LA Clippers Can't Afford to Stumble While Western Conference Door Is Open

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistNovember 4, 2014

Nov 2, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (left) talks with Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (right) prior to the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers have an opportunity. The problem is that they're not taking advantage of it.

It may only be a week into the season, but the Western Conference looks more open than it did heading into the year—with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs, of course.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are missing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. "This is Perry Jones' team now" was never supposed to be uttered in 2014. But it has been—many, many times over the past week. 

The Clippers, meanwhile, are struggling as much as any "elite" 3-1 team can, barely pulling out victories against the hapless Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz and losing to the Sacramento Kings at home.

"Elite" isn't in quotes because the Clippers don't fit that category. It's far too early to make sweeping generalizations because of four ugly games.

But of all the top-tier teams that aren't dealing with injuries, the Clippers have struggled the most to put together a full quarter of effective, two-way basketball, finally doing so against the Jazz on Monday night.

There was a clear top three heading into this season: the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. After them, everyone else seemed to fall in some order—you pick it—from No. 4 through No. 9 in the West.

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But it's not like the difference between the expected third seed and anticipated fourth seed was going to be eight games. 

Don Ryan/Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors' free-flowing offense stands to make a jump from 12th in points per possession, where it positioned itself before Steve Kerr came to town. Now, the Warriors are a team with top-10 offense and top-10 defense potential—and maybe even better than that.

The Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, have a healthier (and noticeably slimmer) Marc Gasol and look poised to win 50-plus games once again. The Dallas Mavericks have loaded up on Chandlers and, in turn, will probably start packing wins into the state of Texas.

Is there enough room in that state to fit 160-plus victories from the three Texan teams? Actually, who am I kidding? It's Texas.

All of those aforementioned squads could should get to 50 wins. If they don't, it's a disappointment. And through four games, which could end up looking completely insignificant even by next week, the Clippers aren't playing like a 50-win team.

They'll get there. They'll probably go beyond such a marker, considering they won 57 a year ago, but if you woke up from a five-year coma Monday evening and watched the Clips barely squeak out a win against the Jazz, you'd think differently of LA's reputation.

Sure, some of these issues are clear early-season ones, like the shooting. The Clips have made only 32.5 percent of their three-point looks. But they're getting open opportunities. 

Sharp-shooter J.J. Redick is 6-of-28 from long range, but check out some of these shots:

NBA.com

Good-looking attempts for a man with better-looking hair. They're just not going in the hoop.

Eventually, those shots are going to turn into makes. Heck, it could happen any game now. If quality shooters like Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul and Spencer Hawes were having this four-game streak in the middle of January, it wouldn't be nearly as noticeable. 

“You’re going to have games where you miss shots and shots aren’t falling,” Blake Griffin said after the Clippers' Sunday night loss to the Kings, via Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner. “But if you’re getting open shots, then you’re running your offense correctly. We’re happy with those. I think we’ll make those next time.”

That said, there are some struggles that look like they could sustain.

The defensive rebounding has been a problem, as anyone could guess it would be considering the Clips finished 26th in defensive rebound rate a season ago.

DeAndre Jordan has failed often on box outs. Wings like Redick, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Crawford grab boards at below-average rates for their positions. Griffin is leaking like a broken sink, even though the Clippers are failing to get out in transition effectively (a problem likely to go away soon).

It's not just rebounding. It's the defense in general.

Matt Barnes, who looks a year older and step slower, isn't acting as the effective perimeter stopper his reputation boasts. He's part of the reason why OKC is now "Perry Jones' team," after Jones dropped 32 on the Clips in an almost-victory Oct. 30.

The wings are getting the brunt of the criticism, but ultimately, the defense as a whole has had problems. 

Sure, perimeter defenders have been sieves, but Jordan is nowhere near as sharp on his rotations as he was in the second half of last season. Hawes isn't the defensive presence the Clippers would like to have off the bench. And Griffin, who should be helping the helper whenever Jordan shifts over to cover for a teammate, has been late on his rotations, biting on pump fakes consistently while finding himself showing far too hard on some pick-and-rolls, like this one against the Kings:

NBA.com

Griffin doesn't recover in time, forcing Jordan to switch off DeMarcus Cousins and onto the screener, Blake's man, Jason Thompson. Griffin doesn't recognize the switch—perhaps because of insufficient communication on someone's part—gets to Cousins late and commits a lunging, flat-footed foul to give the Kings center a three-point play.

The problems go beyond Griffin's recovery ability, historically a weakness in his game. Blake actually gets hung up on his own man and can't even get by him.

The Clippers cleaned up this rotation a bit in the Jazz game the next night, but the overall issue is still present. If you want success against LA's defense right now, put it in sets in which it needs to communicate to stop you.

These are the sorts of issues we're seeing far more often now than we did near the end of last season. The Clippers may have a similar core to last year, but they are still adjusting. And they're doing it on the bench as much as on the court.

LA essentially lost its entire coaching staff, save Doc Rivers, this offseason. Tyronn Lue left for Cleveland. Alvin Gentry, who was responsible for the Clips' No. 1-ranked offense a season ago, headed to Golden State.

The Clippers brought in Mike Woodson, Sam Cassell and Lawrence Frank. With that, there are some changes and some differences from last year.

We've seen Woodson's offensive fingerprints with the heavy isolation for Griffin and the over-reliance on his mid-range jumper. As Jovan Buha said during Sunday's episode of ClipperBlog Live, parts of the Clippers' attack look a little "Knicksy."

Nov 2, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay (8) attempts a shot defended by Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) during the third quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers are too talented not to turn this around after a slow start. It would be silly to assume otherwise.

Remember, just last season, LA ranked 29th in points allowed per possession (login required) through its first 11 games, ahead of only the Jazz. At that point, no one thought the Clips could defend well enough to contend for a championship. But things changed, even if that wasn't expected at the time.

DeAndre progressed, as did Griffin, as did chemistry, as did communication, and the Clippers posted the seventh-ranked defense (login required) the rest of the way.

It's been three games. The sky is still perfectly intact, even if there are apparent structural flaws within the Clippers' system and on the roster—something you could say about any team not named the Spurs. Still, they have a golden chance to earn a high seed, maybe the top one in the West.

The Thunder have two of the NBA's 10 best players in suit and tie (or in Westbrook's case, dressed in aluminum foil). The Spurs will sporadically rest guys throughout the season. Then there's LA, the third of the assumed preseason top three.

The Clippers will eventually figure out their early struggles and return to expected form. But in a loaded Western Conference and with the first tough game of the year right around the corner—Nov. 5 at Golden State—the question remains, will they win their mojo back too late for them to earn a top seed? 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Nov. 3 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.