The Los Angeles Clippers haven’t had expectations this high in years. Since Chris Paul joined the team they have made strides, becoming a title contender and increasing their win total by at least eight games in each of the last two seasons.
Despite having an average start to the season, the Clippers have shown glimpses of a team ready to push their way into being a top team in the NBA.
This is the first year in a long time in which the Clippers have much higher expectations than the Lakers. The way the Clippers are setup this season, they definitely look like they are ready to take the next step and not end their season with an early playoff exit. They added shooters in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and Doc Rivers, who will bring a change in mentality.
These additions don’t seem like much, but they may go a long way in making the Clippers the new top dog in the Western Conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are tough every year, but I believe the Clips can make that jump to the top. Here are the four keys as to why I think the Clippers will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals and why they can be better than the Spurs and Thunder.
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CP3 is having a strong start to the 2014 season. He’s definitely an early candidate for MVP and he’s strongly quarterbacking the Clippers hot offense. So far, he’s averaging an incredible 22.5 PPG, 12.8 APG, 4.2 RPG and 2.8 SPG. Paul has yet to dip below 10 assists in a game and is running the Clip’s offense to 110.5 PPG. Offensively, the Clippers are clicking on all cylinders.
In the first game of the season, the Clippers were ran off the court by the Los Angeles Lakers, a shocking defeat to say the least. They were outscored by the Lakers 41-24 in fourth quarter, with the Lakers bench playing most of those minutes. Chris Paul still collected 15 points and 11 assists for the game, connecting with the shooters on the wing and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down low. The season started off rocky, but the Clippers still managed to collect 103 points in the loss.
The Clippers next three games were all wins as Paul brought his game to a higher level. The Warriors were up next and CP3 had one of the best games of his career, matching Stephen Curry shot for shot and then some. Paul ended the game with 42 points (one below his career-high), 15 assists and six steals. This kind of performance after a bad loss shows the perseverance and readiness of Chris Paul to lead his team deep into the playoffs.
Next the Clippers faced the Rockets, another top team in the West. The defense lacked, but the offense was phenomenal as they posted 137 points. Paul had another amazing performance, collecting 23 points and 17 assists. He definitely looked to be in midseason form. He was able to find great angles to get his guys the ball where they could easily score, as it showed when the team eclipsed the 100-point mark in the third quarter. The next two games CP3 was able to find his teammates for some great looks, but their defense fell apart and the Clippers added two straight road losses to bring their record to 3-3.
Right now Paul’s usage percentage is the second-highest of his career at 26. He is key to the Clippers offense and will defend the best guard on defense. He’s third in the league in steals and will most likely lead the league by a large margin in assists per game. Every championship team needs a superstar. Chris Paul will lead the offense by distributing but will take over at the end of the game if you need him to. He’s a strong leader and an intense competitor, something every championship team needs. It is hard to win a championship with the point guard as your best player, but if you had to choose one to lead your team there, Chris Paul is your guy.
The mix of Jamal Crawford and newcomers J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley are great wings for any offense to have. They are not going to provide a whole lot of defense but can knock down shots, especially when they have someone as talented as Chris Paul getting them the ball where they can score. The three of these players have combined to land 40 percent of their 3-pointers.
Redick is only shooting 35 percent from deep and I can only imagine those numbers will go up. The Clippers now have the talent to match teams like the Spurs and Thunder offensively. Last year the Clippers were fourth in offensive efficiency and this year they are leading the league, which I contribute to the new sharpshooters and Jamal Crawford playing at a high level.
The three players previously mentioned have combined to score 38 percent of the Clippers total points this year, which is crazy to think about considering the team has Chris Paul and Blake Griffin averaging over 21 points a night.
Chris Paul is clutchest player on the Clippers, but with the help of these three shooters, he doesn’t always have to be. They have all proven, particularly Redick and Crawford, that they can knock down the key shot when their teams needs them to. And when you have a bench player who can do this, your team’s offense is in good hands.
DeAndre Jordan & Blake Griffin
The biggest question mark going into the season was how effective DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin would be. Every championship contender needs a big man presence, especially since that is the Heat’s weakness right now. Will Jordan and Griffin be able to team together and put up a solid offensive and defensive presence?
Time will only tell, but Griffin seems to be developing. He has his highest field goal percentage of his career to start the season and is averaging 21.7 PPG and 11.3 RPG. Jordan is also bursting out on the boards, grabbing 13 a night, which is higher than any other season he’s played by over four rebounds. I know Jordan probably won’t keep up at this pace, but he’ll more than likely average over 10 boards. When you have two guys on your team capable of pulling down over 10 rebounds a night, there won’t be a lot of second chance opportunities for your opponents.
There is no better time for Griffin and Jordan to take the leap and become dominating presences in the post. Oklahoma City’s best offensive big man is Serge Ibaka and San Antonio is just getting older as Tim Duncan nears the end of his career. This could be their biggest advantage against the teams that have dominated the West for years.
The Clippers are currently 18th in the league in rebounds per game and 16th in rebound rate. They have some strides to take to get better as Griffin and Jordan are the only ones who are rebounding well right now. But the biggest reason both these players need to step up is because there is no help behind them. Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens are not strong guys to come off the bench and give your team solid minutes of post play.
Griffin needs to develop a stronger offensive game and be able to create his own shots. Both Jordan and Griffin need to become pests in the posts. Jordan has done well so far, averaging 2.0 BPG and Griffin has a measly 0.8 BPG, but with all the athleticism, both numbers need to be higher. I think that this is the season that both players can strongly develop, though. The Clippers have never been closer to a Finals appearance with the talent they have and new coach Doc Rivers can expand both Griffin and Jordan’s game better than Vinny Del Negro could.
Imagine living in world where Jordan and Griffin could be do this all through the playoffs?
Doc Rivers and Defense
The Clippers right now are dead last in defensive efficiency, something new coach Doc Rivers is not accustomed to. He stresses defense and wants his teams to be the best at it. During his tenure with the Celtics, from 2007-2013, Rivers’ team never finished below sixth in the league in defensive efficiency.
Doc Rivers, who I believe, as a coach, to be second only to Gregg Popovich, is going to bring a new mentality to the Clippers. He has already started by covering up the Lakers’ championship banners in Staples Center for the Clippers home games.
And now he is completely devoted to championships in Los Angeles. The biggest key to attain a championship is defense. If there is any coach that brings that, it’s Doc.
Last night against the Heat was a great example of what the Clippers need to focus on. Although the Heat only scored 102 points, which is the third-least amount of points the Clippers have given up this year, the Clippers revealed to the basketball world a major weakness. They missed several assignments, leaving Shane Battier and Ray Allen open on the wings. Dwyane Wade exploded against them, scoring 29 points, and the Heat shot 53.5 percent from the field. Chris Paul was put on Wade late in the game because he is the only one who can guard him.
The biggest problem that Doc Rivers will need to address to bring the Clippers to a championship level defense is developing Griffin and Jordan down low and either improving the defense on the wings or just bringing in someone new to help. Matt Barnes may be the best defensive wing on the team, and that’s not good. Luckily for the Clippers, they can hide their poor defensive rotations with their strong offensive play for most of the season — they just need to be ready come playoffs.
The only problem for the Clippers is defense and if they’re willing to sacrifice what it takes to becoming a solid defensive team they’ll need to follow Doc and Chris Paul. In order for the Clippers to dethrone the Spurs and Thunder in the West they need to improve defense. I’m confident with an organization that is tired of losing, a great player like Chris Paul and an intelligent coach like Doc Rivers, they will be taking their talents to South Beach this June.
Who will be coming out of the West?
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