Clippers remain a work in progress

You can’t talk about the Los Angeles Clippers at midseason without putting their record and their place in the standings into context.
This season after 31 games: a 20-11 record, first place in the Pacific Division, third place in the NBA’s Western Conference.
Last season after 31 games: a 9-22 record, fourth in the division, 13th in the conference.
No team is more improved in the league than the Clippers, who reached the All-Star break with a sense they’ve accomplished a lot but can still get better. They’re a virtual lock to advance to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but there’s no room for complacency.
“You can’t look behind other than to learn and get better,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We have a lot of growing to do as a team. We have a lot of things to clean up.”
Here’s a look at the team at midseason:
The Clippers knew Chris Paul was the piece they needed to take the next step, and he’s done everything to prove them right. He’s a strong, steady presence on the court who keeps his teammates active and isn’t afraid to create his own shot. He and Chauncey Billups were a formidable guard tandem, but the loss of Billups (torn Achilles) for the season will be cause for concern down the line. Randy Foye, who replaced Billups in the lineup, has better numbers as a starter than a reserve, but his 37 percent field-goal accuracy is worrisome.
Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler make for an impressive group, but we still have questions: Why does Butler seem to shoot so well in the first quarter of games, then disappear? Shouldn’t we expect to see more performances from Jordan like his game Wednesday against Denver (10 points, 16 rebounds, 9 offensive)? And will Griffin, who is exceptional at drawing fouls, get better as a free-throw shooter? All that aside, those three give the Clippers a strong presence inside.
Guard Mo Williams has been cold lately, but when he’s on, he gives the Clippers’ second group a noticeable boost. Despite his shooting slump, he’s a candidate for the league’s sixth man award and is averaging 13.5 points and 3.3 assists per game. The team’s late additions of Reggie Evans, who was signed just before the season started, and Kenyon Martin, who was added Feb. 3, were critical. Evans collects rebounds at an incredible pace, and Martin plays solid, intimidating defense. Ryan Gomes, who started 62 games last season, has seen his minutes reduced, but for good reason – he’s shooting 34 percent.
The Clippers are seventh in the league in scoring (97.9) and ninth in field-goal percentage (45.2). They have a 13-2 record when they score 100 or more points, and they have no shortage of scorers: Griffin, Paul, Butler and Williams average in double figures. Billups was their big shot-maker late in games, but now that he’s out, Paul is likely to have the ball in his hands in the closing seconds of a tight game. But no team wants to rely on its offense to win games every night.
It remains a work in progress and the primary focus of the second half. The Clippers realize they can be exploited in transition, and they often give up too many open looks. Although Jordan is a strong defender in the paint – he averages 2.6 blocks a game and alters opponents’ shots – Griffin sometimes can be caught out of position. “We can always get better defensively,” Paul said. “Good teams play good defense.” Especially in the postseason.
Give Del Negro credit. His coaching expertise has been questioned, but he’s done a nice job meshing his players through constant change – the loss of Billups, the additions of Evans and Martin, the return of guard Eric Bledsoe, who missed the first 17 games recovering from knee surgery. The Clippers are still finding their way, but Del Negro has them moving in the right direction.
The playoffs are a given, but the Clippers should expect to go further if they can shore up their defense, avoid any more injuries to frontline starters and follow Paul’s lead. If all that happens, they just might be contenders to reach the conference finals.