Sunday, December 25, 2011

Burning Question #6: Are the Clippers a title contender?

Merry Christmas! For your gift (besides this wonderful blog we do for thankless sack), you will be magically transported to an alternate universe where the Los Angeles Clippers are the talk of the town. In this make-believe land of pretend, the Clips will be predicated as a playoff team by all, and a title contender by most. Chris Paul, the best point guard in the game, will be roving the perimeter, throwing dishes to energetic bigs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, with All-Stars Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams bombing from distance. As we drop further into insanity and delusion, this fantasy Clippers team will be talking trash to their 16-time locker room neighbor Lakers, even though they've competed in two exhibition games, had 7 days of training camp and won approximately nothing. But now Christmas is over, and your gift is over. Time to return to reality, where all of this really happened.


That sums up my feelings on how I feel about the Clippers. I can't believe this happened, and I buy some of the hype, but not all of it. In fact, I can't believe that I even had to use "Are the Clippers a title contender?" as a title for a post. Let's get after it, shall we, friends? And for real, Merry Christmas.

Why is this even a question?

Because the Clippers acquired Chris Paul, Blake Griffin is a mack truck in the form of an ugly human being, the team re-signed DeAndre Jordan and acquired Mo Williams, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler. In that, they have two of the best 15 players in the league, a top-5 center and 3 guys in Mo, Billups and Butler that have been to the Finals (though Caron was sitting for his trip). They have the most talented backcourt in the league, and arguably the best starting frontcourt in the West.
The Clippers gave up a lot for Chris Paul, but what this says most to me is the tremendous depth that the team had before the trade. Even after giving up Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Chris Kaman, the team still seems as loaded as ever. As amazing as it is, the Clippers have more former All-Stars in their starting lineup (four) than the Lakers have on their entire roster (three). Even in my most vehement Lakers-induced disdain for the Clippers, I have to say that this is one of the best 8 teams in the league. Wow. I just threw up.

How will this play out?

I just listed all the strengths of this team, and believe me, there are many. But looking past the highlight reels of Lob City, the ballyhooed acquisition of Paul and the sexy story of the bridesmaid Clippers perhaps becoming the starring attraction in a city shared with the Dodgers and Lakers, this team has some serious problems.

No frontcourt depth: The recent signing of Reggie Evans was a great move by GM Neil Olshey, but as LeBron, Wade and Bosh showed in last year's Finals, even the youngest and most athletic of legs will wear down over a 82 game season. What happens when you put those legs through a 66 game sprint with a three-man rotation? Evans is a solid piece and a definite rotation player, but in order for Blake and DeAndre to play less than 40 minutes a night, they need another big man to sop up the minutes to preserve something for the playoffs (and this isn't even taking into account Jordan's penchant for fouling the CRAP out of guys).

Lack of continuity: These guys haven't played together. Granted, if there ever was going to be a player to bring your team together in a 10-day span, it would be Chris Paul. However, Butler, Billups and CP3 are all brand new (and major) pieces to a Clippers team that was downright terrible last year. With the Thunder, Lakers, Spurs and Mavs all playing together (and winning) for years now, being on the same page is integral to a team's success in this aberration of a season.

Lack of defense: Can these guys defend? Chauncey and Caron are getting older, with Caron coming off major knee surgery. DeAndre is a excellent defensive big, but can he protect the rim as effectively with four fouls in the third quarter? Blake Griffin, for all of his explosive offensive greatness, is a poor defender who is often outsized by opposing power forwards. Chris Paul's defense remains good to sterling, but with his knee in the condition it's in, I question how well they are going to be able to stop the opposition night in and night out.

Vinny del Negro: As Bill Simmons said, I can't wait for Vinny to use up all the team's timeouts in the fourth quarter with 5 minutes left on the clock. Beyond Vinny's obvious weaknesses with game clock mismanagement, preservation of time outs, rotation selection and rapport with players, lies a less obvious but even more potent problem.

Vinny, like everyone else on the roster, is out to prove that the Clippers are no longer a joke. After years and years of being Leno punchlines and below the fold news, the Clips are finally relevant on the Los Angeles sports scene. As I wrote when Paul was acquired, he easily becomes the greatest player ever to wear the Red, White and Blue. Ever. This is the best Clippers team I've ever seen in my lifetime, and it's not even close. The team knows this and is all-too-eager to prove it.

And that's a huge problem. Again, the specter of a 66-game season with back-to-back-to-backs and 7 games in 9 nights looms large. In the last exhibition game against the Lakers, del Negro played Paul, Griffin, DeAndre and Caron with less than a minute to go in a game that was already decided. Without Kobe. Why is there any reason to do that? It's a game that doesn't matter, with a even more exhausting schedule than usual coming up.

You know what happened? Vinny got swept up. Staples was rocking, owner Donald Sterling was smiling ear-to-ear in his usual courtside seat and the Clips were nearly getting into fights with the opponent Lakers. Preseason fights. The excitement for an exhibition game was as strong, if not stronger than when the team won a playoff series for the first time ever in 2006. It was like Mardi Gras, VE-Day and a bunch of hobos all hopped up on crack all distilled into one 19,000 person crowd. Vinny felt the energy, and wanted the win. He wanted it for the fans in the stands sick of arrogant Lakers fans looking down on them. He wanted the W for his players who have felt inferior their entire Clippers careers. He could hear Ralph Lawler joyously calling the game from the sidelines, finally (and rightfully - Lawler is one of the best in the game today) getting to see his team respected after watching literally more than a thousand losses. No matter what the time or place, Vinny craved respect and wanted a win, as meaningless as it is in the long term

But that's not how you win championships. Teams win titles by making the unpopular decisions. The Mavs won the title last year because when Dirk got hurt in the middle of the season, they didn't rush him back so the fans could see their superstar for more home games. The Lakers won two titles because Phil played Kobe for less minutes than he ever had in his career, and because he sat Derek when the game was decided in the fourth quarter.

This Clippers team's biggest Achilles heel is how zealousness in pursuit of respect. At this pace, they, and Vinny, will burn themselves out by April. By being Napoleon, the team runs the risk of trying to be too much too soon. If they want respect, they will get it from winning in the long term, not just by making short sight decisions only benefitting the immediate future. There is a lot of positives to be taken from their exuberance, but trying to prove something to everyone now will not win titles.

How will this affect the season?

The Clippers are going to be very good. Very very good, in fact. They will have one of the best, if not the best offense in the league. I expect CP3 to dish somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 assists a game, 5 of those being alley-oops. Blake should be able to do as well, if not better, than his 22 ppg and 12 rpg that he did in his rookie year. They have the deepest backcourt in the league and no shortage of shooters for Paul and Blake to throw it out to from the lane. They have a massive chip on their shoulder that they are perhaps a little too eager to shed, but will win them a ton of games. Most importantly, unlike nearly every other Clippers team to come down the pike for the last 30 years, they expect to win. They know how good they are and are very ready to prove it.

My dad has always said to me: "You know why the Clippers don't win? It's not the guys they have on the team or how they play. It's the big "L" on their foreheads. Every player on the Clippers expect to lose. They will never win because they don't believe they can win". And I always agreed.

But that's not the case with this team. They are prepared to contend for championships and destroy teams by 20 in February. They think they can win every single game. Which they could. And that counts for more than any trade they made 10 days ago.

I'm going to stop short of saying they are title contenders, because defense wins championships; not catch phrases like Lob City. However, this could be a Final Four team that finishes first in the conference with their offense. They will be great, but not the greatest. Welcome to the new world of Clippers basketball. Still feels like a dream.

Player to watch: DeAndre Jordan

As Tyson Chandler and Kevin Garnett have shown us, your defense is only as good as your best big man. With Blake as the preeminent offensive option on the Clips, DJ will be looked to as the guy who prevents buckets in the paint and controls the defense as a Chandler-like back-end point guard. As Paul will morph this team into an offensive juggernaut, Jordan's play will determine if they are Finalists or just a fun regular season team. He is that important.


Best they can do: 48-18, 1st in the Pacific, 1st in the West

Lowest they can go: 38-28, 2nd in the Pacific, 7th in the West

Probable outcome: 40-26, 2nd in the Pacific, 5th in the West


Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:

#8: How far can the Knicks go?
#7: Is this the end of the Lakers' dynasty?

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