Why It's Too Soon to Believe Los Angeles Clippers Are Playoff Threats

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, left, forward Blake Griffin, center, and center DeAndre Jordan, right, talk on the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
Jonathan Bachman

If you think the Los Angeles Clippers have elevated themselves to a new level of postseason potency, prepare to be disappointed. Not all regular-season records are built upon the firmest of foundations, and—more importantly—the perfect storm for a Clippers implosion has been brewing all season long.

We've seen this story before. The Clippers looked like second-round locks last season after securing the fourth seed in the West. They had won seven straight going into the playoffs and were pounding teams by an average margin of 6.5 points—more than the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs or third-seeded Denver Nuggets.

They had beaten the Memphis Grizzlies in three of four regular-season meetings. They trumped them twice more in Games 1 and 2 of the first round.

Then it happened—four straight losses that left the Clippers scratching their heads, a sequence that was no doubt instrumental in ushering in the Doc Rivers era once and for all.

And for good reason. Rivers has been around the block. He knows how to get the most out of his troops, how to avoid the kind of disappointments that defined the Vinny Del Negro years. Predictably enough, the Clippers are better this season, and they stand a good chance of finishing a seed ahead of last season.

That's all well and good, but it doesn't change what's working against them come playoff time.



The Clippers' biggest obstacle may be finding a little good luck. On the one hand, Chris Paul's health has had a checkered history. The toll placed on Blake Griffin's body on account of his explosive play around the basket also poses complications. If Griffin's back spasms turn into a protracted struggle, these playoffs will be a one-and-done venture for the Clippers.

Even bigger questions lurk around the margins.

J.J. Redick hasn't played since early February due to a bulging disk in his back. He hopes to return before the season is over, but no official return date has been set. Even if he does make it back in time for the first round, it's hard to imagine him playing without some significant rust—the kind of rust that makes life for a perimeter shooter especially difficult.

Danny Granger is missing time with a strained hamstring, and that's a huge disadvantage for a guy still trying to grow accustomed to life as a Clipper.

Even Jamal Crawford missed time this March with a strained calf, though he's back in the fold in playing at his usual level, albeit a little unevenly.

Even under the best-case scenarios, the Clippers are entering the playoffs with some bumps and bruises. They still have time to heal up and may do so just in time, but there are enough injury histories on this roster to make you worry. 


The Rest of the West

To their credit, the Clippers have played pretty well against many of the leagues good teams. They've beaten the Houston Rockets in all four meetings. They've even picked up two of three games against the Oklahoma City Thunder

But they've also shown signs of struggle against the most elite teams, losing twice to the Miami Heat and getting beaten handily in the two most recent meetings with the Spurs. The Clippers split their season series with the Golden State Warriors 2-2, but it's worth noting they gave up 115 points in their first win.

Rivers' defensive philosophy has had more time to sink in since then, but you still get the sense this team is uneven when it comes to stopping the best scorers. Los Angeles ranks just 13th in points allowed, surprising given that they're sixth in opponent field-goal percentage. To some degree, that speaks to pace.

But it also speaks to the fact that they're 17th in rebounds per game and 19th in rebound differential, getting out-rebounded by an average of nearly one board per game, per ESPN.com. In short, the Clippers aren't controlling possessions the way they should be with a front line that boasts Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

The Clippers lead the league in scoring, but they're 21st in field-goal attempts. The glass-half-full analysis is that they're extremely efficient. But the bad news is they're giving up 84.6 field-goal attempts per game, the 23rd-worst mark in the league. Against teams that make the most of those possessions, the Clippers are in a little bit of trouble.

By the numbers, Los Angeles is still very good. It's just not dominant. Electric, yes—but not dominant. 

You can't put that on Griffin or Paul. They're doing their jobs, arguably better than ever. But you can certainly scrutinize the rest of the rotation.


The Supporting Cast

David Zalubowski

With or without injured J.J. Redick in the fold, the Clippers' depth leaves something to be desired. Jared Dudley and Willie Green haven't contributed especially consistently or efficiently. And behind Griffin and Jordan, L.A. has to rely on the uneven Glen Davis—recently dispatched to the locker room mid-game due to a spat with Rivers.

Matt Barnes remains a fighter, but he's not shooting well at all.

Matt Barnes' jumper won't cut it on LAC's wing.
Matt Barnes' jumper won't cut it on LAC's wing.NBA.com

And there's no telling what the Clippers will get out of Danny Granger, who's still working to find his rhythm after a midseason trade from his longtime home with the Indiana Pacers.

That leaves Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison as the club's surest things on the bench. To be sure, Crawford is a pretty good guy to have on that bench—albeit still a defensive liability in almost every way. Collison could himself register as a useful sixth man on many teams, but his opportunities behind Chris Paul will be limited unless injuries continue to plague L.A.

But other teams have productive sixth men, too, whether its the Spurs' Manu Ginobili or the Thunder's Reggie Jackson. One star off the bench doesn't equate to depth in the grand scheme of things, even if not especially when rotations are shortened in the postseason.

The real questions for the Clippers are: Who picks up the slack on the wing? Can Davis and Ryan Hollins answer the bell in the paint? Who settle in as the seventh and eighth guys off the bench?

Most of the other teams in the West have those questions answered already, but it's hard to say the same for the Clippers. Injuries have complicated matters, but legitimate excuses aren't much consolation with the playoffs just around the corner. Depth is still a necessity.

The Clippers look much deeper than they are. There are, for example, plenty of scorers—but what of the role players who can make a pronounced impact in 15 or 20 minutes of action? Where's the gritty guy inside? Where's the stopper? The kind of archetypal personalities who win titles are still missing on this roster, a roster that seems better built for video game domination than winning real championships.

So it should come as no surprise that the regular-season wins have come effortlessly enough more often than not. And it won't come as any surprise when the playoff effort just isn't there.

Doc Rivers can right a lot of wrongs, but not even he can fix that.