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Meet the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's Forgotten Contender

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2015

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It was only last fall that the Los Angeles Clippers loomed large as a trendy NBA championship pick.

But it feels like an eternity with the 180-degree turn the public has taken since. Somehow, a star-studded squad with a decorated coach in one of the world's premier media markets has nearly disappeared from basketball's radar.

This logic-defying ride transformed a preseason favorite into an overlooked, overqualified postseason sleeper.

But you won't hear that talk outside the organization. It's hard hearing anything over those alarm sirens that are unnecessarily blaring. Teams of this ilk are typically lavished with praise. For one reason or another, hoop heads have decided they are unwilling to look past the Clippers' faults.

"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," wrote Bleacher Report's Fred Katz.

Admittedly, the Clippers have their warts.

Their paper-thin wing never got the attention it needed and now must compensate for the indefinite loss of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford (calf). Their defensive answer to opposing perimeter scorers is 35-year-old Matt Barnes. Their backup bigs—Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis—are as underwhelming as a reserve frontcourt can get.

But good luck finding a concern-free contender. Every team has issues; LA's have just been over-scrutinized by the public.

Sharpshooter J.J. Redick discussed the changing tide with Grantland's Zach Lowe on The Lowe Post podcast:

I don't think we're well-liked. ... We're not liked by the referees at all. ... Our team's personality, we're mercurial. Some games, the body language—all of us—it's there. Some games it's not there. We have the talent, so then people are saying, 'Why aren't they doing what the [Golden State] Warriors are doing?' or whatever it may be. It seems like the inconsistency is part of that. Some people write us off, and some people just don't like us.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Chris Paul #3 and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers argue a foul call with referee Courtney Kirkland #61 during a 101-97 Clipper win over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on December 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, Cali
Harry How/Getty Images

The Clippers bring some of that dislike on themselves.

They lead the league with 81 technical fouls. No one has else has more than 72 (Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns). L.A. isn't above complaining about injustices—real and perceived—and fans can tire of what they see as constant kvetching.

But playoff games aren't decided by popularity. Postseason survival requires top-tier talent, good coaching and two-way balance.

Despite what their critics might think, the Clippers check off every applicable box.

Their superstar tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is as productive as any NBA pairing.

Last season, Paul and Griffin were the only teammates to both finish among the top 10 in MVP votes. This year, they're the only ones to each have top-10 player efficiency ratings.

Two players don't make a championship team, but the Clippers are more than their dynamic duo.

DeAndre Jordan is on pace to lead the league in both rebounding and field-goal percentage for the second consecutive season. Redick is having a career shooting year from the field and deep, and he's been scorching of late (21.8 points on 50 percent shooting over his last 11 games). Barnes has never had this much success with the long ball (38.2 three-point percentage).

Among the six five-man lineups that have played at least 450 minutes this season, only Golden State's starters have enjoyed more success. And the gap between the two Pacific Division rivals is negligible.

Since Paul's arrival, this group has struggled to translate regular-season success into playoff triumphs. The Clippers have won two postseason series over the last three years, never advancing past the conference semifinals.

Given Paul's similarly underwhelming track record in the second season, it's tempting to write this team off as a true contender.

But just consider the hurdles that have previously been placed in its path. Rivers only grabbed the reins in 2013. The players were still learning the coach's system when both parties were sideswiped by the Donald Sterling debacle during last year's playoffs.

This is an experienced core, but a relatively young one in terms of playing together. While some might see the Clippers as slipping, they're actually enjoying organic growth.

"Last year was our first year together as a group with Doc [Rivers] and figuring stuff out," Redick said, per Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner. "I think we're on the way to figuring it out."

The numbers have painted L.A. as an elite team all season. The Clippers have the league's second-best net efficiency rating and fifth-highest winning percentage.

But the balance they've shown in recent weeks is what really solidifies their stance as legitimate contenders. Early on, they simply overwhelmed with offense. Now, they're controlling contests on both sides of the ball.

Turning the Corner Since the All-Star Break
PeriodOffensive RatingRankDefensive RatingRank
Pre All-Star110.5First104.419th
Post All-Star106.3Fifth99.5Sixth
Overall109.4Second103.1T-17th
NBA.com

Only two teams have top-six efficiency marks at both ends since the All-Star break: the Warriors and the Clippers.

"I like where we're at," Rivers said, per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. "I like how through the year, we just kept creeping in, getting better."

The Clippers are currently riding their longest winning streak since January (five games and counting). Since suffering a four-game skid in early February, L.A. has won 14 of its last 20. That's a .700 winning percentage, a number only cleared by the Warriors and Atlanta Hawks this season.

Outside of Crawford's injury, everything is quietly falling into place.

"This year's Clips are whole, and they're healthy, and they're going to be scary from now until their last dying breath this spring," wrote Hardwood Paroxysm's Evans Clinchy. "Eventually, public perception will converge with reality, and we'll all realize we're witnessing a special team."

LOS ANGELES, LA -  NOVEMBER 15: Blake Griffin #32, DeAndre Jordan #6 and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the game on November 15, 2014 at STAPLES CENTER in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Clippers will still be judged on their playoff success, but they're ready and waiting for the exam.

Paul can see the hole on his resume like everyone else. Rivers the coach has heard all the criticisms of Rivers the executive. The entire organization knows Jordan's venture into unrestricted free agency at season's end will result in a mammoth dealpaid either by the Clips or a center-hungry suitor.

They need to make their move now, and they have the pieces to do it. The Clippers might be forgotten, but they're far from finished in this championship race.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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