Who Will Win the West? The Case For (and against) the LA Clippers

Posted: 02/08/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

What better time to do a diagnosis of the Clippers’ title chances than now? LA, my preseason pick to finish at the top of the Western Conference, is most certainly not going to come close to that prediction now. In the last week, the Clippers have lost four consecutive games (including two in which they trailed by 30+ points, this after not going behind 30+ in 108 consecutive games), they’ve seen their star point guard be embroiled in a minor controversy in a game in which the Clippers received four technical fouls in a quarter, and, worst of all, they’ve seen power forward Blake Griffin get a staph infection that could mean a long absence. What a week. But what does it mean for their playoff and championship aspirations?

Let’s first tackle the short term. There’s no good time to lose a superstar player, but Blake Griffin’s injury comes at a particularly bad time for the Clippers. Check out their schedule over the next 15 games: @Dallas, vs Houston, vs San Antonio, vs Sacramento, vs Memphis, @Houston, @Memphis, @Chicago, @Minnesota, vs Portland, @Golden State, vs Minnesota, @Oklahoma City, @Dallas, vs Houston. That’s a brutal schedule. Every game except one (the Chicago one) is against the Western Conference, and outside Sacramento and two games against Minnesota, they are all against teams I see as contenders to win it all. Griffin could well miss all 15 of those games, in which case I don’t see the Clippers going better than 7-8 or 6-9. The schedule eases up to end the season, but overall it’s a pretty tough schedule.

With all that being said, I still expect the Clippers to make the playoffs. They probably will be the seventh or even eighth seed, though, which could have a big impact on their championship aspirations.

The Clippers will be a threat to win a few playoff series in large part because of their offense. They are tied with the Warriors atop the league in points per possession thanks in large part to their superstar duo of Griffin and Paul. Griffin has quickly developed into the best passing big man in the NBA. After staying in the 3-4 assist range in his first four seasons, Blake is averaging 5.1 assists per game this season. That number is 27th in the NBA and second among non-guards behind a guy named LeBron James. His rebounding rate has gone down a little as he has strayed farther from the basket, but that’s okay when you have a guy like DeAndre Jordan as your backcourt partner. Jordan is the perfect complement to Griffin, who has turned more into a midrange shooter who can still tear apart a slower defender on the drive. Although his free throw percentage is absolutely dismal (39%!), the rest of his game is pretty good. He averages 13.5 rebounds per game, the best in basketball, and 2.4 blocks per game. Let’s just call him a poor man’s Hassan Whiteside (if Whiteside keeps this up, I’m going to have to write a post about him pretty soon. Just check his stats).

Anyway, the Clippers have a very good offense despite not picking up the wing dribble-driver they needed. They aren’t always the “Lob City” Clips they were in the first few years of the Chris Paul era (middle of the pack in pace), but they are very effective offensively. And they aren’t terrible defensively, either. Paul is nothing if not a tenacious defender, and Jordan’s an absolute beast down low. It’s a good thing the rest of the defense doesn’t matter as much when you have those two guys, because the Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers, Spencer Hawes, etc. part of the team is always going to be a liability defensively. So when you add a great offense and a mediocre defense, you get an Eastern Conference contender but probably a Western first round underdog.

All I hope for is that the Clippers don’t go up against the Grizzlies again. They faced each other in the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 before avoiding each other last season. I like seeing new matchups, and Clippers-Grizzlies, which looks like a real possibility, is not a new matchup.

I don’t really like the Clippers come playoff time for a few reasons. First of all, they are worse than any other Western Conference contender defensively. Secondly, they haven’t fixed the bugaboos that have come back to bite them in each year of the Chris Paul era, none of which has culminated in anything more than a second round exit. Thirdly, I find it really weird that Doc Rivers (who serves as a very good coach and a pretty poor GM) traded for his son Austin (a bad NBA player) and is actually putting him in games. Fourthly, I don’t like that both Griffin and sharpshooter Redick are injured right now. And finally, I think Paul has taken a slight step back this season, his 10th in the NBA. His steals and free throw attempts are drastically down, both clear signs of regression. He’s stealing the ball 76% as much as he did last year and getting to the line just 64% as often. Paul is still a top-flight distributor, but he’s also become more of a spot-up shooter and less of a driver. 31% of his field goal attempts this season have been three pointers, well above his 21% career average. Paul is still a great player, but he isn’t as good as he once was, and even his prime self wasn’t enough to carry a carbon copy of this team into the Western Conference finals.

It looks right now as if the Clippers will play either the Grizzlies or Warriors in round one. Both teams are very balanced, although they play totally different styles. The Clippers are 0-2 against the two combined, losing by 17 to the Warriors and 16 to the Grizzlies. They look to be outmatched. I still consider them to be a threat to make a run, though, because their offense is that good and because I think they have four players in Paul, Crawford, Griffin, and Jordan who can take over a game in a multitude of ways. That’s valuable come playoff time, and the Clips can count on some great performances from their stars. They have also played pretty well this season, with a +5.7 point differential that ranks fourth in the NBA. With the right matchup (Dallas or Portland maybe), I’d like their chances, and they could get one of those matchups. In all likelihood, though, they’ll need to pull off a pretty big upset against one of the top dogs in the Western Conference first.

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