Are the Clippers Genuine Contenders?
By Matthew Woodruff
On paper, the Los Angeles Clippers have the deepest team in the league. They have arguably the best point guard in the game in CP3, the most athletic and dynamic front court in Blake Griffin and vastly improved DeAndre Jordan. Furthermore their bench rotation incorporating Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom are amongst the best second units going around. The question is, are the Clippers able to compete on Centre Stage with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder?
The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks have been the last two champions. Much of their success can be attributed to Lebron James and Dirk Nowitzki, however both teams had the ability to spread the floor and get good open looks for the perimeter. Pure speed and guile from JJ Barea and the basketball acumen of Jason Kidd gave great open looks to terrific knock down shooters Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki. Miami also had complementary figures in Chalmers in Wade penetrating and kicking for wide open looks to Shane Battier, Mike Miller and James Jones. Miami is even stronger in that dimension this year with the key additions of Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen – the greatest three point shooter in NBA history.
In comparison the Clippers have the ability to drive and give open looks to their wingmen but the wealth of talent from beyond the arc aren’t as evident. Apart from Jamal Crawford, the Clippers rely on Caron Butler who is a capable but not terrific jump shooter, Matt Barnes – predominantly defensive stopper and streaky Chauncey Billups. The Clippers, 5th in assisted field goal percentage at 52.2% are just fifteenth in three point percentage at 35.6%.
Another worrying sign for the Clippers is the propensity to put opponents on the free throw line. Los Angeles ranks 4th in the league in opponent free throws made at 19.3 a contest. In close contests, stopping the clock and not making the opposing offense works for good looks is a particular concern for Vinnie Del Negro. Los Angeles needs to keep the ball in play and make teams work for open looks at the basket. The Clippers are second in the league in forcing turnovers with 17.8 a contest, which provides them with opportunities for fast break points, and well renowned Blake Griffin poster dunks.
Surprisingly, the Clippers have emerged as the early Pacific Division leaders with a record of 11-6 six weeks into the season. Their much fancied Staple Center Lakers are yet to hit their straps amidst a coaching change, injuries at point guard and unaccomplished performance from big man Pau. However the Clippers are still yet to show their true potential. They have season defining victories against Miami, San Antonio (twice) and the Lakers however have also shown inconsistency with a four game losing streak.
For Vinny Del Negro and his merry men to be considered a genuine title contender they need to rapidly improve in a few areas. For such a sizable front court, the Clippers struggle to rebound the ball. Los Angeles sports the fourth fewest rebounds per game, at 39.8 a game – just the undersized Eastern Conference Heat, Hawks and Celtics are worse.
The depth Los Angeles boasts also causes problems with their rotation. Lamar Odom, sixth man two seasons ago is struggling to beat out Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf for minutes when Griffin and Jordan sit. Secondly, the imminent return of Grant Hill poses problems for Matt Barnes and Caron Butler at the small forward position – How Del Negro manages the minutes and rotation of the second unit will heavily influence the outcome the team’s success. The return of Chauncey Billup to the line-up has already forced Willie Green out of the rotation and limited the effect of leading scorer Jamal Crawford. With so many weapons the Clippers may struggle to find a go to guy in the fourth quarter that may be so important in big playoff games.