The new year has arrived and we skipped last week’s power rankings during the hubbub of the holidays. As such, all rankings are compiled from games played between Dec. 23 and Jan. 5.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (6-0)
It’s January. By now, the league looks much as it will for the season’s remainder. What we learn from now until spring will mostly be relegated to minor progression by young players and sudden injuries that end a team’s title hopes or send them plunging to the lottery.
The feeling-out process is over.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Clippers have righted a wayward early-season ship as the season approaches its midway point. But mitigating circumstances make the recent performance of Doc Rivers’ team even more encouraging than their undefeated record over the past two weeks.
Blake Griffin was playing arguably the best basketball of his career before succumbing to a quadriceps injury during his team’s Christmas victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Conventional wisdom said the Clippers would struggle without their superstar, and the schedule did, too – LAC faced four-straight away games after meeting its cross-town rival at Staples Center.
But Los Angeles has enjoyed its most well-rounded play of the season instead, ripping off a quartet of road victories before trouncing the Philadelphia 76ers on January 2. The Clippers enter Wednesday’s slate at 22-13, a comfortable fourth in the Western Conference and lightyears away from the late-November doldrums that suggested their preseason title hopes were dead.
While those fears were real, they were also a bit premature. Los Angeles completely revamped its supporting cast last summer; expecting its volatile, talented corps of reserves to mesh immediately was always setting yourself up for disappointment. Griffin’s injury, however, has allowed the Clippers’ ancillary pieces additional playing time and opportunities to make an impact – and they’ve taken full advantage.
Paul Pierce went for 20 and 13 points, respectively, in wins over the Utah Jazz and Charlotte Hornets. Cole Aldrich shook off dust of the bench to pick up Griffin’s slack and add some much-needed rim protection behind DeAndre Jordan. Luc Mbah a Moute suddenly looks like a semi-viable starter. And J.J. Redick scored at least 25 points in three out of four games.
Los Angeles, though, is still relying on its stars as much or more than any other contender, and Chris Paul and Jordan have helped make Griffin’s absence an afterthought, too.
Just how good are the Clippers? That remains to be seen. This team is less of a finished product than others with legitimate title aspirations. Los Angeles just recently decided on a long-term starting lineup, and Rivers will have more questions to answer with regard to the bench when Griffin returns.
Regardless, the ultimate triumph seems achievable for the Clippers again – and the absence of their best player is at least partially to thank for it.