We’re at the midway point (technically one game away, but still), and the Clippers are sitting gratefully at the 4-spot. A miraculous 4-1 since Chris Paul was injured, the offense seems to have picked up where it left off with J.J. Redick’s return. Is everything else heading in the right direction? We asked our contributors their thoughts:
1. Where do the Clippers rank halfway through the season?
Jovan Buha, (@jovanbuha): Midway through the season, the Clippers are the fifth-best team in the league, behind Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Some may argue that Portland and Golden State should be ahead of them, but I’ll take the team that’s in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Aaron Fischman, (@aaronhartf): They’re clearly contenders, evidenced by their .675 win percentage and balanced performance on both sides of the ball. The Clippers rank atop the second tier of teams along with Golden State and Houston and a little ways behind San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Miami and Portland. Not a huge concern yet, but LAC’s 7-8 record against teams over .500 is something to keep an eye on.
Jacob Frankel, (@jacob_frankel): I’d say that they’re the third most likely team to come out of the West, which puts them at fifth in the NBA. Only three teams have a higher schedule and pace-adjusted margin-of-victory, and the Clippers have played a lot of minutes without J.J. Redick and Chris Paul.
Andrew Han, (@andrewthehan): In their current, injury-riddled state, I’d estimate behind the biggies–whoever you consider those to be. If healthy? And there’s no reason not to assume they’ll eventually be healthy, as currently composed I’d say about even with San Antonio, slightly behind OKC, Miami and Indiana.
Fred Katz, (@FredKatz): Fourth or fifth in the West. Probably sixth or seventh overall. Portland, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio were clearly in a class of their own over the first half of the season. That puts the Clippers somewhere in the Golden State/Houston tier. Once Chris Paul returns, though, that could improve.
Luke Laubhan, (@lukelaubhan): There are two tiers of legitimate championship contenders this season. The top tier is populated by recent conference finalists: Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, and OKC. Not coincidentally, those teams currently have four of the top five records in the league. Los Angeles inhabits the second tier, right behind Portland, a shade ahead of Houston and Golden State. With the exception of the Blazers, that’s about what we figured.
Dylan Rice-Leary, (@dylearium): Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City are all stronger teams than the Clippers right now. I feel the case for these first four teams is strong. Yet, I also think that Golden State edges out the Clippers here by virtue of a starting lineup that is just making more sense– although maybe we just haven’t seen a healthy Clippers squad yet.
Seerat Sohi, (@DamianTrillard): By some means, it’s still too early to say. The Clippers have been ravaged by injuries to perimeter players–Stephen Jackson was playing second quarter minutes for this team, at one point–and Chris Paul is sidelined for at least another month. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have met their increased expectations with measured success but until this squad gets healthy and develops a rhythm, they’re squarely in the periphery of top five status.
Davis Vo, (@davisvo): They’re not quite in the same title contender tier as the Spurs, Thunder, Heat, or Pacers, but they’re just a notch below of the “possibly soon” tier. It’s tough to say because we’ve yet to see them at their best because they were able to improve their play at the beginning of the season despite injuries.
2. With Chris Paul out, Blake Griffin is obviously the most important Clipper. Who is the next most vital?
Buha: DeAndre Jordan. I know J.J. Redick’s plus-minus numbers suggest he’s the more important player, but Jordan is the team’s sole rim protector and best rebounder (especially on the offensive end). He keeps possessions alive with his tap-outs, and saves blown assignments with his blocks and contests at the rim. Redick is fourth, though, and it’s not close.
Fischman: Darren Collison is certainly up there, but it’s got to be Jonathan Clay Redick. Redick moves spectacularly off the ball, his long-range marksmanship spreads the floor for Griffin and others to operate, he plays solid defense, is an incredible free-throw shooter and boasts crucial experience playing for some strong Magic teams.
Frankel: DeAndre Jordan. Willie Green and Jamal Crawford can do 70 percent of what Redick does on the offensive end, but the drop-off of losing Jordan would be on another plane. He’s dragged the Clips to the sixth best defensive rating in the league and has been effective on offense. The offense can survive without Redick, but the defense wouldn’t be able to with Ryan Hollins inserted as a starter.
Han: As much as I’d like to joke that it’s Darius Morris, no doubt DeAndre Jordan is crucial to the cog to the Clippers’ machine. Jordan still has lapses, but he is unequivocally the anchor to the entire defense. Does he need help from his wings? Sure. But Jordan is the fulcrum of the seventh ranked defense. And with Rivers shortening the big man rotation to just Griffin and Jordan, DeAndre becomes doubly important.
Katz: DeAndre Jordan. This defense still changes all too much with D.J. off the floor. If the Clippers aren’t able to secure a third big man who can give them some quality defensive minutes off the bench, they better hope Jordan can stay in games and continue to keep up his first-half production.
Laubhan: So far this year, the Clippers have experienced what it’s like to have J.J. Redick in the lineup – “Holy smokes, look at that movement! And that floor-spacing! And all those automatic points!” – and what it’s like to not have him – “This feels like the Chauncey era, and it makes me sad.” Besides Paul and Griffin, Redick is the guy who most alters the team’s complexion.
Rice-Leary: Doc Rivers. He’s changed almost everything for the better. If we are just talking players, then the most important player is obviously DeAndre Jordan.
Sohi: DeAndre Jordan. Depressing start included, the Clippers are the league’s seventh ranked team in terms of defensive efficiency. Jordan’s intensified defensive prowess plays no small role in the Clippers’ tenacity. He’s moving with purpose and intelligence, his help-and-recover skills have vastly improved and on special nights, Jordan can make the paint a house of horror for opponents. His awareness could still use improvement but, like the Clippers, D.J. is still growing.
Vo: DeAndre Jordan. Not only does he anchor the backline of the Clippers’ ever improving defense, but when Jordan gets into foul trouble, the Clippers don’t have many viable options to replace him. This still needs to be addressed at some point because even with CP3’s injury, the Clippers have a gluttony of wings/guards when compared to their big man depth.
3. Buy or sell: The Clippers will be top-4 in offensive and defensive rating by the three-quarter mark.
Buha: Sell. I don’t see the Clippers’ defense — currently 1.7 points per 100 possessions worse than the Spurs and Warriors — eclipsing either team. Top-six on defense? Maybe. But no higher. Offensively, it’s possible, if not likely — especially if Paul returns sooner than expected (my gut feeling).
Fischman: Sell, but barely. A disclaimer first: “Top-4” is an arbitrary barometer; ranking high on both metrics is promising enough. Mostly elite teams top these categories, so close to perfect play would be required and Paul is out. Offensively, I could envision LAC staving off OKC and Dallas, but Houston may be tough to catch. I think the Clippers will rank approximately fifth in each category by the three-quarter mark.
Frankel: I think I’ll buy. Becoming a top-4 offense shouldn’t be a problem. With Paul and Redick in, the Clippers outfit is in contention for best in the league. Defense will be a bit trickier. I’ll bank on Chicago falling out of the top-four because of tanking and San Antonio just not caring enough about the regular season to take that fourth spot.
Han: Buy? I bought low at the quarter-season mark, and I feel compelled to do it again. With Redick’s return, the Clippers offense has been humming like the top-3 offense it was early in the season. But the real quandary is climbing in defensive rating. Indiana has essentially locked up the top spot by virtue of being really good on defense and playing in the East. But we should see regression from Chicago and Toronto. And the Clippers have an East heavy road trip coming up. I’ve talked myself into a buy!
Katz: Sell. The Clippers can get there offensively. Actually, they probably will get there. Just look at how this offense has exploded once J.J. Redick returned. But defensively, it’s so hard to make that next leap into the top-4. Great defenses can finish outside that mark.
Laubhan: Top-4? No. If you’d said top-5, I’d buy it. I don’t see any team ahead of the Clippers in offensive rating (Portland, Miami, San Antonio, Houston) faltering, and without their all-world point guard, L.A. won’t surge ahead. On defense, Los Angeles might pass Toronto and either Golden State or Chicago (if the Bulls swoon without Deng) to reach number five, but that’s their defensive ceiling.
Rice-Leary: Wow, tough one. It’s close but I would have on sell on this. With CP3 out for a good chunk of those games, making it to fourth best in offensive rankings will be difficult but not impossible. Fifth best in defense is very much in play; however, I feel that fourth could be out of reach considering the defensive acumen of some of the teams ahead of them.
Sohi: Sell. A Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-roll as the foundation and working out the kinks of Alvin Gentry’s offensive genius all but guaranteed the Clippers a top three offense from the get go. A healthy Clippers squad can leave even the best defenses reeling. But I don’t envision the Clippers sneaking into the top four on defense. Indiana and Chicago have solidified their positions. Marc Gasol has returned to action for Memphis. The Thunder, despite Westbrook’s injury, have remained solid. The Spurs are a top-five squad and Miami could flip the vaunted switch at any moment.
Vo: I think they’ll be good enough to be top-4, where the difference may be negligible. But in terms of officially getting that ranking, I’m selling. I suspect the Pacers, Thunder, and Warriors will hold their place in the top-4. That leaves in the Spurs and Raptors, and if you factor in possible improvements from the Heat (10th on defense) and Rockets (11th), I’ll take the field.
4. Confirm or Deny: The Clippers are better when the offense is run through Blake Griffin rather than Chris Paul.
Buha: Deny. The numbers actually support the theory that Griffin has more of an impact on the offense, but I don’t buy it. Paul is the team’s best player and decision-maker, and I refuse to change my opinion.
Fischman: Deny. It’s what Chris Paul does best. Although Griffin has improved dramatically at passing out of double teams and has always been a great distributor, going against the best point guard in the NBA, he’ll lose every time. It’s simply not a fair fight.
Frankel: Deny. Chris Paul is just so so so good. I’d definitely be in favor of more short stints where the offense is run through Griffin, though. He can attack the basket from the post and elbow and has tremendous vision. While the offense isn’t better with that exclusively, it’s worth going to more often.
Han: Confirm, and I think my colleagues might conflate the idea of “running the offense through Blake” with “Blake should be the primary offensive weapon.” Chris Paul is obviously the more gifted passer and playmaker, but he is limited to the angles that he creates for those passes. If the offense is run through Griffin, Paul can torque a defense off the ball, exposing a set of geometry not at the point of attack. The Spurs do something similar, where others initiate the offense while Parker cuts through the defense. By the time Parker reclaims the ball, the defense is already bent.
Katz: Deny. But only sometimes. It’s too hard not to hedge here. When it comes to crunch-time play, you most likely want the ball in Chris Paul’s hands. But Griffin’s ability to run an offense shouldn’t be ignored just because of Paul’s presence. It might depend on matchup. It might depend on who is going well on that particular day. But the Clips shouldn’t get away from Griffin once Paul returns just for the sake of doing so.
Laubhan: Deny. We all appreciate Blake’s passing and the pressure he applies to a defense when the ball is in his hands. The guy is great. But nobody’s labeling Blake, “Point God.” Chris Paul is basically a robot from the future built to run an NBA offense. He possesses every ability, and he’s constantly thinking whole quarters ahead. It’s nice to have both players, though.
Rice-Leary: Deny. This all comes down to the definition of “better.” The offense can certainly be more exciting with Griffin being the catalyst; his end-to-end running game has been riveting to watch. This recent CP3-less stretch has really brought to mind the “What-Ifs” of the Clippers never having traded for Paul. Still, I can’t say that the offense is better without the Point God.
Sohi: I’m going to reject the premise of this question. The Clippers offense, at its best, doesn’t run through any one player; it’s layered and nonselective perpetual motion. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s combined dominance in the pick-and-roll opens the floor up for the rest of the squad–take either out of the equation and the group is bound to suffer.
Vo: Deny, unless you’re counting an injured Chris Paul vs. a healthy Blake. Paul is one of the best playmakers in the league and undisputedly the best point guard in the league. He leads the league in points created by assist per game. Maybe Griffin should lead the offense one day, but it’ll unlikely be this season.
5. One thing to watch in the next 21 games.
Buha: The theme that’s surrounded this team the entire season: Do they need another big man? And, if so, how do they acquire him? A trade is unlikely, and with each passing day, so is a free-agent signing. I’m firmly in the camp that believes the Clippers can’t advance deep into the postseason with the current backup big men.
Fischman: Pay attention to how the Clippers perform on the road, where they’ll spend 12 of their next 21 games. Currently, the team’s road record stands at an unimpressive 9-10. In January, they’ll face a bevy of beatable Eastern Conference teams. The realistic goal should be 8-4, maybe 7-5. Besides the road games against the Pacers, Thunder and Warriors and possibly the second of a back-to-back at Toronto, the rest are very winnable.
Frankel: I’ll be watching more of what happens off the court. Unless there are some major developments, the next 21 games are not very relevant to where the Clippers finish this season. What could be more interesting is whether they attempt to trade for big man depth or look at a number of the interesting names lying around on the waiver heap.
Han: If the Redick-Clippers continue their tear on offense, then the one thing to watch should be: why? What are the Clippers doing to score so efficiently and how can those elements be maximized when Paul returns?
Katz: Matt Barnes. Barnes played such a huge role last season – he may have been the best Clipper off the bench – but this season, he hasn’t seen the same fortune. He’s suffered the eye injury, the slow start, the inconsistent shooting. Barnes hasn’t hit a rhythm. But if he can start to find that rhythm in the second half of the season, it will transform the bench attack.
Laubhan: Here’s the Clippers’ schedule starting February 12: home vs. Portland, All-Star break, home vs. San Antonio, at Memphis, at Oklahoma City, at New Orleans, and home vs. Houston. That six-game stretch includes the top three teams in the West, Los Angeles’ foundering nemesis (the Grizzlies), and a jelling team battling for home-court advantage (the Rockets). Two weeks to make a big statement.
Rice-Leary: Roster changes or the lack thereof. Hedo is coming, but the back-up big man situation is still a question, and more importantly, the Clippers are still just over the tax. This last point, more than anything else, leads me to believe the current roster is not the one we will be seeing in late February.
Sohi: Blake Griffin. That guy is good.
Vo: How does Hedo Turkoglu fit into this team, if at all? Hedo hasn’t been relevant since 2011, and he’s 34 now. Who is he going to take minutes from? I only hope the Clippers know something the rest of the world doesn’t.