State of the Clippers: Moving on up
No one knows better than center DeAndre Jordan how far the Clippers have risen. In his rookie season of 2008-09, they lost 63 games. The next year, they lost 53.
"I'll never forget it," Jordan said. "It's bad to say, but our fans were coming to see other teams play. But the culture is changing now, slowly."
In one lockout-shortened season and a little more than two months of the current NBA campaign – or since the arrival of point guard Chris Paul – the Clippers have cleaned up their image and fattened their win column. They've gone from last-place finishers to a Tower of Power, one that many coaches and opposing players consider a real title contender.
No offense to the Lakers, but it's the Clippers who own LA and who should be sitting among the league's elite teams. The Lakers' lease on the Tower of Power has run out; their one-time hapless co-tenants at Staples Center have moved in.
The Clippers at least can relate to the Lakers' current sorry state. Since they relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984, the Clips have lost 50 or more games 19 times and failed to make the playoffs in 24 of 29 seasons.
All that while the Lakers were winning titles and hoisting Larry O'Brien trophies.
During their miserable years, the Clippers were little more than an easy mark for most teams.
"It was a different mindset when you came here to town," said Paul, whose first six seasons were spent in New Orleans. "You felt like you were going to get a win. You felt like you could do whatever the night before and still be ready for the game.
"When you're a player in this league, you know what it's like to go into certain cities and feel like you're going to win."
But Paul's arrival before the start of last season changed the direction and the culture of a franchise that was seldom more than mediocre from one season to the next. He instilled consistency and winning into the team's philosophy – and when he couldn't direct others to make plays, he made them himself.
This season, with a bench that is arguably the league's best, the Clippers have run out to the NBA's best start at 28-8. They had a perfect 16-0 record in December, ran off 17 consecutive wins at one point (tied for sixth longest in league history since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger) and currently have a franchise-record 13-game home winning streak.
This is a team that has been so good, the starters sometimes play fewer minutes than the reserves simply because they give the bench a lead that is subsequently extended. The Clippers rank eighth in scoring average, fourth in opponents' average and second in average point differential, a sign they're getting contributions at all levels.
Wednesday night, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called the Clippers "legit contenders" for an NBA title, but others have been saying the same thing.
"Kevin Durant told me, 'You guys are going to be really tough this year,' " reserve forward Matt Barnes said of the Oklahoma City star. "He said that after we took them to overtime. He threw in some cuss words, but it was all encouraging.
"That's good coming from a team that went to the Finals. It shows we're starting to make a mark."
All they have to do is make it last.
Who's Hot: When Chris Paul steps to the free-throw line at Staples Center, he's usually accompanied by a chant of "MVP! MVP!" from fans. There's good reason for it. Paul was the Western Conference player of the month in December and hasn't slowed one bit in January. In five games this month, he's averaging 21.8 points and 10 assists and has converted 18 of 25 shots in his past two games. MVP, indeed.
Who's Not: The team had hoped that forward Grant Hill finally might make his Clippers debut Wednesday after missing the entire season because of a bone bruise in his right knee. Instead, it was decided to give Hill a bit more time to rest after he took part in two practices earlier this week. His addition will provide the Clippers with experience and another viable scoring option off the bench, but so far he's been missing in action.
1. Jamal Crawford has been touted as a possible Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Clippers, but Matt Barnes should be getting some attention too. His hustle at both ends and his three-point shooting have been major factors in the team's strong bench play. Barnes has scored in double figures 25 times and totaled 19 points, including 5 of 8 from three-point range, in Wednesday's win over Dallas.
2. The Clippers are arguably the streakiest team in the NBA. This season, they started out with two consecutive wins followed by two consecutive losses. Then they won six in a row, lost four in a row, won 17 straight, lost two in a row and now have won three in succession. That's consistency.
3. Coach Vinny Del Negro continually stresses the need for fast starts, and with good reason. The Clippers have led after the opening quarter 23 times in 36 games this season and their record in those games is a league-best 22-1. They also went 10 consecutive quarters without trailing an opponent until the third period against the Mavs when they fell behind 58-57. But it was only temporary.
Quotes of the Week
"When you come to LA, it's bright lights. It's like a team going to play against the Knicks at the Garden. You're going to get their A game. It's a huge market, a lot of people watching. LA's the place to play."
–Chris Paul, on teams wanting to beat the Clippers in Staples Center
"All these records, we don't really try and set out to break them. It kind of just happens. For us, we just want to continue to get better and continue to win."
–Jamal Crawford, on the team's 13-game home winning streak
"Coach has confidence in me shooting the ball. I didn't shoot it very well early, but he stuck with me and told me to continue to shoot. That's what happens when coach has confidence in me."
–Matt Barnes, after scoring 19 points off the bench on 7-of-11 shooting Wednesday night against the Mavericks
Home is where the heart is, but the Clippers will have to get ready for a difficult road swing. They play the Magic on Saturday afternoon at Staples, where they're 30-4 since March 17, 2012, but then play 14 of their next 17 on the road. They're 10-5 so far away from Staples, but that trip could be a real grind.
Tower of Power?
The Lakers have been relocated to a studio apartment on the outskirts of the city. The Clippers are a high-rise still under construction.