Spurs have the league's best record (54-16) and the best point differential (plus-7.8). They also took the season series against the Clippers, 2-1, with L.A.'s only victory coming back in mid-December. (One of those two Spurs victories came in the Clippers' first game without Paul, for what it's worth.)
Grantland's Zach Lowe believes that, because of how well they've been playing as of late, the Spurs deserve to be considered the championship favorites:
Spurs, at this moment, have to be overall favorites to win the title. Problem is, West is so damn good, "favorite" status may not mean much.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 23, 2014
As he notes, however, that status is highly subject to change at any moment. With the Spurs relying heavily on three stars on the wrong side of 30, a single health-related blip could open the door for Los Angeles to advance to the NBA Finals.
Before the Clippers worry about San Antonio—they wouldn't meet until the Western Conference finals, assuming the playoff seeds hold—they must sweat a potential first-round matchup with their recent playoff nemesis, the Grizzlies.
The Clips bounced Memphis in an epic seven-game opening-round series back in 2012, but the Grizzlies got their revenge last year, sending Los Angeles home in six games.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have the size to negate Griffin and Jordan, while Mike Conley has proven unafraid of CP3 in years past. However, the Clippers' defense is vastly improved compared to previous seasons, and Memphis may not have the offensive firepower to counteract such upgrades.
Houston and Oklahoma City could also stand as roadblocks for Los Angeles on its quest for a championship, but the Clippers have records of 3-0 and 2-1 against those teams, respectively, this season.
They have no reason to fear either squad, as they've got the star power and depth to stand their ground against the James Harden-Dwight Howard duo in Houston and OKC's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
While the Clippers have an 0-4 combined record against the Heat and Indiana Pacers, neither squad is playing at its best in recent weeks (both are 7-7 in March). If Los Angeles can survive the meat grinder that will be this year's Western Conference playoffs, the squad will be playing with no shortage of confidence by the time it reaches the Finals.
With two top-10 players, the league's deepest lineup and few exploitable weaknesses, the Clippers are well positioned to make a run to the 2014 title. Don't sleep on them when filling out your NBA playoff brackets.