The Arguments For and Against Taking the Los Angeles Clippers Seriously

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2015

The Arguments For and Against Taking the Los Angeles Clippers Seriously

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Clippers have been somewhat confusing this year.

    They're good. Then, they're not good. Then, they're good again. Then, they struggle. Now, they're playing some dominant basketball, mowing over Eastern Conference teams on the way to a seven-game winning streak that brings them to a better-than-expected place in the Western Conference playoff race. 

    The bench is impotent at times, but the starters are dominant. The depth in the pool is absent, but when the water in the shallow end is replaced with gallons of '82 Bordeaux, who cares? And that's what makes this team so tough to figure out.

    Still, even at 49-25, do the Clippers look like contenders or pretenders? A reasonable person could make arguments for or against either side.

For: Look Where They Are

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    If you only listened to the whining and complaining from Clippers fans this season, you wouldn't realize the Clips were in preferable playoff position.

    Gripes about the depth or salary-cap problems or defense fail to highlight the most important part of the roster: A core of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul, which has proved it can run a perennial 55-win team regardless of the players around it.

    The Clips are starting to come together at the right time, too, even with Jamal Crawford (calf) out of the lineup.

    The team has won seven straight as it prepares to play the league-best Golden State Warriors on Tuesday evening. And somehow, it's put itself in a position to climb as high as the No. 2 seed in the West. 

    That's right, the Clips may be the current owners of the No. 5 seed (though they would have home-court advantage in the first round since they're a half-game better than the Portland Trail Blazers, who have to be top-four automatically since they lead their division), but they're only one game in the loss column back from the Houston Rockets and the sliding Memphis Grizzlies.

    The Clippers, though, aren't worried about seeding.

    "We'll play anybody," Doc Rivers said in early March, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. "That's our attitude."

    With a relatively cushy schedule the rest of the way, the Clips have a chance to continue making noise. The "struggles" may not show much—or at all—in the final record.

For: Shooting

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    For a second straight season, the Clippers lead the NBA in points per possession, but the team is scoring differently than it did a year ago.

    Actually, last year's Clippers were one of the worst long-range shooting squads of any team ever to lead the league in offensive rating. This year, they've flipped the switch.

    The Clips have jumped from 22nd to third in three-point percentage. They're throwing up a bunch of long-range shots, too, popping the fifth-most attempts from beyond the arc. 

    The odd part is that the improvement isn't coming from roster upgrades. It's mostly the same guys shooting threes. They're just doing them more effectively. 

    J.J. Redick is at 43.5 percent on the season and is hitting 3.1 threes per game over his past 12 contests, during which he's averaging 21.7 points a night.

    “Everyone prepares for him," Rivers explained, via Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. "You know it. Before the game, you can see it within 30 seconds how they’re trying to guard him. And, he makes the adjustment."

    It's not just Redick, either. Matt Barnes is knocking down a career-high 38 percent of his long balls. Paul is possibly having his greatest season from three-point land, sinking more bombs than ever while shooting the second-best percentage of his career. 

    It's basketball cliche to say that jump-shooting teams don't win in the postseason. But the truth is quite the contrary, actually. Just look at the squads from the past few years who have won it all: the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks were all based on ball-movement and quality shooting. You need that sort of game to space the floor in 2015. At the very least, the Clippers have that within their starting lineup.

For and Against: The Jamal Crawford Injury

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    How could the Jamal Crawford injury possibly be a good thing for the Clippers? 

    He's their entire bench. He's the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. He's still among the NBA's leaders in 20-point games off the bench, even after missing the past 13 contests with a calf injury that doesn't seem to be healing at the rate he'd prefer. The injury could keep him out until the playoffs, if not for the remainder of the season.

    The Clippers need him for the long-term, no question, but it's also quite the positive sign that they've been able to manage this winning streak with him out of the lineup. The Clips have dominated their opponents by 7.0 points per game in the matchups he's missed, and the aforementioned hot streaks have come during his absence..

    All that said, though, this team needs Crawford in the long-term.

    Some of the wins without him have come over teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. Sure, the Clippers have also beaten the Washington Wizards (who are struggling) and Oklahoma City Thunder, but it's mighty difficult to maintain this level of efficiency during a seven-game series, especially if they find themselves matched up against a team like the Spurs, Rockets or Grizzlies who can outbench them.

    And that Clippers bench is one of the main reasons the doubters exist...

Against: The Weak Bench

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Do we have to go over the on/off numbers for the featured members of the Clippers bench again? I guess we do.

    Here we go: 

    • The Clippers offense is a dreadful 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse when Spencer Hawes is on the floor. The man who was supposed to give them stretch at both the 4 and 5 hasn't really done either. He's knocking down just 31.7 percent of his threes, and defenses have no problem helping off him given his inaccuracy, his glacial release and his common hesitance to shoot. Hawes did recently start working with Clippers shooting coach Bob Thate, the man known for fixing Blake Griffin's jumper. They got in a short workout before the Clips played the Knicks on March 25. But shooting adjustments take longer than just a week or so. Maybe we'll see long-term effects if those two continue together, but it'd be silly to expect anything immediate.
    • They're 16.5 points per 100 possession worse with Glen Davis on the court. No, that's not any good, either.
    • Nate Robinson isn't even on the roster anymore as he recovers from a knee injury. If the Clippers do re-sign him—a possibility if he gets healthy and Lester Hudson doesn't impress during his current 10-day contract—it's unlikely he'd help much, either, considering he hasn't been a positive contributor to a team since before he went down with an ACL injury over a year ago.

    Let's just save some time here: Hedo Turkoglu and Austin Rivers don't have impressive on/off numbers, either. The bench is getting rocked left and right, even in blowouts—like in Sunday's game against the Celtics, when the Clippers opened up a 35-point second-half lead only to see the second unit squander it away and force the starters to close the fourth.

    Yes, the bench is a legitimate reason to doubt the Clippers as contenders. Crawford is far more important than he's shown to be during his short injury absence.

For and Against: Defense

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    There are two ways of evaluating the Clippers defense: Look at the full year or just the last couple of months.

    If you're voting for awards, then you have to consider the full season. It's why the Clippers being 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions is a legitimate argument against DeAndre Jordan winning Defensive Player of the Year.

    Since the merger, only two champions have had a defensive efficiency outside the league's top 10 during the regular season: The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1995 Rockets. Both of those squads were repeat champs who notoriously coasted through the regular season and then took their games to another level during the playoffs, especially in the cases of Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon. 

    So, that piece of trivia probably eliminates the Clips as contenders, right? Except there is another way of talking about the Clippers defense, one that's been different of late thanks to the work of Jordan.

    It's no secret that Jordan's been on fire over the past couple of months, jumping through games on a boarding binge that has him averaging 14.0 points and 18.1 rebounds over his past 22 contests.

    Yes, you read that rebound average correctly.

    The streak all started with a 22-point, 27-rebound performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 9. So, if Jordan is easily the Clippers' most important defender (and he's been a more active helper and rim protector over this streak, as well), then you'd think the Clips defense would improve with him. And boy, you'd think right.

    L.A. is third in points allowed per 100 possessions since that D.J. performance on Feb. 9. Talk about a change.

    A bunch has been made of Jordan's on/off numbers, too. The Clippers actually allow more points per possession with him on the floor, but since that Feb. 9 game, it's been the opposite. The defense has been 3.3 points per 100 better with D.J. playing. 

    It's all starting to make sense now.

    The elephant in the room here is that Feb. 9 is right around the time Griffin went out with a staph infection in his right elbow. After having his best defensive season last year (he was average, even above-average at certain aspects of guarding his position), Griffin's completely regressed, especially in his pick-and-roll recoveries—always a weak point for him, but one he cleaned up during his first season playing for Doc. 

    Still, though, Griffin has been a little better on D since coming back from the injury, and the Clippers have remained in the top five in points allowed per possession over the eight games he's played since returning. And in the end, it's all about Jordan.

    This is the second consecutive year Jordan has made an apparent improvement in the middle of the season. D.J.'s success is directly tied to the team's. If he continues playing on another level, maybe this isn't the 17th-best defense in the league.

Final Thoughts

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    There are still reasons to be concerned over the Clippers. The defense may be better of late, but the schedule has been easier. Even if the team slides into the playoffs with a top-two or -three seed (the most optimistic scenario), could its stinginess really prevail against an offense like the ones belonging to San Antonio or Dallas?

    Still, the Clippers are always going to have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.

    Let's say Jordan keeps playing at this level, Paul plays like he did during the postseason last year—excluding Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder—and Griffin returns to pre-injury form with an extra playoff jolt. That group getting hot can beat anyone. It cooling off can also lose to anyone.

    The Clips do have an inherent positive if they can get into the second or third round: They play the Warriors competitively, a trait almost no one else can boast. CP3 guards Stephen Curry about as well as anyone, and the Clippers' traps on pick-and-rolls are about as effective as they could want at getting the rock out of the potential MVP's hands.

    Actually, L.A. blew out Golden State back on Christmas. And the Warriors are not ones to get thoroughly outplayed often.

    Golden State is clearly the favorite in the West, probably in the whole league. Even teams like Memphis and San Antonio seem more geared toward playoff prowess than the Clips, but if the core catches fire, so can the team. It's what we've seen happen these past couple weeks, and it's what needs to occur if L.A. wants to make a deep playoff run.

    All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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