Clippers answering questions to become contenders

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Before the season there were several unanswered questions about the Clippers. We're beginning to get the answers, and it all adds up to a team that can contend at the highest levels this year.

A few weeks ago on the eve of the regular season, I posed several outstanding questions about the Los Angeles Clippers, hypothesizing that the answer to those questions might determine whether the Clippers would be a "just" a solid playoff team, or if they could take the next step in their evolution to legitimate contender status. A couple weeks into the season, with an admittedly small sample size of eight games to go on, the Clippers so far look very much like contenders. A 6-2 record and a two game lead in the Pacific Division (three games over the suddenly dysfunctional Lakers in an interesting role reversal) are solid enough. When you drill down and look at the teams those wins have come against -- 5-0 against 2012 playoff teams, with decisive wins over the Lakers, the Spurs, the Grizzlies and most recently the defending Champion Heat -- it becomes even more impressive. There are only two teams in the Western Conference with a better record than the Clippers -- and they've beaten both of them already in head-to-head meetings.

So have the answered all those open questions facing them in the affirmative in order to get to this point? Let's revisit the issues.

Which Lamar Odom will they get? We start off with the bad news. The Clippers' biggest off-season move was the trade that brought in former Clipper/Laker Lamar Odom at the cost of last year's sixth man Mo Williams. Odom won the Sixth Man Award in 2011 as a Laker, and so completely dreadful last year in Dallas that they asked him to go home. With Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin gone from last year's team, the Clippers appeared to need Odom to return to his Lakers form in order to have a viable front court rotation. Well, so far we've seen Dallas Odom or maybe even worse. He's made 5 of 24 shots on the season, playing a career low of fewer than 12 minutes per game. He came to camp out of shape and has yet to get anywhere close to top condition. He currently sports a PER under one -- 15 is considered average. However, there is some reason for optimism. He's still a good defender and rebounder and appears to be engaged and motivated on the floor. He continues to say all the right things and the extraordinarily close knit team remains fully supportive of him. His timing and conditioning are both terrible, but those things will improve with time. So far, they haven't gotten anything close to the good Lamar -- which just tells you that the team could be even better if he does get his timing back. With Odom being slow to get into shape, both Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf have been pleasant surprises in the early going picking of the slack as backup bigs.

Which Jamal Crawford will they get? If we were answering these first two questions on a scale of 1 to 10, trying to gauge these two former Sixth Man Award winners on the continuum of their NBA careers up to this point, you might have to give Odom a minus one -- but Crawford makes up for it with a 12. Crawford has been astoundingly good as a Clipper so far, averaging a team high 20.5 points in just over 28 minutes per game. He's tenth in the league in scoring and second only to Kobe Bryant in per minute scoring among players averaging at least 24 minutes. But it's the efficiency with which he is scoring that has been so astounding. A career 41 percent shooter, Crawford is making over 51 percent of his field goals and 42 percent of his threes. His true shooting percentage is a demonic .666 so far -- which makes sense as he's been shooting like a man possessed. He's always made multiple defenders, including Metta World Peace of the Lakers, look downright silly with his ankle breaking crossover.

We can take the next two questions, How will Chauncey Billups play after Achilles surgery and Does Grant Hill have at least one more productive season in him as a group. Neither Billups nor Hill have played a minute this season. Billups is still working his way into game shape after his surgery while Hill is nursing a bone bruise in his knee. The Clippers have no intention of rushing these two veterans back into action, understanding that it is much more important to have them healthy and productive in April, May and hopefully June than to make a mistake in bringing them back too soon in November. Willie Green has filled in admirably in the starting lineup for Billups, allowing coach Vinny Del Negro to keep his devastating second unit backcourt of Crawford and Eric Bledsoe in tact. Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has been one of the great early season surprises for the Clippers, providing the wing defense at the small forward that the team was hoping to get from Hill. As is the case with Odom, it is amazing to think about how deep this team will be when these two return. This is already arguably the best bench in the NBA, and it's only going to get better.

Can Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan make their free throws? The results are mixed here so far. On the whole, the team has managed to mitigate the free throw shooting issue. Last season they were 29th in the league at 68 percent -- through eight games, they're close to 79 percent, well better than the league average and seventh overall. They've managed this by getting their best foul shooters (Chris Paul and Crawford are both shooting better than 90 percent on the young season) to the line frequently, and with a decided improvement in Griffin's shooting so far (from 52 percent to 65 percent). Even Jordan has shown signs of finally getting it: he began the season missing his first eight foul shots, but then responded with seven straight makes, the longest streak of his NBA career. He's currently 7-16 on the season, but if indeed his work with shooting coach Bob Thate could be expected to make his shot worse before it gets better, he is showing progress at this point. The fact that Evans and Martin are gone, replaced by much better foul shooters in Hollins and Turiaf, helps the team's foul shooting as well. This will certainly remain a question for the Clippers, but so far the team foul shooting is vastly improved.

Are DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe ready to step up? This question, more than any other on the list, has been answered with a resounding YES. Jordan put up back to back 20 point games last week for the first time in his career, and is currently leading the NBA in field goal percentage. The fact is, he would have led the NBA in field goal percentage several other times if he'd taken enough shots to qualify -- he's a career 65 percent shooter after all -- but he's well over 70 percent this season, and unlike in years past it's not entirely on dunks and put backs. Jordan has developed honest to goodness post moves including a nifty right handed jump hook that is fast becoming a go to move. As for Bledsoe, he was primed for a breakout season after an impressive playoff performance and he has exceeded some pretty high expectations so far. He's one of six Clippers averaging double figure scoring, and he's doing it in just 18 high impact minutes per game. His PER is 22.5 and along with Crawford he forms a second unit backcourt that could start for most of the league and understandably has been devastating opposition backups (and quite a few starters for that matter). The Clippers needed these two youngsters to step up, and so far they have both done so, big time.

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Before the season, we said that the answers to these questions would determine how good this Clippers team could be -- they don't need everything to break perfectly, but if a fair number of these things go well, then this team can contend for a title this year. Half of the questions have been answered in the affirmative in the early going and indeed the Clippers have proven to be capable of beating the best teams in the league. With Billups and Hill yet to see action and the potential for Odom to contribute much more, the Clippers can be even better than they've already been.

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