Three-quarters of the season are in the books and, despite injuries aplenty, the Clippers continue to rack up victories. With a third big finally in tow and more buyout candidates seemingly on the horizon, are the Clippers primed for the postseason? We asked our contributors their thoughts:
1. With all the discontinuous lineups, are the Clippers the biggest unknown in the title race?
Jovan Buha, (@jovanbuha): Yes. There are six teams I consider “title contenders”: the Clippers, Heat, Pacers, Thunder, Spurs and Rockets. Among those six, only the Spurs have been more banged up than the Clippers. Otherwise, the Thunder (Russell Westbrook) and Heat (Dwyane Wade) have only had one player injured (still significant), and the Rockets and Pacers have endured almost spotless health. We know what four of these teams can do; Houston’s an unknown, but we’ve seen their potential more regularly because of their health.
For the Clippers, Chris Paul (19 games), Matt Barnes (19) and J.J. Redick (30) have all missed significant time. That’s the entire starting backcourt/wing crop, and three of the Clippers’ best seven players. No one knows what to expect from this team when healthy, if they ever get there.
Aaron Fischman, (@aaronhartf): No. In the long run, the Thunder will be a better team with the return of Russell Westbrook, but are they right now? The UCLA product has only played thrice since Dec. 25. Despite his struggles in his first three games back (all losses), the media criticism is admittedly premature, though not surprising, but it’s a legitimate theme to monitor: how has/will Westbrook’s return affect others on the team, including Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and even Kevin Durant? How does his presence impact the team’s identity as the season ends and the playoffs begin?
Jacob Frankel, (@jacob_frankel): No. I think it’s pretty easy to infer how good the Clippers will be once all players are healthy. San Antonio is a contender who is impossible to figure out. They’ve sucked against elite teams, but it’s unclear how much that matters. And they’ve been even more banged up than Los Angeles.
Andrew Han, (@andrewthehan): Indubitably, along with the Houston Rockets. I’ve touched on it before, but both teams have painfully few minutes for their ideal starting lineups. And in the playoffs, when rotations shorten, it’s about knowing what a team’s five best guys can do. The sample size for both teams is marginal.
Patrick James, (@patrickjames): For all their discontinuity, they’ve been steady — they haven’t won more than 5 in a row or lost more than 2 straight all year. So I think of them as more of a “known unknown,” meaning at least we know which questions ask: (a) Can the full starting lineup be even better offensively than the team has already been? (b) Can those starters make up for the lack of scoring/size/rebounding/defense off the bench? (c) Can new acquisition(s) make a difference?
Fred Katz, (@FredKatz): No. There have been injuries, but at least we’ve seen this team work over the past two-plus seasons. We have some idea as to how the players mesh. In Houston, we’re still watching a team come together. The Rockets might be hot right now or they might be coming into their own. And we don’t know, because, unlike the Clippers, we haven’t seen how this particular team has operated in the past.
Luke Laubhan, (@lukelaubhan): The contenders seem to be Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles and maybe Portland. The first four teams are unchanged and have been familiar for years. Houston and Portland have been mostly healthy and on parade all season. That leaves L.A., a team that’s been tinkering all year. Doc doesn’t even know what he’ll have in the playoffs yet.
Dylan Rice-Leary, (@dylearium): In a sense, yes, but I don’t see how this can be spun positively for Los Angeles. This Clippers roster has yet to really be healthy all at once; the playoffs aren’t the time to be figuring out how to play together. I think the biggest unknown in the playoff race is: Who is coming out of the East- Miami or Indiana?
Michael Shagrin, (@mshaggy): No. The real weakness of the Clippers is their defense. The return of J.J. Redick or the introduction of Glen Davis won’t do anything to change that. Were the Clippers to actually shake up the contender’s circle, it would have to stem from an improvement in DeAndre Jordan’s defense. While he’s been much better this year, DJ has yet to become the reliable backstop that is the foundation of the strong side overload defense.
Seerat Sohi, (@DamianTrillard): The Thunder, who led the league in point differential–usually an effective indicator of playoff success–with Westbrook out of the lineup and Durant going supernova, have some tough questions ahead. I think we know how good the Clippers can be, we just haven’t had a chance to see it consistently.
2. Team you’d least like the Clippers to see in the first round (not including the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs).
Buha: With apologies to the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, the team I’d least like to see the Clippers face is the Houston Rockets. As aforementioned, I believe the Rockets are a legit contender. They have not one, but two top-10 players, and are in the top-10 offensive/defensive efficiency mix. That’s usually a recipe for major playoff success. They shoot tons of 3s, are underrated defensively and get to the free-throw line in bunches. I still think the Clippers would beat them, but watch out.
Fischman: Portland could be the most dangerous first-round opponent outside of Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Clippers and Trail Blazers split their first two meetings of the season, both tightly contested affairs. True, Portland hasn’t advanced past the first round in 14 years. But, the Blazers’ explosive offense and ability to win on the road combine to make them formidable opponents. Plus, the Clippers have struggled to guard Aldridge’s length. The Blazers’ lack of defense will likely result in their ultimate demise, but Portland might be able to win in spite of it for at least a series.
Frankel: No surprise here; it’s the Grizzlies. The Hollinger playoff odds gives Memphis a 38.9 percent chance of making the postseason, and if they make do, they’ll be somewhere in the 6-8 range. Even if they aren’t quite the Grizz of years past, they’re a team any Clippers fan should have nightmares of facing.
Han: The Phoenix Suns. They’re another unknown team. And the unknown is frightening. With old face Eric Bledsoe slowly making his return, Phoenix could catch fire and ignite any team in the West. Their system will be slowed down in the postseason? The Suns’ system is spacing and dribble penetration. So if a team is equipped to stop Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe without help defense, great. Otherwise, be prepared to stare into the abyss and not like what you see.
James: It’s a tie between Memphis and Golden State, mostly because of, well, fear. Both teams have struggled through injuries, they still take sick pleasure in punishing the Clippers — even more so than the rest of the league. Memphis, in particular, is like tough to watch. Rivalries are fun, but I prefer basketball to wrestling.
Katz: Grizzlies. Each Clippers-Grizzlies series aggressively slays three-to-five years off my life expectancy and I don’t think I can afford another one. The Memphis frontline is such a tough matchup for Griffin and Jordan and the Grizzlies’ ability to slow down a game’s pace can stifle one of the Clippers’ best attributes: getting out on the run.
Laubhan: Golden State, the only team I don’t consider a contender who might still somehow win it all. Dallas is creakier than they are spunky, and Phoenix is a fun distraction, not an upset threat. Portland is unseasoned and trending in the wrong direction. The Warriors, though, aren’t afraid of the Clippers. And Oracle makes even stout teams wither in the playoffs. Plus, Stephen Curry, man.
Rice-Leary: Golden State. They always have an extra gear against the Clippers. And if their stars are aligned, the Warriors’ streak-shooting can get them past anyone. The West is just ridiculously packed with great teams. It is almost a crime that a team winning .603 of their games is currently seventh in their conference.
Shagrin: Portland. Golden State would’ve gotten my vote had they showed a smidgen of consistency, however an increasingly likely matchup with Portland seems much scarier. Both teams are elite from beyond the arc, but only the Blazers can really swing the ball around the perimeter like a contender. Add in the midrange presence of LaMarcus Aldridge and the idea of Portland outscoring the Clippers in four of seven games isn’t so outrageous.
Sohi: The Grizzlies. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are the only frontcourt duo I envision neutralizing Griffin and Jordan. The Warriors present problems of their own, as well.
3. Buy or Sell: The Clippers will be a top-3 seed come playoffs.
Buha: Buy. The optimist in me says buy; the realist says sell. In my estimation, the Clippers have been the second-best team in the West this season behind OKC. Hollinger’s Power Rankings back this up, as does the fact that the Clips have been so successful despite missing so many key pieces. That being said, the Rockets and Blazers won’t go away. Both have been relatively healthy (at least their core guys, anyway), so it should be close. Fake gun to my head, I’ll say Los Angeles is the three-seed.
Fischman: Buy. Although the Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA right now, winning 10 of their last 11 and 18 of 23 in the calendar year before falling in L.A., the Clippers are right on their heels, just a game back in the loss column. As of press time, one more critical head-to-head matchup remains between the teams. Houston and Portland both have slightly more difficult schedules than LAC the rest of the way. For example, Houston has two more against Miami and one against Indiana, while the Clippers are already done with the defending champs and the Pacers.
Frankel: Buy. Portland is falling off after the hot start, and I’ll count on the Clippers keeping their slim lead over Houston.
James: Sell. Kawhi Leonard is returning to the Spurs and Houston shows no signs of slowing down (regardless of the outcome of Wednesday night’s game). The Clippers’ league-leading Hollinger ranking and impressive win over the Thunder are nice, but they don’t erase early and midseason losses to inferior opponents (Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Denver and Cleveland). As tight as the West is this year, those stumbles will likely cost them home court after the first round — if they make it past the first round.
Katz: Buy. But I’m pulling an Andrew Han here and adding a caveat. Only if J.J. Redick comes back with a few weeks left in the season. Redick makes such a difference for this team and with the way Houston has played over the past month or so, it might be too difficult for the Clippers grab a top-three seed without their best shooter.
Laubhan: Los Angeles’s remaining schedule isn’t daunting and should allow the Clippers to pass and distance themselves from the Rockets. If current seeding holds (other than a switch of Houston and L.A.), that means the Clippers, as the 3-seed, would face the Warriors, the 6-seed. What a wonderful reward for excelling despite an injury-laden season in the brutal West.
Rice-Leary: Buy. The Clippers, Blazers and Rockets are all strong contenders for the 3 spot in the West, but I believe the Clippers have both the talent and coaching edge against their fellow rivals in Portland and Houston.
Shagrin: Sell. The Clippers have threatened to be the 3-seed each of the last two seasons. They had it at the All-Star break last year and finished just one game out the previous season. Now, I’m not suggesting the boys don’t try their hardest in March, but Chris Paul has been known to conserve his fuel for the playoffs. Unfortunately, he had plenty left in the tank when those postseason runs abruptly ended.
Sohi: Bell. The Clippers have played the toughest schedule this season but the Rockets aren’t far behind. Assuming San Antonio and Oklahoma maintain their status, this ones going down to the wire–the biggest factor being health.
4. Confirm or Deny: The Clippers currently have two of the top 9 players in the NBA.
Buha: Confirm. Chris Paul is the game’s third-best player. Blake Griffin? It’s somewhat debatable. I’ll state the players that are undeniably better than Griffin: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul, Paul George and Kevin Love. After that, you can’t convince me anyone is definitively better than him. Griffin’s in that Dwight Howard/James Harden/Stephen Curry/Carmelo Anthony range. His last two months of basketball would suggest he’s fourth behind LeBron, KD and Love, though, so I’ll claim recency bias and say he cracks the top nine.
Fischman: Confirm. Chris Paul has fit comfortably in the top 9 for some time, while his running mate, Blake Griffin, has launched himself into the category, as well. Of course, rankings are subjective and they’re always changing, but as of now, it’s difficult to argue that BG doesn’t belong in this conversation about the NBA’s elite. He’s played 60 games this season; in half of those (the previous 30 games), Griffin is averaging 27.7 points on 54.8 percent-shooting, along with 3.9 assists, and all of this is being done in 36.0 minutes per contest. Over that stretch, he’s also earning 10.2 trips to the free-throw line (Durant leads the league with 10.0 free-throw attempts per game).
Frankel: Absolutely confirm. Chris Paul has been ensconced as the third best player in the league for the past few seasons, and that won’t change any time soon. It’s unclear what the order is, but Griffin falls somewhere in that 4-9 range, along with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard and Stephen Curry.
Han: Confirm. My hot sports take on a recent CBL went as far as to suggest that Blake Griffin is the best Clipper this season. Is he the most important? Chris Paul may still be the most important player, especially in crunch time. But Griffin is likely the better player. He’s easily top 9 now. And maybe this arcs like Paul George last season, elevating even further in the postseason and into top 5 status going into next year.
James: Deny, but just barely. And maybe by the end of the year I eat these words. Griffin has already improved so much that I could see him reaching the top 5 next year (seriously). What I’m more interested in is whether his growth (a) continues and (b) changes his relationship with Chris Paul. Does Paul seeing Griffin as an equal (rather than a student) improve their chemistry? How far are we from it not only being Griffin’s team, but from Griffin being the unquestioned best.
Katz: Confirm. For sure. We know Chris Paul stands at No. 3 and Griffin has made his way into that No. 7 to No. 9 range. There isn’t another big man in the NBA with Blake’s combination of handles, decision-making, athleticism and passing. Add in the 27.7 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting since Dec. 26, and Griffin has comfortably entered the NBA’s top nine.
Laubhan: This question is about Blake’s place in the hierarchy. LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul and Paul George are clearly better than Blake; they constitute Tier 1. Then there’s Tier 2, a group in which Blake belongs: Carmelo, Curry, Love, Aldridge, Harden, Howard and some ailing guards. Right now, Blake’s playing better than half of Tier 2, so, yeah, two top-9 players for L.A.
Rice-Leary: Confirm enthusiastically with multiple thumbs employed to signify same. Blake has been playing out of his skull these past two months and has had a tremendously impressive season. CP3 is the best point guard in the league, and his real season hasn’t even started yet. This kind of question is endlessly debatable, but a strong argument can be made in favor of it.
Shagrin: Confirm. With how well Blake Griffin has played of late, it’s almost as if the unknown variable in this equation is Chris Paul. Weird. But even with his dominant arm barely functional (recently separated right shoulder and interminably sprained right thumb), he’s still the best point guard in the league–he’s averaging 17.3 points and 12.0 assists over his last four games. What was I just talking about?
Sohi: Deny. Griffin’s ascent has been nothing if not astronomical but I can’t anoint Durant the top spot until I see his playoff performance, so I’m doing the same with Blake. And really, with the time that Paul has missed, you could make the case that he doesn’t make the cut this season either.
5. One thing to watch in the final 22 games.
Buha: Can the Clippers become a reliable 3-point shooting team? If so, the rest of the league is screwed. The Clippers are currently 22nd in team 3-point shooting percentage (34.9 percent), which is surprising considering all of the above-average shooters they have — Redick, Crawford, Dudley, Barnes, Bullock, Collison, etc.
On the flip side, they’re 12th in makes per 100 possessions and ninth in attempts per 100 possessions. So despite their poor percentage, they’re still taking a ton of 3s. And more importantly, since December 15th they’ve been the NBA’s 12th-best 3-point shooting team (36.4 percent), which is encouraging. If they continue knocking them down as the playoffs approach, we’re looking at the league’s best offense.
Fischman: If and when J.J. Redick returns, how will he feel? How will he play? Will he be able to stay healthy? It’s no secret that the Clippers are a more dangerous team when that man suits up; he’s a bad, bad man. Wisely, Doc Rivers is being cautious with Redick, but there’s only so much he can do. Ultimately, Redick’s body has to hold up. He’ll be needed down the stretch.
Frankel: Whether or not Chris Paul is as assertive with the ball as he was pre-injury. We saw how effective more improvisation was during his injury, so I wonder if the Clippers will try to incorporate that over the next 22 games.
Han: All I have are questions: Does the big man rotation shrink to Griffin, Jordan and Davis now? If another free agent joins, what is their impact? Can they just get healthy, please?
James: Defensive rebounding, if it ever happens. As of February 25, the Clippers rank 27th in defensive rebounding rate. And that’s with the league’s fifth best defensive rebounder in Deandre Jordan (he’s first in overall rebounding rate). Effectively, the wings are mostly ignoring the boards. It’s not rocket science: every offensive rebound you surrender to the other team is an opportunity for to score. That can be the difference between an elite and average defensive team.
Katz: The bench production. With Jamal Crawford in the starting lineup (and now possibly out), the Clippers have struggled to get any sort of consistent scoring from the reserves. It’s been Darren Collison, Jared Dudley…and that’s it. Maybe Glen Davis can help change that. Maybe Hedo Turkoglu can build on his four three-pointers made from the other night. The Clippers need to find some way to sustain bench success if they want to chase home-court advantage in the postseason.
Laubhan: Assuming the team manages to get healthy, how does Doc position his roster headed into the playoffs? Barnes seems entrenched as a replacement for Dudley in the starting lineup, but might that change when Redick returns? How many minutes will Glen Davis actually play, and who will Rivers choose to play him alongside? What will happen to Crawford? We’ll see.
Rice-Leary: It will be fascinating to watch how CP3 will adjust his game to allow Blake to do more Blake things. We have already seen glimpses of it since Paul’s return, but how it plays out from here will be telling. Are their games truly compatible? Rivers and Gentry are too good as coaches, and Paul and Griffin are too great of competitors to not figure out further ways to mesh. I can’t wait to see how this dynamic further develops.
Shagrin: The flight patterns of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With our feet firmly planted on the ground, we’ve been in Lob City for three seasons now, but never have we been treated to the sort of alley-oops served up this year. Remember this? It doesn’t happen in the playoffs. So folks, “Oh Me Oh My” with all your heart for this last quarter of the season.
Sohi: DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers, when healthy, are a destructive offensive team. I feel remiss to ask more of DJ’s season but I’m doing it anyway. If he can take his defense from usually great to consistently dominant, I can see the Clippers coming out on top in the Western Conference playoff race.
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