Los Angeles Clippers Strong in January: Could Clips Be a 2011 Playoff Team?

Perry SchwartzCorrespondent IIIFebruary 5, 2011

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 12:  Baron Davis #5 of the Los Angeles Clippers gathers Blake Griffin #32 and Eric Gordon #10 for a chat during the game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center on January 12, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

After a miserable 1-13 start to the season, the Clippers seemed poised to roll over and let the 2010-2011 season fade away. Instead, the Clippers have played better than .500 ball since December 1, including a 14-7 record in January. The Clippers, led by new coach Vinny Del Negro, are now playing with a purpose, aiming for a playoff spot.

When you think of the Clippers nowadays, you immediately think of rookie All-Star Blake Griffin. The first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Griffin has become a human highlight reel and one of the best players in the NBA.

Griffin, the athletic power forward, has gotten better each month, raising his points per game averages from 20.9 in November to 23 in February to 26 points per game in January. With 12.9 rebounds per contest, Griffin is fourth in the NBA in that category.

Most importantly for the Clippers, they have been in almost every ball game and have not shied away from the best teams in the league. Since the start of December, the Clippers have beaten Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Chicago and the Lakers.

Point guard Baron Davis has bounced back from a slow start to the season, and really a disappointing first two years with the Clippers.

Sometimes it seems as if Baron Davis only tries if he is motivated. Surrounding Davis with a star like Blake Griffin may have been just what Davis needed to step up his game.

Davis missed most of November, and had a terrible December, averaging just 9 points per game, 7.5 less than his career average. Worst of all, Davis shot just 38 percent from the floor and 20 percent from behind the three point line. In December, once the Clippers showed they were a competitive team, Davis' intensity increased.

The Clipper point guard averaged 15.6 points per game in January on a solid 44.6 percent shooting, and increased his 3 point percentage to a respectable 35.1 percent. Davis also improved his defense, averaging 1.4 steals per contest. One of the most exciting plays around the league has been Davis' alley-oop passes to Griffin, a frequent SportsCenter top 10 highlight.

The Clippers offense as a whole has been better than expected, in
big part because of Eric Gordon's breakout season. The Los Angeles shooting guard is averaging 24.1 points per game, eighth most in the NBA, on 46.8 percent shooting.

Gordon sprained his wrist two weeks ago against Golden State, and is now listed as day-to-day. Randy Foye has done a fine job at shooting guard in the meantime, averaging over 12 points per game since replacing Gordon in the starting lineup.

Chris Kaman, a 2009-2010 all-star and arguably the best Clipper last season, is expected to come back in the next week. Kaman averaged 18.5 and 9.3 rebounds a game last season, but has been sidelined with an injured left knee for most of the season. It is almost as if Chris Kaman and Blake Griffin switched places from a year ago, as Griffin was sidelined last season due to his left knee and is now the lone Clipper All-Star.

Besides Griffin, Gordon and Davis, the Clippers have received solid play from a number of other guys.

Center Deandre Jordan has done a great job all season long doing the dirty work, averaging 1.4 blocks and 7.1 rebounds per contest.

Ryan Gomes and Al-Farouq Aminu have split time at the small forward position, each providing some nice minutes. The Clippers have also gotten solid play from bench players Ike Diogu and Eric Bledsoe.

After that great January, two losses in a row to start February now has the Clippers seven games out of a playoff spot. For them to make the playoffs, they will have to jump over five Western Conference teams.

The Clippers have shown since the beginning of December that they are a competitive team and one of the best rebounding teams in the league, but they will have to severely improve their 3-16 road record and limit their turnovers to have any chance of making the playoffs.

Like so many other years, Clipper fans are optimistic that they can improve and make the playoffs next season, despite having made just one playoff appearance since 1992. However, with a star power forward in Griffin, as well as young talent surrounding him, the Clippers just might be a consistent playoff team in years to come.