We’re slightly more than halfway through the NBA season and that means it’s a perfect time to offer some midseason evaluations. ClipperBlog will be running “Clipper Midterms” throughout the week, one piece a day from Monday through Friday. Here is part one from Jordan Heimer.
When it comes to sports, especially “my teams”, I’ve always been both an empiricist and a romantic. At eight, I could reel off Rey Ordonez’s dismal slugging percentage to the fourth decimal and then, with equal confidence, assert that the Mets would most likely make up a 20-game deficit with 20 games to play. I loved sports for its numbers and measurements, but also for its possibility.
But it’s a sliding scale. I got older, the Mets got worse (BONILLA!) and I began to accept that few real teams mirror The Bad News Bears or the “has beens and never-will-bes” that lead the Indians past the Yankees in Major League. Mostly, I was starting to realize, bad players make up bad teams that go on to have bad seasons. Then Money Ball hit and the popularization of analytics took off. “Intangibles” became a stat-geek dog-whistle. Falling back on “intangibles” to explain a player’s success marked you as hopelessly stuck in the past, married to an obsolete paradigm that valued grit too much and the 3-run home-run too little.
Which brings us to this season’s Clippers. The pre-season consensus, shared by savvy analysts and computer simulations alike, was that the Clippers’ ceiling had remained essentially unchanged. They were a fringe contender last year, they’d be a fringe contender this year; most predictions had the team’s win total between 46 and 49 games. And yet, by any measure, the Clippers find themselves at mid-season firmly established as a top-tier title threat. They have the league’s third best record, a top-5 offense and defense, the season’s longest winning streak, two All Stars, three Sixth Men of the Year candidates, and a game-changing second unit. Barring major injury, the team will shatter the franchise win-record.
And it’s not like everything has gone according to plan. Many of the team’s more heralded off-season moves have made only modest contributions: Grant Hill sat out the first 30-odd games; Chauncey Billups has been less of a “coach on the floor,” and more of a “coach from the bench”; Lamar Odom reported out-of-shape, and is still rounding into form.
If you’ve followed the Clippers closely this season, you’ve read dozens of stories about the great “culture” that’s emerged, but what is that? Some nebulous stew, equal parts unselfish passing, defensive accountability, little kids in the locker room, and Ronny Turiaf’s hip-waggle/finger-swirl basket celebrations? Is that really an explanation for winning basketball games, or are we better served looking at Matt Barnes’ improved shot selection, or Eric Bledsoe’s percentages finishing at the rim?
I’ve come to believe both. Or, rather, the two may be one and the same. A cynic might argue that “culture” is nothing more than a three game winning streak. And, certainly, many feel-good sports stories succumb eventually to a lack of talent and a return to the mean. But, in the Clippers’ case, culture isn’t an abstraction; it’s become an approach to basketball, a manifestation of CP3’s pass-first, credit-others philosophy. Culture isn’t causal, in other words, but it may be systemic.
Culture is superstars who don’t complain about reduced minutes and reduced stats, celebrating the success of their teammates from the bench during 4th quarter blowouts; it’s a much-improved top-5 defense reliant as much on effort as scheme, a high energy commitment to aggressive traps and quick recovery spearheaded by Blake Griffin, often cited in the past for his lackadaisical D.
Culture is the way the internal improvements of the younger players reflect their time with Chris Paul. Suddenly, there are no more passes bouncing off DeAndre Jordan’s knees, because his hands are always up, prepared for a no-look or a lob. Blake doesn’t just pass better – he sees better passes. Eric Bledsoe never makes it back to the bench without first being stopped for a quick lesson in the point guard arts by either Chauncey or CP3 – and often both.
It’s Vinny Del Negro expressing his disappointment that Lamar Odom came into the season in poor shape, and then playing him anyway. Rather than forcing Odom to “earn” floor time as so many critics suggested, Vinny gave L.O. ample opportunity to succeed…Which, eventually, he did.
These things have seemed simple because no one has made them seem hard – but you don’t have to look far (like, down the hall, say) to see how difficult fitting and growing into new roles can be.
Culture is guys like Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, NBA nomads with uneven careers, who credit career seasons, at least in part, to their comfort – Barnes, in particular, frequently mentions the confidence it gives him knowing he won’t be ostracized for a bad shot (*cough, cough, glance down the hall). Nope. Not this season. As shooting guru Bob Thate teaches: mechanics not makes, process not results. It’s always been Chris Paul’s way and, at least for half a season, it’s become the Clippers’.
If the Clips falter in May, talk of culture will quietly – and properly – be put aside. The conversation will return to basketball notes and bolts, to Chris Paul’s free agency and Eric Bledsoe’s trade value. And rightfully so. But, for at least half a season, the Clippers have offered a valuable reminder: something isn’t necessarily imaginary simply because it can’t be directly measured. Even in the age of the stat, intangibles live on.