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In Part I of the NBA Intelligencer, a list of unsung attributes toward winning an NBA championship team was discussed. In this continuation of the series, we look at a team whose supertar captain can amass bushels of statistical output, but is also capable of “changing the culture” of an entire squad by performing various non-statistical duties on the floor as well. It may be befuddling to some that The Los Angeles Clippers would be the best team to exemplify this paradigm, but the addition of point guard Chris Paul to the team has changed the Clippers culture from a mess to exemplary overnight.
Chris Paul (PG): [2008, when healthy: 22.8ppg, 10.1 apg, 2.8 spg, 50% FG, 2nd in MVP voting, All NBA 1st Team, All NBA 1st Defensive Team; 2010, when recovering from knee injury: 15.9 ppg, 9.9 apg, 46% FG, 2.4 spg, All NBA 3rd Team, All NBA 2nd Defensive Team; 2011 playoffs: 22.8 ppg, 11.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 55% FG]
Chauncey Billups (G): [17 ppg, 5 apg]
Blake Griffin (PF): [Rookie Year: 22.5 ppg, 12.1 rpg]
Caron Butler (SF): [29 games, 15.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg]
DeAndre Jordan (C): [7.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg]
Mo Williams (PG): [14.0 ppg, 6.6 apg]
Randy Foye (G): [9.8 ppg, 32% 3pg]
Eric Bledsoe (G): [6.7 ppg in 22 minutes]
Do The Clippers Have Elite Defensive Stoppers? Yes. The media has made a big deal about the Clippers having to give up all-star prospect shooting guard Eric Gordon (22 ppg in 55 games) in their trade for Chris Paul. This concern is niggling, just analytical filler. Even if Chris Paul comes to the Clippers at 80% due to a history of knee injuries and puts up “very good” offensive numbers instead of Hall of Fame quality ones (compare his 2008 statistics to 2010), just by virtue of being one of the three best defensive perimeter players in the league, and perhaps the most effectively active in forcing turnovers, Paul is a championship-caliber addition to the Clips. Gordon? Yes, he’s a fine offensive player, but fine offensive play alone makes for a 50-win squad, not a championship contender.
The Clippers’ acquisition of small forward Caron Butler means that their wing defense is not nearly as bad as ESPN has evaluated it to be. Butler is an underrated man-on-man defender who also actively forces turnovers. So, basically, between Paul and Butler on the perimter, expect a litany of forced turnovers on a given night. With speedy, explosive front court players Blake Griffin and De’Andre Jordan running the floor for fast breaks after each steal, a high percentage of these turnovers will be converted to lightening fast scoring conversions.
The Clippers interior defense is in good shape with De’Andre Jordan at center. Jordan has already established himself as an active shot-blocker and rebounder in the NBA, and he still has upside. Blake Griffin’s rebounding numbers – 12 a game – are ferocious, and with his strength and leaping ability, you may see his rebounding output increase even a bit more. Griffin’s man-on-man defense was called into question last year. However, Griffin’s work ethic is reverential and his mental acuity is very high. He’ll learn how to play strong defense and he’ll embrace his these duties.
The Clippers bench defense is weak. The first three players off their bench have a combined height of 6’1 and none of them are reputed defenders. However, if they can trade point guard Mo Williams for a servicable point guard and either a defensive perimter stopper or a front court workhorse, they can shore this problem up to a considerable extent.
Do The Clippers Have Versatile Players? Yes. Before Paul was riddled with knee injuries in 2009, he was considered the next Isiah Thomas. Paul, actually, was performing better than the two-time NBA champion between 2007 and 2009. Paul is a pass-first guard (10 apg) who can also shoot the lights out of the ball like a two-guard. Thomas was a pretty good shooter, but he was never shooting at a 50% FG clip like Paul. Paul is also a ferociously tenacious and physical defender. Thomas was excellent, but Paul assertiveness on the defensive end has made him a NBA steals leader for three seasons. Thomas never accomplished this feat.
Paul’s playmaking skills also optimizes his teammate’s playmaking skills. What Paul does, essentially, is take a standard chess board and slice it up to another hundred or so spaces on which only he and his teammates can operate. Paul’s ability to read defenses and his acute understanding of all angles and floor spacing will enable every player on the floor to increase their shooting range a little. Caron Butler can play both shooting guard and small forward; in the past, however, Butler has had a bad reptuation for forcing up shots. Paul will mitigate this problem but knowing when to select Butler as his option; when to find Butler when he can get more wide open looks. This is all with respect to Blake Griffin, whose explosiveness and speed will be optimized by Paul’s love for swarming around the perimeter with the threat of taking a jump shot, and then threading a laser fast pass to the quick finishing power forward.
What can be so devastating about the Paul – Griffin option is that opponents are going to have a genuinely difficult time figuring out just who the #1 option is. Will Paul decide to take a higher percentage of jumpers or playmaking passes during the 4th quarter? Will Griffin act as a decoy while Paul and Butler take the bulk of jumps shots and cut n’ slashes to the paint, or, will Paul start feeding Griffin? Impossible to gauge.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups will be an interesting addition to the Clippers squad. Traditionally a low-tempo point guard, he will now play off-guard on a more high-tempo offense. What this means is that Billups will have to defer to Paul’s playmaking, settling for the role of three-point shooter and a secondary playmaker on certain plays. Other times, Billups will assume point guard when Paul is on the bench, which should cause adjustment problems for other teams who will have to adjust from defending against Paul’s fast pace Billups more grinding pace. Billups will have to make adjustments, but as a savvy vet and one of the best reputed teammates in the league, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Do The Clippers have a Front Court workhorse? Yes. Undoubtedly. In Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers have two beasts who love nothing more than to cause havoc in the front court. Both are adept rebounders who enjoy a physical game. The Clippers bench needs work, though not so much, as you can depend on the Clips’ young starting front court to play 37 minutes a night.
Do The Clippers have a defensive minded head coach? Sort of. Vinny Del Negro falls into the Erik Spolestra category: a young head coach who is clearly intelligent and has the capacity to have a strong understanding of the game, but who hasn’t grasped it just yet. Spolestra managed to instill in the Heat a strong defensive mindset, but he was thoroughly out-strategized by savyy NBA veteran head coach Rick Carlisle in the NBA Finals.
However – and it’s fully admitted that I’m quaffing the Chris Paul Kool-Aid here – having a point guard who has such a highly intelligent understanding of the game is basically like having a second head coach on your squad. Legitimate arguments have been made that Mike D’Antoni’s regular season sucess on the Phoenix Suns was attributed for in part because Steve Nash was one of the best floor generals of his time.
Do The Clippers have a pathologically competitive star? Yes. They have two. In addition to having comparative abilities with Isiah Thomas, Paul has been reputed for having a Isiah’s ferocious competitive tenacity. Isiah Thomas, listed at 6’1 (generously), 180, is easily the smallest NBA player over the last 30 years to lead his team to an NBA title. It didn’t matter, however, because he was a glutton for punishment and was obsessive about suffocating players at both ends of the floor. In this respect, Paul is Thomas’s competitive progeny. The semblance is uncanny.
Not a lot has been mentioned about Blake Griffin in this article, because what he offers to the table statistically is already assumed. He’s going to score and rebound in bushels and is a perfect compliment to Paul. However, Griffin is nothing short of a predator inside the paint. He is not just going to score and rebound, he’s going to cause all sorts of havoc while doing it. Put another way, it takes more than just athletic ability to surge to the hoop like an acrobat with an injury-wish for long rebounds and put-back dunks. It takes an unflappable desire to destroy your opponent. That’s Blake Griffin.
Prediction: The Los Angeles Clippers have an outstanding skeletal framework to be a championship contender in the NBA for years to come. Aside from addresing a weak and undersized bench, there isn’t a team in the NBA that can match Paul’s playmaking intelligence and Blake Griffin’s tremendous athleticism.
However, this is still a young team that has relatively little late-playoff round experience. There is also an issue of major past injuries to this squad. Each of the Clippers four starters have had major issues with knee injuries. For the time being, however, let’s call injuries an unpredictable “x” factor and chalk them up to a 55-57 win season and a heartbreaking game seven loss in the Western Conference semifinals or finals. In 2013, with a year of experience and some bitter playoff disappointment in their system, they can dominate the Western Conference.