Los Angeles Clippers: 5 Reasons This Is Their Year
The Los Angeles Clippers have been the best team in the NBA early on in the 2016-17 season, but here’s why it might finally be their time to win a championship.
For years, the Los Angeles Clippers have been the red-headed stepchild in L.A. Despite their consistent playoff appearances and vastly superior record to the Los Angeles Lakers over the last half-decade, many would argue that Los Angeles is Laker Town until the Clippers win a title, or at least make a conference finals.
Despite winning at least 53 games in each of the last four seasons, despite winning the Pacific Division in back-to-back years in 2012-13 and 2013-14, and despite being a genuinely entertaining, championship-caliber team for years now, the Clippers simply don’t get the respect they deserve.
Maybe it’s all the whining and flopping. Maybe it’s that Laker mentality of “RINGZZZ over everything.” Or maybe it’s their complete lack of playoff success, which continues to be defined by their lack of a conference finals appearance, let alone an NBA Finals appearance.
Either way, the Clippers have always been labeled as chokers and frauds whenever the playoffs roll around, either by their harshest critics who judge the value of an L.A. team by the lofty number of titles the Lakers have won, or by those who have simply had enough to Lob City’s unbearably brutal playoff collapses.
Through the first three weeks of the 2016-17 campaign, however, the Clippers have been the best team in the NBA, and this time, it feels different. It’s still very early in the new season, and no team has ever won a championship in November, but here’s why this might finally be Lob City’s year to break through and — dare we say it — win an actual NBA championship.
5. The Western Elite Look Mortal
Heading into the new season, there were essentially only three teams expected to seriously contend for a championship: The Cleveland Cavaliers, who would breeze through the East for a third consecutive Finals appearance, the San Antonio Spurs, who won 67 games last year, and the Golden State Warriors, who won 73 games, came within one win of the title and added Kevin Durant over the summer.
The Clippers have been a championship-caliber team for years, but they’ve always been just one step behind the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs and even the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. For once, it’s starting to look like things might break Lob City’s way.
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Though we’re only 10 or 11 games into the season, the Dubs haven’t been the juggernaut we’ve expected. Klay Thompson has struggled out of the gate, and the Warriors have very real flaws that could be exploited in a playoff series, including their lack of depth, rim protection and the stifling defense that turned them into contenders in the first place.
Golden State is 8-2, but many of their wins were unimpressive victories over bottom-feeder teams. Their losses — double-digit smackdowns at the hands of the Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers — reminded us that other than the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, recent super-teams like LeBron James‘ Miami Heat or his Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to win titles in their first season together.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are not the same stifling defense they were last year, mostly because Pau Gasol is trying to fill the void created by Tim Duncan‘s retirement. The Gasol-LaMarcus Aldridge frontcourt has a -2.7 Net Rating so far, and even though he looks like an early MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard has yet to lead this team to a playoff series win as San Antonio’s undisputed alpha.
The Spurs have looked mortal at home, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren’t spring chickens anymore. The Cavaliers would be a brutal opponent in the Finals, especially with the way the Clippers have been prone to playoff collapses in the past, but so far, Lob City’s path to the first conference finals and/or Finals appearances in franchise history has never looked more favorable.
4. Improved Bench Unit
In years past, the Clippers’ most notable Achilles heel was their miserable bench. Lob City has had one of the NBA’s best starting units since Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in L.A., but they’ve always fallen short in the playoffs, due in part to Doc Rivers being forced to ride his starters until they ran out of gas.
The Clippers have always had three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, and he continues to put up 10-12 points per game on less than efficient shooting splits of .408/.333/.897. The rest of the supporting cast, however, has filled out nicely.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 15, 2016
Marreese Speights, a surprising offseason addition that the Warriors are surely missing by now, has bolstered his former Pacific Division rival with 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 15.6 minutes per game.
Austin Rivers hasn’t been terrible, new addition Raymond Felton is providing defensive pressure while shooting a blistering 51.1 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from downtown, and Brandon Bass and Wesley Johnson have made sure there are no defensive drop-offs when the starters sit.
A productive bench has been the differentiator for the Clippers https://t.co/A9sEeKAzWS
— The Ringer (@ringer) November 15, 2016
Even Luc Mbah a Moute has done his part, providing stifling wing defense in a complementary role. He plays with the starters, sure, but as a former bench player who was hardly expected to be a contributor, he’s performed well in his limited role, shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.
The Clippers’ second unit ranks sixth in scoring at 39.8 points per game and 10th in point differential at +0.8. Given what we know about the potency of Los Angeles’ starting lineup, if the bench can keep up this kind of production, they’ll be a well-oiled machine come playoff time.
3. The Clippers Pass Every Test
The Clippers have been a championship-caliber team the last few years, but this red-hot start feels different. Maybe it’s because the Clips are an NBA-best 10-1. Maybe it’s because everyone knows this could be the last hurrah for CP3, Blake and DeAndre Jordan. Or maybe it’s because they’re routinely blowing out teams by 30+ points.
No championship has ever been won in November, but whatever the case may be, Lob City passes every litmus test for a championship-caliber team.
So uh … the Clippers are kinda dominating teams right now. https://t.co/sbaIk14OTW
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) November 15, 2016
We’ll get to L.A.’s stifling defense in a bit, but aside from their NBA-best record, the Clippers rank first in point differential (+16.6), fifth in Offensive Rating (109.1 points per 100 possessions), first in Net Rating (+16.1) and first in free throw attempts (28.8 per game).
They’re the only team to rank in the top five for both Offensive and Defensive Rating, and though 11 games does not make a full season, they’ve already convincingly handled the Jazz, Spurs, Grizzlies, Pistons, Trail Blazers (twice) and Thunder.
Through 11 games, 2017 Clippers (+183) have a better point differential than 2016 Warriors (+179). No. 4 all time… pic.twitter.com/FdxbWLwFkl
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) November 15, 2016
They’ve led by 40+ points in three of their last five games, they avenged their only loss of the season to OKC and their starting unit, which ranks second in field goal percentage and three-point percentage among all starting fives, boasts a monstrous Net Rating of +27.3. The next closest? The Warriors, at +9.7.
Again, 11 games does not make a season. At this point last year, the Dubs looked just as unbeatable, and they went on to suffer the most historic Finals defeat in NBA history. But based on everything we’ve seen thus far, the Clippers are a more legitimate title contender than they’ve ever been.
2. Star Power
The Clippers’ bench is as good as it’s ever been, but this team’s true power still lies within its starting five — more specifically, its Big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Though Chris Paul’s basic numbers — 19.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.9 SPG — don’t quite measure up from the best numbers of his career, CP3 has been as efficient and surgical as he’s ever been in his career.
During the Clippers' 7-game winning streak, Chris Paul has 63 assists and 8 turnovers. Seems .. good?
— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) November 16, 2016
Not only is he shooting a blistering 48.5 percent from the floor, 47.3 percent from downtown and 91.4 percent from the foul line, but he also boasts a 33.6 Player Efficiency Rating and a team-high plus/minus of +16.7.
Speaking of surgical, is there a passing big in the NBA more lethal than Blake Griffin right now?
— NBA (@NBA) November 8, 2016
Watching him operate from the elbow has been a true joy this year, and we’ve already got a season’s worth of highlights from him throwing perfect lobs to DeAndre Jordan for demoralizing alley-oops.
Griffin is averaging 20.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.3 steals in just 31.7 minutes per game, speaking to his extreme efficacy in limited playing time. His game looks as well-rounded as ever, and even those who criticize his inefficient midrange shooting so far will admit the Clippers’ offense has been rolling regardless.
Blake Griffin hits 9,000 career pts in his 420th career game. He's the fastest player to reach 9K PTS, 4K REB & 1,500 AST since Larry Bird pic.twitter.com/DbguyqqWcp
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 13, 2016
DeAndre Jordan’s numbers are similarly down, but even with his numbers dropping to 10.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game on 56.4 percent shooting, his value on the boards, protecting the rim and as an alley-oop threat remains as strong as ever.
Lob City still makes its money through its Big Three, but thanks to improved depth, they haven’t had to ride their star power as much. A Clippers team with a well-rested CP3, Griffin and DJ come playoff time is a terrifying concept for the rest of the league.
1. A Stifling Defense
The Los Angeles Clippers have everything you’d expect out of an championship contender: Resume-building wins, dominant blowouts, three proven stars, an improved bench, you name it.
But unlike years past, when their solid but not elite defense went under the radar, the Clippers have made their stifling defense the foundation of their 2016-17 campaign.
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Again, 11 games is a small sample size, but the Clippers currently lead the league in Defensive Rating, holding opponents to a smothering 93.0 points per 100 possessions.
They’re holding opponents to a league-best 40.9 percent shooting from the floor, they’re leading the league in steals (10.4 per game) and they’re turning those steals into a league-best 20.5 points per game off of turnovers and 17.8 fast break points per game (third highest in the association).
Like the Clippers’ overall championship merit over the last few years, Lob City’s quality defense is not entirely new. After all, they ranked sixth in Defensive Rating last year.
However, much like the rest of the Clippers’ early season success, this feels different and sustainable. This team has always been counted out, and they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder while formulating the league’s best defense.
If all of those things continue, the Clippers will make their first conference finals, they could be a legitimate threat to unseat the Warriors or Spurs in the West, and they very well could be the favorites to win the 2016-17 NBA championship.