The Clippers are the flavor of the month. They have one of best starting line-ups in basketball, arguably the best point guard and power forward in the NBA, and appear to be serious contenders out West. There’s a unique buzz about the team, with famous rappers even making songs about the “Lob City Clips.”
For all intents and purposes the team is 3-0, defeating the Lakers twice and the Warriors once (who did not look that good against L.A., but went off the next night and crushed the Bulls). But before people go anointing them the Pacific division crown, or possibly the eventual winners of the West, they need to realize there’s going to be a learning curve with this team. They’re probably going to struggle out of the gate a bit and lose some games they shouldn’t. Winning takes time. It’s a process.
This Clippers squad has been practicing together for less than two weeks. Under normal circumstances (say, an 82-game season starting in early November), the Paul and Billups transactions would’ve likely been made before training camp (or at the very beginning of it), and the team would’ve had around a month to gel before playing a regular season game. Instead, the Clippers had just 11 days before they faced the Warriors, cutting their practice time into one-third of the norm. This is not to say lower your expectations (I still expect them to have home-court and have a good shot at winning the West) — it’s to say don’t jump ship if they have early struggles.
Feeling the heat
The general fan will say but they have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, isn’t that good enough to compete right away? Well yes, almost any team centered around those two players will have a good chance to win every basketball game. But the Clippers aren’t just about competing anymore … they’re about winning. Talent doesn’t always win games — just look at last year’s Miami Heat.
In fact, look a little closer and you’ll see an usual parallel between this year’s Clipper team and last year’s Heat team. Both teams have two top-10 players (depending on where you put Griffin, it may be top-15). While the Clippers don’t have another player as talented Chris Bosh, the duo of Billups and Butler more than compensates as the third leg of the tripod. Both teams have offensively-challenged centers that control the paint and block a lot of shots (although D.J. is much, much better than Anthony).
Neither has a loaded bench. There were glaring holes for the Heat (center and point guard positions, back-up wings) as there are for the Clippers (no back-up center or true shooting guard). They both have players with similar skill-sets (James-Wade and Paul-Billups-Williams) trying to log heavy minutes while figuring out a way to coexist with each other, maximize their own talents and minimize the negative impact they have on their teammate’s success.
Heck, both teams are facing intense media scrutiny. On the one hand, the Heat received negative attention while Lob City has become America’s darling (unless you support the Lakers). On the other hand, the expectations are still there. If the Clippers don’t advance far in the playoffs, their season will be labeled as a failure. Handling the pubic pressure is a daunting task to say the least, which is what made Miami’s initial struggles that much worse.
The Heat started off 5-4 and ended up dropping as low as 9-8, before adjusting to their opponents, tinkering with their game-plan and finalizing their rotation. The Clippers may experience similar growing pains in the beginning of their season. Their opening schedule doesn’t help their situation. However, like the Heat, they’ll have an opportunity to overcome their deficiencies and quickly become one of the league’s best teams.
Every team is at a disadvantage because of the 66-game, compact schedule, but no team’s success may be more difficult to predict than the Clippers. Will limited practice time and a practically brand new rotation of players (with different roles than they’re accustomed to) negatively effect them? Will Paul and Billups’ maturity, experience and high basketball IQ benefit the Clippers against inferior (but possibly younger or more athletic) teams? How will Griffin and Mo Williams adjust to decreased roles offensively because of the newcomers? At this moment, the future cannot be more up-in-the-air for this team.
Their success will mainly depend on their health. The Clippers haven’t been the healthiest franchise over the years, and Griffin, Paul and Butler all have histories of major injuries. If there’s any season that they can’t afford to have the injury bug, it’s this one. Depth is their second key, and thus far, it appears the Clippers may be struggling in that aspect.
Williams seems to be disinterested with his new role as sixth man. Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye are better suited in limited 10-15 minute per game roles, but may have to log heavier minutes on back-to-backs, back-to-back-to-backs or long road trips. Brian Cook tries his hardest defensively, but is a major liability. We’ve yet to see Reggie Evans, and while he’s one of the best rebounders in the league, he’s around 6-foot-7 and can’t protect the rim (a dire need for the bench unit).
The Clips’ depth issues may come back to haunt them later on in the regular season when their legs aren’t as spry. They should be fine in the playoffs — when the starters will all be playing around 35+ minutes per game — but the key to the regular season, of course, is getting home-court advantage and proper seeding.
Seven of the Clippers’ next nine games (putting them at 10 games total) are going to be extremely difficult, and will serve as a barometer of how ready the team is as currently constructed. They play in San Antonio tonight, travel home for a four-game home-stand starting Dec. 30th (Chicago, Portland, Houston and Milwaukee), travel to Portland on Jan. 10th, and then come home on the 11th to face the Heat and Lakers. The easiest two games are against the Bucks and Rockets, but even those two teams will be fringe playoff contenders that are capable of stealing a game on the road. The Clippers will likely win both games, but there’s no free handouts (Nets, Bobcats) for them during this stretch.
Don’t be shocked if the Clippers start off slow, going 4-6 or 5-5 to start things off (I’d lean towards 6-4). If that happens, though, it shouldn’t change the overall look of the Clippers’ season. This isn’t their toughest patch of schedule because of their opponents (although it’s up there) — it’s their toughest because of the circumstances. It’s difficult to just throw a team together and expect immediate success. This team has undeniable potential, it just might take one-third of the season (or longer) for them to fully reach it.
So sit back, crack a bottle and enjoy the ride. It may be bumpy, and there may be some twists and turns, but all good things take time. Just remember that it’s not how the Clippers start this season, it’s how they finish.