The Los Angeles Clippers are leading the Pacific Division at the All Star break for the first time in the team's history, which, for a team that as shared a division with the Los Angeles Lakers for over 30 years, is quite an accomplishment. When the Clippers traded for Chris Paul just prior to the start of the season, expectations for the team immediately grew exponentially. So far, the Clippers are mostly living up to those expectations.
The team has 20 wins in their first 31 games -- it took them 52 games to win 20 games last season. They're currently third in the Western Conference in addition to being first in the Division. They have beaten many of the best teams in the league, including the Thunder and the Heat, not to mention the Lakers. They can play with anybody.
Can the Clippers keep up this pace? Can they be expected to maintain a top four position in the Western Conference, and earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Can they climb even higher in the standings? Can they challenge for the Western Conference Championship?
There's bad news and good news for the Clippers as they move into the second half of the season, beginning with a home game against the Timberwolves on Tuesday night.
The bad news is that they've played one of the least busy schedules so far. At the break, the Clippers have played just 31 games -- only Golden State has played fewer, and 27 NBA teams have played more, some as many as 35. Look no further than the month of March to see how the schedule will catch up with the LAC -- they play 20 games in 31 days, an absolutely absurd pace. The leisurely pace definitely benefited the Clippers in the early going, as it allowed for more practice time as the many new parts of the team were coming together. But they'll be paying for that luxury in March.
The good news is that they've played a lot of good teams so far, and have more games against weaker opponents in the remaining 35 games than they played in the first 31. Looking at the four Western Conference teams with losing records, the Clippers have played them twice so far -- they play them a dozen times in the remaining 35.
The bad news is that Chauncey Billups is hurt. Billups was another key acquisition for the Clippers this year and joined Paul in the starting backcourt. But on February 6 in Orlando, he tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for the season. The Clippers will miss his leadership, his ability to deliver in the clutch, and his three point shooting.
The good news is that they are relatively deep in the backcourt. Billups went down about the time that second year player Eric Bledsoe returned from off season knee surgery. In the absence of Billups, Randy Foye slid into the starting shooting guard position, allowing Mo Williams to continue to come off the bench, a role in which he has thrived this season. Losing Billups hurt, but it's arguably the one position where the Clippers can overcome an injury.
The bad news is that the defense has not been good. The Clippers are allowing 105 points per 100 possessions, a defensive efficiency that ranks them 21st among the NBA's 30 teams. The offensive efficiency has been top 5 all season, but no team with a winning record has been worse defensively this season.
The good news is that the defense has gotten better. A few weeks into the season, the Clippers were 29th in defensive efficiency. The additions of Reggie Evans (in game 6) and Kenyon Martin (in game 23) have helped the team on the defensive end considerably. If they can add one more piece to help in defending the wing, it can make a difference as well. The Clippers are not likely to become an elite defensive unit -- but they need to be above average if they are going to realize their potential.
As for the players, well it's almost entirely good news where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are concerned. Paul has been better than advertised -- he controls the game like few players in the league can, and has the ability to hit the big shot when the team needs it. Everyone knew he'd get plenty of assists in Lob City -- but who knew what an efficient scorer he would be? He's the only player in the NBA averaging at least 15 points and 7 assists, with an effective field goal percentage better than 53%.
Griffin has picked up where he left off after his Rookie of the Year season. At 21 points and 11 rebounds per game he remains in the elite 20/10 club, along with Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. And while his scoring is slightly down from last season, that's largely due to the fact that the Clippers have so many more weapons around him that they don't need him to score as much. His field goal percentage is way up, from just over 50% as a rookie to almost 54% this season. The biggest weakness in his game is his free throw shooting -- and even that has shown signs of improvement recently.
Caron Butler, another acquisition, has been a model of consistency at the small forward. DeAndre Jordan has been earning his big new contract with active defense and thunderous dunks -- he's third in the NBA in both blocked shots per game and dunks per game. The bench is improving, with Martin joining Williams as the key contributors in the second unit.
But the NBA is a star driven league, and the Clippers will likely go as far as Paul and Griffin take them. Considering that those two have only played 26 NBA games together and seem to be getting more comfortable with each other with each passing game, there's no reason to expect anything but improvement from the Clippers in the second half of the season.