There were times during the Los Angeles Clippers incredible final month of 2012 when both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul struggled to find the bottom of the bucket. When you checked the box score, both of their superstars appeared to struggle and barely managed to play 30 minutes on the night. That left a lot of room for Los Angeles’ ample bench to step in during their stars’ off-nights. That’s also the primary reason the Clippers rattled off a franchise-best 17 straight wins, and all of their games in December.
Even though they lost their first game of 2013, they’re Stephen A. Smith‘s pick to win the title. While that’s a little premature at the not-quite midseason mark, it’s not as crazy as some of Smith’s other pronouncements. When a team goes against the Clippers, they don’t really know who is going to beat them, and that’s been the key to the Clippers’ early season success.
The Clippers all-around skill starts with their offseason acquisitions of Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes. Lamar Odom came into camp out of shape, and Grant Hill has been kept off the court about as much as he was when he was in Orlando (proving, once again, Phoenix’s training staff is still the best in the league). Chauncey Billups has settled in as Vinny Del Negro‘s de facto assistant coach and he’s not the championship starter at guard he used to be. Eric Bledsoe has to play behind the best point guard in the game, so that leaves Crawford and Barnes, two players that do different things for the Clippers, but also at very high levels.
Crawford is sometimes the best offensive option even when he’s playing with Paul and Griffin. He can create an open shot whenever he wants and isn’t afraid to chuck it from every spot inside 26 feet. But Crawford’s production isn’t an anomaly; he’s been shooting without conscience for his entire now 13-year NBA career. More than part of Crawford’s value to the Clippers is the context: The Clippers have Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe, two above-average point guards, but they don’t really have guys that can light it up both off the pass and the dribble, and that’s Crawford’s forte. It also helps he plays a lot of effective minutes with Paul in the backcourt, and not just with the second team (like a less hairy James Harden when he was in OKC).
Barnes is the ultimate intangibles guy, able to defend long wings, like Kobe, and also limit his turnovers while draining the occasional outside shot, particularly from the corner. But while Crawford helps the Clippers offensively, he’s someone you try and hide on the defensive end – the team is holding opponents to 94.9 points per 100 possessions with Barnes on the court, and 105.8 when he’s off (per 82games.com). The average with Barnes on the floor would make the Clippers the stingiest defense in the league, and would have them trailing everyone but New Orleans, Sacramento and Charlotte for the worst defense in the league when he was on the bench. He’s a “tough as nails” defender and that translates to the rest of the team. So, just by using a simple plus/minus ratio with Barnes on the court, he transforms the Clippers into the league’s best defense when he’s on the court, and they fall to the bottom five when he sits. Maybe that’s why he’s averaging 25.1 minutes a game this season, his highest since his 2009-10 campaign in Orlando.
But it’s not just Barnes and Crawford who have helped the Clippers transform into legitimate title contenders in the West, and the league’s hottest team going into the new year. Chris Paul has continued to play as the smartest, most efficient point guard in the league. He’s the only starter above Barnes and Crawford in 82games.com’s simple plus/minus rating for the Clippers. He only trails LeBron, Kobe and Durant in Adjusted PER, which counts actual assisted and unassisted field goals. He’s also shooting over 47 percent from the floor, using his typically deadly elbow jumper in conjunction with his fourth quarter drives in the paint for easy buckets at the rim. But the scariest thing for opponents should be how little Paul is actually playing while Los Angeles remains so dangerous offensively. He’s only averaging around 33 minutes a night, which is three minutes under how much he averaged last year, and almost half a quarter less than the Thunder’s Kevin Durant. He’s actually going to be rested come playoff time, which can’t make anyone in the West happy.