If you spent this year only watching the Los Angeles Clippers and following their coverage without actually looking at the standings, you would think Doc Rivers' team was in danger of missing the playoffs.
It's been a season of pessimism for those who task themselves as Clipper evaluators.
Doc hasn't given the stars enough help. They need another wing defender. They don't have a quality third big man. They're making moves that make no salary-cap sense. They have a bench filled with skeletons and marshmallows.
For most of the year, the Clips haven't actually played well. Yet their record stands at 46-25, good enough for the current No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. Now, though, the narrative should be changing.
The Clippers are sneakily putting it all together.
Sure, the flaws are still there. They still struggle to stop guys on the wings. Spencer Hawes is Hawesing as the third big man. The bench is as empty as a box of Pop-Tarts in the back of Glen Davis' kitchen cabinet. But some of those points are starting to become more moot as the true contributors step up their play.
Even as recently as the trade deadline, general logic said that the only way the Clippers could catapult themselves into a top-three seed in the West would be if they improved the roster. In some ways, they did. Signing Jordan Hamilton for the season does give L.A. an extra athlete on the perimeter, someone who is fundamentally unsound as a defender, but who makes a difference if only because of his size and physical gifts.
(If you don't know what I mean by "fundamentally unsound," watch Hamilton after he collapses into the lane to help on dribble penetration. He far too frequently backpedals while recovering to the corner. It ends up killing his balance more often than not, and he's gotten crossed over or failed on a closeout on multiple occasions because of it.)
Hamilton rarely ever plays, though, and the roster has actually gotten worse as Jamal Crawford has been sidelined with a calf injury for the past six games while expecting to miss even more time. Still, the Clippers are better. But how? They didn't actually make those major upgrades everyone wanted, and they saw the reigning Sixth Man of the Year drop in the process.
Well, there was one possibility we didn't really account for at the time all of this criticism flowed in most: The guys already in L.A. have gotten better.
The Clips finally have Blake Griffin back from his staph infection, even if he is playing short of 100 percent at the moment, dealing with atrophy in his right arm. Griffin is still, obviously, an energetic jolt to the team. But with Blake out, it seemed like everyone got better—everyone of consequence, at least.
J.J. Redick is shooting 43 percent from three and making 3.2 long balls per game over his past 11 contests, a stretch over which he's averaging 21.9 points a night.
Chris Paul is averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 assists since Feb. 23, reminding everyone that even though Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook have gotten most of the point guard pub this year, CP3 is a president among floor generals.
Then, there's DeAndre Jordan, the man who has stirred debate in every direction about the value of rebounding or the priorities to look for in a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Regardless of your opinion on D.J., though, whether you think he's the best defender in the league (an overstatement; sorry, Doc), a below-average one due to his undesirable on/off defensive numbers (an opinion that should lead to the annoying, "Just watch the games" response) or, if you're more nuanced and think he's just a top-six or -seven defensive center, he's undoubtedly gotten better over the past couple of moon cycles.
Jordan is averaging 13.7 points and 18.7 (!!) rebounds since this ridiculous hot streak started Feb. 9. He's posted 19 consecutive games of 14-plus rebounds, the longest streak the NBA has seen since Dennis Rodman did it for 24 straight contests during the 1992-93 season. At times, it's as if D.J. is heat checking rebounds.
Hitting the glass is pretty darn important, and Jordan is continuing this run even with the return of Griffin, who could be hogging some of those boards.
It's simple. Jordan is becoming (or has become) the best rebounder in the NBA. Period.
The Paul, Jordan and Redick hot streaks all come at a perfect time for the Clippers, too.
The current fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, have lost four consecutive games and find themselves just one up in the loss column on L.A. Portland can't relinquish a top-four seed because it owns a hardy lead in its division, but it can lose home-court advantage, turning itself into a de facto No. 5 seed, just like what happened when the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks met in the first round a few years back.
The Blazers are 3-5 since Wes Matthews went down for the year with an Achilles injury. The downward spiral is hardly out of nowhere. The Clippers have a legitimate chance to get home court—or maybe more, since they trail the Houston Rockets in the loss column by only two games.
And the news gets better...
Of all of the teams competing for seeds No. 2 through 7 in the West, L.A. has pretty handily the easiest schedule. The aggregate winning percentage of their remaining opponents? .443.
The Clippers are putting it all together at the right time. After a year of complaining, critiquing, fretting and kvetching, we could actually see L.A. wind up exactly where we thought it would during the preseason: among the top three in the West for a second consecutive year.
Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.