Los Angeles Clippers: Powerhouse in the Making?

Every organization has one goal — to win a championship. And it is this same goal that should, in theory, drive all 30 front offices into working as hard as they can to put their team in the best possible position to win a championship at the longest time possible.

This is done by having a perfect record of transactions — drafting the right players and developing them, making the free agents at the best possible price relative to their production, trading for the right players at the right time, hiring the right coach with the right system.

All of this is tied together along with uncontrollable variables like health, schedule and other unknown variables to form an equation that tells us whether a team is a contender. Therefore being a championship contender contains a lot of variables that cannot be controlled — this is what people like to call “luck” — and as a general manager, your job is to control all the other controllable variables above to the best of your ability. This is how you become perennial championship contenders or “powerhouse.”

Armed with a 16-game winning streak — a franchise best — with a 16-point margin in the same span and a team full of contributors, is it time for people to be afraid of the Clippers, now and in the long run? For starters, we need to know how the Clippers are winning.

The Clippers are winning because of four key points:

1) Their offense has maintained its status as one of the best in the league, ranking fourth in offensive rating. The main reason for this is simple and it’s two words: Chris Paul. Paul is a maestro on offense — a devious surgeon that will one-by-one pick your team apart with every mistake you make. I know, I watched him play for more than seven years (as a Hornets fan). Chris Paul is one of three players that can put ANY team in the playoffs by virtue of their presence, Kevin Durant and LeBron James being the other two. He’s that good.

2) Their defense however has improved by leaps and bounds thanks in large part to contributions (big or small) from the half of the team. Chris Paul is Chris Paul, the quiet development of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — who were both infuriating to watch last season with all their missed or half-hearted rotations that made it easy for the opponent to score. There’s also Matt Barnes‘ resurrection and Eric Bledsoe‘s development as a defensive behemoth. Not one single player should get credit for their vastly improved defense. Instead, it’s been a myriad of contributions from several players.

3) Their bench outproducing themselves, none more evident than Jamal Crawford‘s comeback year and another bid at the Sixth Man of the Year award. After two straight seasons of awful, Crawford has come back with a vengeance. He’s having what is maybe the best season of his career. He’s registering near career highs in WS/48, ORTG, PER, eFG% and TS% among others. He’s accompanied by defensive stalwarts Barnes — who’s also decided to come back with a vengeance, especially on the offensive side of the court. Barnes is currently registering an eFG% of 60.4% — which is the highest of his career. No surprise that he’s registered a Win Share/48 of .197. Bledsoe is also having a season for the ages, breaking out of his sophomore slump to round out as a defensive behemoth, disrupting ballhandlers, forcing turnovers and blocking shots. Lamar Odom is having a revival as well from his dismal season last year.

Is this sustainable? That’s the biggest question right now for the Clippers. Can their bench carry them in this 82-game season? I’m inclined to believe that at some point, their bench mob will slow down. It won’t be as strong as it is now but it will still be a strength for this team.

Finally, there’s 4) Christopher Emmanuel Paul or Chris Paul. Whoever. Need I say more?

In my opinion, though, the Clippers are having a great season, it’s important to note that:

1) Their 16-game winning streak came mainly against weak opponents. Among their 16 games, only six came against winning teams, three of them are hovering around .500. Chicago, Utah (twice), Milwaukee, Minnesota and Boston. It’s an impressive feat that they’ll probably go undefeated for the month of December, but it remains to be seen how they match up against the better teams in the league. I’ll be waiting for their matchups against Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and New York.

2) Their bench. I’ve said it above, how huge will the effect be if their bench regresses to the mean? It’s certainly possible that Bledsoe’s improved. I highly doubt that Barnes and Odom can maintain this pace. People will talk about Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups. But they are veterans coming off injuries so it’s hard to expect anything substantial from them.

3) I still find the Griffin-Jordan combination to be a liability on the offense (not on defense, since they’ve shown marked improvement there) in crunch time. Both are still shooting badly from the free-throw line. They will have spacing issues in the playoffs and FT shooting issues if and when teams decide to force the Clippers to get the ball into Griffin or DeAndre’s hands and foul them. Mathematically speaking, fouling Griffin is not a wise strategy despite being a career 60% FT shooter since on most occasions, pushing Griffin to the FT line will yield on average around 1.2 pts per possession. DeAndre Jordan is another story. The Clippers can always strategize and put somebody else in crunch time instead of Jordan, but that would significantly weaken their interior defense, which brings me to my next point.

4) Vinny Del Negro is still a coach who I don’t trust. We saw it last year — weird rotation patterns, timeout mismanagement and lack of creativity on out-of-bounds plays doomed the Clippers against San Antonio. Xs and Os don’t matter as much if you have Paul leading your team. But those little things are not controllable by Paul, unless he literally yells at Vinny when he tries to call for a timeout which is tantamount to insubordination, which won’t happen. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

Any team with Paul is a playoff contender. Remember that 2005-06 New Orleans-Oklahoma City team? The one that was filled with scrubs? They were playoff contenders until a late game season collapse. That 2006-07 team? Injuries derailed them. Put a team that fits in with Paul and what you get is the 2007-08 team. In fact, that season was very similar to the this season for Paul — a near career year for him, teammates contributing, darlings of the NBA, career years for players. You can argue that the starting five was better for that Hornets team in 2007-08, but the 2012-13 Clippers have more depth. And usually, top heavy is a better way to get deep into the playoffs (since you no longer have to rest them as much compared to the regular season) compared to being a deep team (where depth can help relieve your starters which makes them fresh for the playoffs). But that team was defeated in seven games by the Spurs.

This Clippers team still needs to go through the Spurs and the Thunder — both are more proven teams that boast similar depth and talent but with more experience in the playoffs.

We also have to consider if their success is sustainable — a necessity if we want to call a team a powerhouse. With Paul coming off the books and the Clippers already committing big dollars to Griffin, Jordan, Crawford and Caron Butler, they won’t have the cap space to make noise in the market. Their only option at this point is to keep this team together. Which brings us back to the question — is this team a championship team??

We’ll have to wait and see.

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Tags: Blake Griffin Chris Paul Deandre Jordan Eric Bledsoe Jamal Crawford Vinny Del Negro

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