The thinking went that for the Clippers to win, say, 58 games this season, nearly everything would have to break their way.
Health for the veterans, increased contributions from the kids, and beating the Golden States and the Clevelands would be the bare minimum requirements to break into the upper echelon of the Western Conference playoff picture.
And yet, here we are. Despite falling short in most of those areas, they’re 6-2 (on pace to win 55), with reason to believe their best still to come.
Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups have yet to play, and the same could be said for Lamar Odom and his -0.2 win shares, 0.7 PER and offensive rating of 48 (points per 100 possessions). All 11 on the active roster are playing double figure minutes, meaning career lows for Chis Paul (32.6) and Blake Griffin (31.8) and more for Odom (11.6), Ronny Turiaf (12.1) and Willie Green (19.1).
But they are winning. They have bludgeoned the Grizzlies, Lakers, Spurs, Blazers, Hawks and Heat by an average of 12 points, with only Jamal Crawford (20.5 PTS, 51.4% FG, 42.2% 3P) scoring more than 17 a game.
They are a team of contradictions that has managed to achieve extraordinary balance, making their overwhelming early success both promising and perplexing.
For instance: Are they doing it with veteran savvy or youthful exuberance? Their average NBA experience is seven years, and this website says they’re the second oldest team in the league, but their second-, third- and fourth-best players are 24 and younger.
And last year, they played their way to a 4th-ranked offense by limiting possessions and protecting the ball, but this year they are the 4th-ranked offense again, except with the 4th fastest pace in the league and they are turning it over like crazy.
But they are forcing turnovers, too. They are third in the league in forced turnover rate, and their consistent opportunism has allowed them to stay in the top 10 in defensive efficiency despite giving up 44% shooting from the field and 37% from 3.
Among the reasons for defensive improvement: Blake Griffin. His concentration has ticked up as a helper and he’s been stout in one-on-one coverage. His rebounding is down overall (from 11 a game last year to 9/game so far this season) but his defensive rebounding remains at a career-high level. Perhaps DeAndre Jordan’s emergence on the offense glass has cut into Griffin’s production on the offensive end.
Over the first eight games, he has been guarded by both Gasols, Anderson Varejao, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Horford/Josh Smith, and Chris Bosh/LeBron James, but he’s remained efficient and shown signs of breaking out with the jumper, including knocking down four of six from 15 to 22 feet against the Heat. And he’s back up to 65% from the free throw line.
The Clippers lead the league in team field goal percentage, thanks in no small part to Jordan, who is shooting seven times a game and making an astounding 71.4 percent of them, and Griffin (49.5%). They, along with Ryan Hollins, have been able to blitz opposing lineups with their size and leaping ability to make up for rebounding numbers that rank in the bottom half of the league.
But while DeAndre Jordan’s prowess in the passing lanes has been on display, it’s been the backcourt that has keyed the sometimes-swarming defense that has allowed them to get out and make use of their resounding athleticism. Behind Paul, whose minutes are down, the Clippers’ identity has really become that of three guards: Willie Green, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, a.k.a. Mini LeBron.
In Green, you have the veteran, the symbol of a team built around Chris Paul. His job description includes being a professional and knocking down shots, and to this point, he’s performed both exquisitely. He’s second on the team (41%) in 3-point shooting, behind only Crawford (42%), and is not only still a professional NBA player, but a professional NBA Shooting Guard. (That last part’s important).
Because Eric Bledsoe has never been considered that –aside from one year at Kentucky– he and Jamal Crawford lead the league’s best bench. They do so while sharing the court with the likes of Odom and Hollins and Turiaf, although Crawford averages 28 minutes a game and has predictably excelled alongside Paul and the starters.
But while Green gets 19 minutes a game, Bledsoe is stuck at 18. To both Chris Paul and Vinny Del Negro, Bledsoe is an understudy to one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Until further notice, though, he is only that — a backup. At best a specialist, too, who can be used in certain situations to come in and play defense, but who does not fit the specifications of a shooting guard — starting or otherwise. When asked after the Heat game about Bledsoe’s chances of playing more off the ball, “It’s not going to happen right now,” was Del Negro’s response.
The situation reminds me of Major League Baseball’s American League M.V.P. decision that was announced last night, which saw 22 of 28 voters choose Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera over Anaheim’s Mike Trout. Also a situation where two qualified candidates with drastically different profiles are up for the same award.
Cabrera won on the strength of a Triple Crown season, in which he led MLB in home runs, batting average, and Runs Batted In (R.B.I.). In Trout’s favor were the fact that he played a much more challenging and important defensive position (center field) exceptionally well, he stole 49 bases, and he hit a ton, if not quite as much as Cabrera. He did hit 30 home runs and finish second to Cabrera for the batting title.
At the end of the day, Trout’s value by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a measure that encompasses contributions in all facets of the game, trumped Cabrera’s, 10.7 to 6.9. He was worth approximately four more wins to his team.
Cabrera’s win, if we want to call it that, is seen by many as a step back in terms of analytical thinking because of voters’ clear emphasis on antiquated statistics like R.B.I. and achievements like that Triple Crown that, while fun, are ultimately arbitrary. His case appealed to the more traditional sensibilities of the electorate from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
This is not to say that Eric Bledsoe is Mike Trout, who is the best player in baseball at 21 years old. It’s certainly not that Willie Green is Miguel Cabrera, the guy who hits 44 home runs and bats .330. But while basketball is not nearly as easy to quantify as baseball, Bledsoe’s superiority, like Trout’s is obvious. Even though the numbers say that if you give him 36 minutes, he’ll give you 21 points on 49% shooting, with 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals, he’s just not quite what the voters are looking for.
Lineup and on/off court data on this are rendered useless by the decision to keep Paul and Bledsoe apart for all but 22 minutes this season, but what’s become clear is that the Clippers’ best five are Paul, Bledsoe, Crawford, Griffin and Jordan. All are above a 19 PER, and the next best, Caron Butler is at 12. Even when you mix in Butler and Matt Barnes with Hollins up front, there are minutes that should be going to Bledsoe that instead go to Green.
The Clippers are below average defensively in transition and poor against isolations and cuts, per Synergy. If you feel like dreaming about how good a team that’s already playing this well can be, envision what Bledsoe could for their transition defense. Think about what happens when DeAndre Jordan plays more than 25 minutes. Let’s not even begin to think about Billups or Hill — don’t want to overheat.
What they are doing is working better than we’ve ever seen it. The balance so far has been eye-opening and the strength of schedule only magnifies the accomplishment. To think of how good they’d be if they’d just play their best players together might simply be too much to bear.