As the NBA season nears it's midpoint, a very strange thing is happening: the Los Angeles Clippers are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference. After opening the season with just a single win in their first 14 games, the Clippers have gone 12-11 since, and have won 8 of their last 11, including a dramatic win over the Miami Heat Wednesday night that broke the Heat's 13 game winning streak (preserving the 71-72 Lakers' nearly 40 year old record for a while longer). No team in the Western Conference has a better record over that span, nor the marquee wins.
In addition, the Clippers have the hottest young star in the NBA right now. Blake Griffin is a virtual lock to win rookie of the year; he's already the headliner for All Star Weekend when it hits Staples Center next month by virtue of single-handedly making the dunk contest relevant again; he's a fixture on SportsCenter every night the Clippers play. At his current rate, it will be difficult to keep him off the All Star team, despite the Clippers still ugly looking 13-24 overall record. Kevin Baxter of the LA Times in a Sunday feature story went so far as to say:
If Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain were Los Angeles' basketball past and Kobe Bryant the sport's present, Blake Griffin could very well be its future.
So what the heck is going on here? Are the Clippers actually relevant? Are they for real?
One thing you need to bear in mind is that the Clippers were never as bad as their 1-13 start. Several factors contributed to the dismal beginning of the season. First and foremost, the season opening schedule was brutal. Eight of their first nine games came against Western Conference teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. By the time the schedule finally eased up, the Clippers had lost starters Chris Kaman and Baron Davis to injury. Starting a lineup that featured three rookies and two third year players, without a single starter over the age of 22, the Clippers, not surprisingly, continued to struggle to win games. Taken together - a team featuring seven new players and four rookies on the roster, a new coach, a new system, a brutal schedule, and a spate of injuries - is it any wonder that they got off to a rocky start?
Yet all the while, good things were happening. For one thing, there was Griffin. In his very first NBA game after missing the entirety of what would have been his rookie season with a stress fracture in his knee, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. His very first NBA basket was a thunderous dunk on an alley-oop, a portent of things to come. In his first 13 NBA games he was sensational, recording double doubles in points and rebounds in six of them, a simply absurd level of productivity for a rookie. And then he got serious. He blew up for 44 points (a Clipper rookie record) and 15 rebounds against the Knicks on November 20th, and he has not failed to register a double double in any of the 24 Clipper games since. That is a Clipper franchise record, not just a rookie record. He's also recorded thirteen straight 20-10 games.
Meanwhile, as good as Griffin has been, he's not the leading scorer on the team. That honor goes to third year shooting guard Eric Gordon, who is making his case as a candidate for Most Improved Player, increasing his productivity across the board, but especially in scoring. He has gone from less than 17 points per game last season to almost 24 this season, good enough for tenth best in the NBA. Gordon is benefiting from a summer spent winning a Gold Medal as a key reserve for Team USA in Turkey, and the experience appears to have given him the confidence to take his NBA game to the next level. Most notably, Gordon is developing into a go to scorer that the Clippers can turn to in situations where they need a bucket, a luxury the team has always lacked.
The early season injuries were a blessing in disguise as it forced Coach Vinny Del Negro to use his two first round draft choices from last June, Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, sooner and more extensively than he likely would have otherwise. The kids responded well to the early action, and have already developed into important parts of the rotation, adding depth to what seemed like a thin bench heading into the season.
In addition to the rookies, third year pro DeAndre Jordan was forced into the starting lineup when Kaman went down. Jordan has always displayed tantalizing potential, but was raw and mistake-prone. In his first two seasons in the league, playing behind Kaman and Marcus Camby among others, DJ rarely got sustained playing time to show what he could do. When he did get into games, he would pick up quick fouls or turn the ball over. With steady playing time this season, the game has begun to slow down for Jordan, and just within the last few weeks he has really seemed to come into his own. He's using his 7'6" wing span and athleticism to be a major factor on the defensive end. During one recent four game stretch, he averaged 11 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.5 blocks per game. He's also shooting over 68% on the year, mostly on dunks and putbacks. He's played so well that many Clipper fans are left wondering if Kaman, an All Star last season, should come off the bench when he does return to the lineup. (For the record, no he shouldn't; Kaman should be starting.)
Add to this eclectic mix point guard Baron Davis. Baron has borne the brunt of the criticism for the last two dismal Clippers seasons, and rightfully so. He returned to his hometown to play for the Clippers, but he has rarely seemed motivated or interested, and has performed well below his prior levels. He was all set to be the scapegoat once again, having reported to camp out of shape and then suffering an injury in the first week of the regular season. Clipper fans were ready to ship him out of town for salary relief when a funny thing happened: he returned from injury and made the team significantly better.
Baron appears energized playing with a bunch of freakish athletes around him. Griffin may be a feature on SportsCenter every night, but Baron is right there with him, or at least his passes are, as it's usually a Baron Davis lob that is being hammered down by Griffin (or Jordan, or Aminu, or...). Baron has always had uncanny court vision, but this season he seems to be making the transition in earnest to pass first point guard. His shot attempts are down, especially his three point attempts, his shooting percentage is rising, and he is among the league leaders in assists per minute, assist-to-turnover ratio and assist-to-shot ratio. When the Clippers are rolling on offense as they were during a 44 point first quarter against the Heat on Wednesday, it's Baron orchestrating the action.
Can the team keep it up? Well, they've had a very home friendly schedule to this point, playing 23 games at home so far and only 14 on the road. Surprisingly, they will remain at home for most of January, and then hit the road for essentially all of February on a brutal and unprecedented 11 game road trip (thank you NBA schedulers). The team lost its first eleven on the road this season, and although they've won three straight since then, it's safe to say that they'll be sorely tested during that trip.
They also have a bad habit of giving up big leads. Since the beginning of December, the Clippers have been in almost every game they've played, and have built impressive leads in many of them. But far too often they've lost their focus and lost the lead and eventually the game. More disturbingly, they seem to have no idea how to win the close games, being edged at the buzzer multiple times this season. Such is the lot of a young and mostly inexperienced team - the only way to gain that experience is to play more close games.
If the Clippers can manage to beat the Warriors in Oakland Friday night, they'll set up a showdown with the Lakers on the Clippers home court at Staples this Sunday between the two hottest teams in the Western Conference. It would be another chance to prove themselves, not to mention a chance to avenge a last second loss from December, a game in which they outplayed the Lakers.
Regardless of what happens in that game Sunday, one thing we can say for the Clippers at the midpoint of the season: they're for real.