What is this Los Angeles Clippers team?
Much like their neighbors down the hall at Staples Center, the Clippers have had more than one season during the 2012-13 campaign. The difference between the multiple seasons of the Clippers and the multiple seasons of the Lakers, the Clippers haven't been hitting the reset button. They've just been floundering since the new year showed up.
On Dec. 30, the Clippers finished an 11-point home victory over the Utah Jazz and were holding on to a 17-game winning streak. It was something only 16 other teams in NBA history had done (17 after the Miami Heat won 27 in a row later this season). The Clippers didn't just look like the best team in Los Angeles; they looked like arguably the best team in the league. They owned the highest net differential (+10.8) with a record of 25-6.
After the ball dropped in Times Square, the Clippers also started to drop. It wasn't a question of offensive execution. With Chris Paul running the show and dissecting the defense to show the vital organs that he and his teammates need to attack and take out, Lob City (which is also located next to Pick-and-Pop City, Hit the Offensive Glass Burgh and Transition Ville) is always operating with incredible efficiency.
Before the new year, their offense was scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions, good for fourth in the NBA. After 2013 started, their offensive efficiency dropped slightly to 107.4 and fifth in the NBA, but that's not a telling drop at all. The big difference is they can no longer stop anybody. In the first 31 games of the season, they gave up 97.3 points per 100 possessions. Since then, their defensive rating has jumped to 103.6.
They went from the third-best defense in the NBA to the 12th best. It doesn't make them a bad team; they're still very good and one of the better teams in the league. But if you can't stop anybody and you're giving up an effective field-goal percentage of 50.8 percent over your last 47 games, you're no longer considered a title contender.
And that's where the question of "what is this Los Angeles Clippers team?" comes into focus.
They have all of the tools to be a contender. They have the third-best player in the league with Paul and an über athletic front court of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan that has improved an impressive amount from last year to this year. Jordan is starting to justify the big contract that he received two years ago, and Griffin's hype of being one of the best power forwards in the NBA has been proven true.
The Clippers have a plethora of weapons with Jamal Crawford (the likely Sixth Man of the Year), Caron Butler (with a respectable 53.3 true shooting percentage), Eric Bledsoe (lightning in a bottle), Matt Barnes (tenacious wing defender who is great in transition) and Willie Green (who has a 56.4 true shooting percentage). Yet they struggle.
Why have they struggled so much in 2013?
People will use the kneejerk reaction and point to coach Vinny Del Negro for all of the shortcomings. That doesn't sit entirely well with me because when the team is playing well, it's despite Del Negro's coaching. Everyone credits CP3's leadership when things are going well.
The Clippers simply don't play defense anymore, and they really don't play it in the clutch. They have the second-best clutch offense in the league (114.1 per 100), which would mean something if they didn't have the third-worst clutch defense (117.8 per 100). That doesn't sound like a recipe for success. They're much more likely to blow you out of the water (37-12 in games decided by 10 or more) than win a close game (2-5 in games decided by three or less).
They've messed around so long and screwed up their hot start so much that it's going to take an epic collapse from the Denver Nuggets and staving off the advances of the Memphis Grizzlies to regain the third seed in the West. But they might need to avoid the Nuggets at all costs.
Even without Danilo Gallinari available, the Nuggets' style poses problems for the Clippers. Their lowest percentage of wins is against the top 10 teams in pace. The Clippers like to run, but they only like to run on their own terms. The Nuggets typically dictate the terms of the pace and try to hit you with haymakers of big runs to break your spirit. And the Clippers can't stop the high scoring teams. For nearly 50 games now, they haven't been able to stop much of anybody.
The Grizzlies are more familiar and, therefore, someone the Clippers know they can trade punches with during the first round. When you slow the game down, you give Paul control of the floor. When CP3 has control of the floor, he gets to set the game up how he wants it to play out.
If the Clippers do manage to find themselves in the 4-5 matchup with the Grizzlies and find their way out of that series and into the second round, they'll wind up with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs. And that's probably where their season ends.
It's not that the Clippers are incapable of beating either team in a best-of-seven; it's that they don't show the consistent defensive effort that matches their offensive brilliance they grace our highlight reels with on a nightly basis. There is so much more to their offense than just dunks and flash. In reality, there are pocket passes, designer cuts through the lane and kickouts to places the defense is unprepared to go.
But it never matters much when you look at them in terms of finding their way through the conference finals and onto the podium as they accept the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy because they don't know how to work together to stop their opponents in the direst of moments. If they can regain that capability as a five-man unit -- like we saw them do in the first 31 games of the season -- then we can start answering the question of what the Clippers team is.
If that doesn't happen, it will be another year of wondering what Chris Paul needs by his side to get him to the NBA Finals.