1 Glaring Weakness May Kill The L.A. Clippers

To a bookkeeper, it’s the same old Staples Center for Lakers-Celtics as it is for Kings-BlueJackets, but in reality, that’s not the case. And there’s an argument to be made that this year’s Clipper home games are somewhere near the top of the list, closer to the more important Laker Friday night games than an empty-arena Monday night stinker. It’s a new age if it’s anything. There have been previous big-deal regular-season games in Clipperland – Danny Manning at his peak, Sam Cassell and co.’s 2006 magic, Blake Griffin‘s return from injury in 2010– but they were dinner theater compared to the Lakers’ Broadway shows. For every anticipated Clipper event, there’d be a bigger game, better furnishings and bigger names in the seats in Staples later that week. It didn’t matter who played the Lakers – it was the Lakers. This year that might not be the case, and while the two teams have nearly identical records (Lakers: 4-3, Clippers: 3-2), the Clippers might have the better shot at a high playoff seed.

Is that possible, however? As counterintuitive as it seems for blue-red seats on a Thursday in April to hold more important cargo than a purple-gold contest the next night, the Clips have a shorter to-do list to get to the dance than the Lakers. Most of that is a function of roster construction. Both teams have short benches and some talent issues, but the Lakers’ top talent has played with each other before. Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are adjusting to a new offense and a new coach but work well together and, barring injury or an act of God, won’t get much better or worse. The Clippers, on the other hand, have more variables. They have the chance to be much better – or much worse – than the way they’ve been playing to start the season.

The Clippers’ best argument over the Lakers is that of a first-rate offense. The Clip Show – Lob City, CP3BG, Chris Blake, whatever you want to call it – has improved demonstrably in the season’s first week. The short preseason had the team learning on the job, a hard enough task against any NBA team, to say nothing of the Blazers, Bulls and Spurs. The club shot over 50 percent in a loss against the Bulls after a go-nowhere effort against the Spurs. By Sunday, Chris Paul and Griffin powered the team to a win before running over Houston for another W last night.

[Related: Dime’s 2011-12 NBA Preview – The Pacific Division]

It’s not only that the offense is running smoother – that’s bound to happen when Paul and Chauncey Billups run the point – but it’s improving where it most needs to improve. Griffin’s midrange game is now something concrete, and while the power forward takes a few too many between-the-leg dribbles and shots from the elbow, he is at least sinking them (the shots). Griffin could always dunk, of course, and that’s not changing. If he can now shoot on the regular, and if he starts making his free throws, he has a shot at a scoring title. Paul, of course, will remain outstanding as long as he’s healthy. If he was able to make Tyson Chandler and David West threats, there’s no reason to think why he can’t make Griffin a superstar good enough to control a playoff series.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Clippers’ defense trails only the Nets for least efficient in the NBA. It’s since moved up to 25th by holding the Rockets to 89 points and forcing 19 turnovers last night. But there still isn’t a single playoff team worse than them. To say that the defense is bad would be an understatement. It simply doesn’t exist.

The Lakers remain a defensive force, in large part thanks to Bynum. The Clippers, on the other hand, do not have elite defenders anywhere. Griffin and Paul do their jobs, and DeAndre Jordan, a supporting option offensively, is often lost on defense and gets into foul trouble far too often. Brian Cook getting minutes may be the most glaring sign of a short bench as there is in the NBA: his immobility basically lost the Clippers their Friday home opener.

There is some frontcourt help on the horizon, though nothing close to what the Lakers got with Bynum back. Reggie Evans is not yet cleared to play due to a sprained right foot, but he has begun practicing with the team. He is coming off a shortened but fantastic season with Toronto –his 2011 rate of 11.5 boards per game seemed to double anyone else on the team, and his rebound rate was best in the league – and while he’s only 6-8, he plays tall. The Clippers need energy on defense, and they need rebounds, and Evans will provide both.

However, even with Evans back, the Clippers will still have maybe the worst perimeter defense this side of the Canadian border. For all the wonder and alley-oops of Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, the prospect of Billups, Mo Williams and/or Caron Butler guarding someone like, say, Bryant, Kevin Durant or J.J. Barea is enough to turn off the television. Unfortunately, the Clippers’ meager bench – arguably thinner than the Lakers – means it’s either them or Randy Foye. While it’s a sure bet Williams gets moved for a defender, the March 15 deadline date is nearly 40 games away. Free agents and players on the block still prefer the Lakers to the Clippers, and if a trade doesn’t happen until the last minute, it may not be enough to save the Clippers’ season.

[Related: Video – Blake Griffin & DeAndre Jordan React To Chris Paul Trade News]

Of course, a week’s worth of games is too small a sample from which to draw any reasonable basketball conclusions, but every game gives a better picture, and the Clippers’ prognosis is more clear now than it was Sunday. Though the defense is falling off a cliff, the club is improving, and further games against lesser squads should help it move somewhere near the first tier of the Western Conference, and possibly ahead of the Lakers (That said, their next four games come against Milwaukee, Portland, Miami and the Lakers – things might get worse before they get better.). A reasonable scenario has the Clippers finishing just ahead of the Lakers – if they don’t beat L.A. on Jan. 14, they might not anyways.

If the Clippers don’t improve like many of us thought they would at the beginning of the season – if they miss the playoffs, if they have a losing record, heck, if they end up somewhere behind the Lakers – most will label it a disappointment, another wasted Clippers season, another shaky roster, another failure. There’s a good chance that happens if the defense isn’t fixed. But unlike earlier Clippers squads, this year’s team is worth watching, and remains so. The team, already the most talented squad in Clipper history, needs just 40 wins to post their best winning percentage in franchise history. Whether that talent translates into May and June basketball is still up in the air, but it has begun to gel, and there’s a good shot it gets there. They’re an entertaining ticket in January, with a chance to be crucial in May.

Where are the Clippers at right now? How much better can they get?

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