The NBA is notorious for having a small number of teams with realistic championship expectations. While nearly half of the NFL can claim to be in the running, the NBA normally only has a handful of true contenders. The Heat, Thunder and Spurs have all established themselves as frontrunners to be playing into June, but there is another interesting group below them of teams that have shown the capability of playing with the elite.
Over the next week, Dime will separate the contenders from the pretenders. First up are the Los Angeles Clippers.
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43-19 record (Third in West)
3-5 vs Elite (vs Miami 1-1, vs Oklahoma City 0-3, vs San Antonio 2-1)
Leading scorers: Blake Griffin, 18.6 ppg; Jamal Crawford, 17.0 ppg; Chris Paul, 16.4 ppg
The Clippers moved out of irrelevancy when they traded for Chris Paul and paired him with fellow All-Star Blake Griffin. A 17-game win streak earlier this season propelled them into the discussion of Western Conference contenders.
Paul’s greatness is sometimes still overlooked, but he is widely regarded as the best point guard in the league in an era with plenty of competition. His presence catapulted them to the playoffs last season and he has a better supporting cast this year.
Griffin has also elevated his game by adding a semi-reliable, if unorthodox, post game and jump shot to his nightly aerial displays. He’s showing signs of developing into the go-to one-on-one player the Clippers will be able to rely on late in games to alleviate the pressure on Paul.
The best team in Los Angeles also has one of the deepest benches in the league. Lob City brings players that would start on many teams off the bench in Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Crawford has rebounded from a down year in Portland back to his perennial status as a Sixth Man of the Year contender. Bledsoe’s speed off the bench makes the tempo even quicker when the bench plays, and usually gives the starters long opportunities to pick up splinters while they watch. When the Tribe Called Bench plays well, the Clippers are as dangerous as any team in the league.
In a best-case scenario, the Clippers depth will allow them to run past their playoff opponents. With Paul racking up assists, Griffin scoring down low and Crawford hitting his jump shots, the Clippers think they can play with anyone on any single night.
And they are right. But can they do it over the course of a seven-game series?
Despite all of their strengths, the Clippers aren’t a perfect team. They, like every team that doesn’t have LeBron James, have no answer for Kevin Durant, who has torched them for 34 points per game this season. Caron Butler, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill aren’t nearly athletic enough to slow down Durant.
The lack of frontcourt depth will also be a problem moving forward. When 2013 Lamar Odom is finishing games, there is a problem. With the overload of wing and backcourt players, the Clippers will regret holding on to Bledsoe instead of swapping him for a big man. DeAndre Jordan is a capable rim protector and finisher down low, but isn’t the Tyson Chandler-level paint protector the Clippers need to pair next to Griffin.
The Clippers can take solace in being the best team to call the Staples Center home, but they won’t be raising a banner this year. The 17-game winning streak was largely against non-playoff teams, and they have struggled against the top three teams in the league. As exciting as Lob City has been for the past two seasons, the Clippers are still a limited team.
A question that any championship contender must be able to answer is: who gets the ball in a tie game with a minute left? With Griffin’s post game still a work in progress, the Clippers lack a consistent scoring threat outside of a barrage of jump shots. Crawford has come back to reality since his hot start to the season and can’t be counted on to carry a team in crunch time come May. Paul is vulnerable to a big defender slowing his scoring, and the road to the Finals goes through Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. In two games against the Thunder, Paul has shot a paltry 10-for-35. Isiah Thomas’ Pistons were the last team to be so dependent upon its point guard to create offense and win a championship.
The Clippers are missing a shot-creating wing player to aide Paul in carrying the late-game offense. But ultimately, the Clippers inability to stop elite wing scorers will be their demise. Whether it is Durant or James, an uber-athletic swingman will be the Clippers downfall.
Are the Clippers pretenders or contenders?
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