The Los Angeles Clippers started out the season 1-13. All the summertime optimism surrounding their seemingly playoff-caliber roster (led by Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, and Chris Kaman) had all but vanished.
Their next streak was slightly better with four wins in their next 12, but the Clips' record still stood at 5-21. The only positives were Griffin's emergence as a human highlight reel and Gordon's cracking the top ten in league scoring. Then Kaman went down to injury, leaving a gaping hole at center.
However, the Clippers are now 14-25 and winners of 9 of their last 13, including victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Chicago Bulls. Suddenly the Clippers are only five games behind eighth-seed Portland, and have positioned themselves back in the playoff conversation with half the season to go.
Baron Davis understands his role now. Here's a recent quote from the Clippers' floor general.
"These two guys (Griffin and Gordon) are unstoppable; it's up to me and the rest of us to make sure we make their job easier and I'll be the centerpiece of that."
Davis understands now that he does not have to be the star of this team, but a facilitator who is still capable of taking games over when necessary.
Statistically speaking, Davis's 10.7 ppg and 6.8 apg averages may not be the high point of his career, but from a facilitator standpoint, the 6.8 mark puts him in between guys like Jameer Nelson (6.7 apg) and Tony Parker (6.9 apg). Nelson and Parker are both capable of leading their teams to the NBA Finals and in Parker's case, championship rings (don't forget Parker was the 2007 Finals MVP). To be in the middle of those guys is not bad at all. Plus, the Clippers bring in Eric Bledsoe off the bench, who chips in another four assists a game.
The Clippers are getting about 11 assists a game from their point guards, most of those going out to feed the monster Griffin and the growing star Gordon.
To get to 50 wins in the NBA, you have to have one of your guards/small forward be an elite star. There are teams with three stars like the Celtics, there are teams with two stars like Miami, and then there are teams like the Lakers, who have one megastar in Kobe Bryant who puts them in position to win night after night.
The Clippers now have that with Eric Gordon. Here's a list of the top five scorers among shooting guards.
1. Monta Ellis: 25.7 ppg
2. Kobe Bryant: 25.3 ppg
3. Dwyane Wade: 25.1 ppg
4. Eric Gordon: 23.9 ppg
5. Kevin Martin: 23.0 ppg
What I find interesting about this list is Gordon finds himself in the midst of two all-time greats with Kobe and Wade, guys capable of carrying a team to the NBA title on their own, but also amongst the likes of Kevin Martin and Monta Ellis. If Martin spends the rest of his career in Houston and Ellis does the same in Golden State, unless they bring in another star, those guys will most likely retire without an NBA ring.
The good news for Gordon and the Clippers is he doesn't have to carry the team on his shoulders. They have a superstar down low who can handle some of the load. But more on that later.
This summer I thought the Clippers had an interesting sales pitch to LeBron: come be the small forward surrounded by Davis, Gordon, Griffin, and Kaman. Had LeBron known how much of a star Griffin would become, maybe he would've given them more thought.
The small forward position desperately needs to be filled. The LeBron addition would have definitely have made this team instant title contenders, but I don't think a big-time scorer is really what they need to find for this position.
Before I address who they should go out and get, let me address who they have right now. Ryan Gomes and Al-Farouq Aminu are both quality, seven points per game type of players. Each of them would make great backups in this league, but not that's it. The Clippers should keep both around and see if Aminu develops into a big time player and use Gomes' size and defense off the bench.
One trade I think that makes a lot of sense for the Clippers is sending Chris Kaman back to Michigan for Detroit's Tayshaun Prince. Their contracts are very similar with Prince making 11 million this year and Kaman making 11 this year, 12 in the next. Inserting Prince into this lineup gives them around 12-15 ppg but more importantly the type of defense that can bother Kobe, Carmelo, or Durant in the playoffs. Prince would not have to be the leading scorer on this team, but having his veteran presence to go along with Davis and the mixture of youth and experience in their starting lineup would have a high seed terrified of their first-round matchup.
Blake Griffin is not just an All-Star, he's a first-team all-NBA type of guy this season.
When creating an all-NBA first team, you go with either Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo at the point, Kobe at the shooting guard, Lebron James or Kevin Durant at the small forward. Then it becomes a little more difficult.
Is Dirk Nowitzki really a power forward? Is Amar'e considered a power forward or center? Even though it seems strange to put Kevin Love above Dwight Howard, how long can we deny Love's monster season?
Here's how they all look next to each other, plus Blake Griffin and Pau Gasol, you pick the two you would put as your starters in the post:
Player A: 23.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.4 apg
Player B: 21.9 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 3.4 apg
Player C: 18.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
Player D: 21.7 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 1.2 apg
Player E: 21.2 ppg, 15.7 rpg, 2.5 apg
Player F: 26.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
As you can see, the six players are extremely close in their statistics and depending on voters' preference a case could be made for all of them. But I think in the "blind taste test" type of format Player B (Blake Griffin) and Player E (Kevin Love) find themselves making just as strong a case as the bigger names like Amar'e (F), Dirk (A), Howard (D), and Gasol (C).
Blake Griffin is the reason this team has a chance at becoming really special. He's been the most exciting player in the league so far this season.
Chris Kaman is trying to make his return to the roster before the Clippers head out on their brutal road trip.
The Clippers should be in no hurry to part with Kaman, he is still a top 10 center in this league, a double-double machine, and the pairing of him with Griffin provides great size for battles in the rugged West. However, if DeAndre Jordan continues to improve and a deal like Kaman for Prince opens up, the Clippers should look into it, but trading away Kaman for average players and draft picks would be nuts.
We'll have to wait and see how this all develops, but if Kaman can return healthy he definitely elevates this team's low-post presence to one of the best in the league.
I think the best way to explain this is the Clippers just beat the Los Angeles Lakers while the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Lakers by 55.
When you see the Clippers as 13th in the Western Conference, it is somewhat misleading. At 14-25, the Clippers would be 10th in the Eastern Conference, only a couple games out of the playoffs. The teams behind them out West will not be closing in on them anytime soon, Sacramento is a surprising mess while Minnesota doesn't have the type of guard play to match the Clippers.
The Clippers are on their way up and have distanced themselves from the T'Wolves, Kings, Cavs, Nets, Wizards, Raptors, and Pistons.
Their sights are on the teams above them, not the teams behind.
Out West, the playoff picture can be broken down like this:
San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz
The Almost Guarantee
New Orleans Hornets
Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Portland Traiblazers, Houston Rockets
Up And Coming Teams
Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors
In the West, you are really fighting for three spots since the top five remains solid. The Hornets will take one of these playoff spots, which means the Clippers have to surpass six other teams.
If the Nuggets lose Carmelo and Billups to the Nets, they take themselves out of the playoff picture. However, if they hold onto this current roster, I see no reason why they don't come in anywhere between sixth and eighth.
Steve Nash is essentially trying to will this flawed Suns team back to the playoffs. Without Amar'e, this team is nowhere near the Western Conference finals, but with improved depth from the Magic trade, they could find themselves back in.
As for the rest, the Trail Blazers have a star power forward surrounded by role players, Houston is lacking depth and the Yao injury keeps them from being elite, the Grizzlies have the pieces, and the Warriors have great guard play. The Clippers are not going to somehow magically pass these teams, they have to either develop the small forward spot or bring back a productive Kaman to climb the ranks.
The Clippers are only two games behind the Warriors and three games behind the Suns. The advantage the Clippers have turning to two different superstars is something neither the Suns or Warriors have.
As for Houston and Memphis, both these teams have to go up against their divisional opponents in the Spurs, Mavs, and Hornets, along with games against each other. The Southwest Division has no easy victories and the Grizzlies and Rockets may beat up on one another.
The tough jumps are over the Trail Blazers and Nuggets. If the Nuggets keep their guys, I see no way the Clippers surpass them. However, I think the Clippers are almost at the same level as the Trail Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin cancel each other out. Eric Gordon is better than Wes Matthews. Baron Davis or Andre Miller is a toss-up. Marcus Camby versus a healthy Chris Kaman. Portland has the five-game head start, but I don't see how this team can continue to win consistently without Brandon Roy.
The Clippers could get the seventh seed out West, but in all reality, the eighth seed may be the max for this team.
Carmelo stays in Denver. Phoenix captures some of last year's magic. Memphis plays to their potential. Wes Matthews continues to grow as a player and helps fill in the gap left by Roy.
All these are scenarios where even if the Clippers finish the rest of the year strong they could be on the outside looking in.
What really hurts the Clippers playoff chances is the way they opened the season. When you start out in a 1-13 or 5-21 hole, it's incredibly hard to dig yourself out. In the Western Conference, you usually need 45-plus wins to make the playoffs. To reach this mark, the Clippers would have to finish the year 29-14. While the goal is attainable, the Clippers are going to have to pile up the wins in January before their brutal February road trip. Here's a look at one of the hardest stretch of road games I've ever seen:
Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, (Cleveland Cavaliers), (Toronto Raptors), Milwaukee Bucks, (Minnesota Timberwolves), Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Hornets, Los Angeles Lakers.
No road games in the NBA are easy, so even the games I put in parenthesis against lesser opponents will be challenging since they will find themselves worn down from the others. The Clippers will absolutely need to capitalize on those three easier games and try to steal a couple others to stay on pace for a 29-14 finish.
If the Clippers were 20-20 right now, I would have a lot of confidence in saying they could get to the playoffs, but having to recover from their horrendous start will probably send the Clippers back to the NBA Draft to find another piece to complete their always-improving starting lineup.