Judging the first month of the Clippers season would have been nothing but stellar comments and adoration from the teacher right up until, oh, a week ago. The Clippers hit Thanksgiving at 14-2 on a four-game winning streak. They were the best team in the league and everything looked great.
They are 0-3 since Turkey Day (which the Clippers spent with the Cowboys, incidentally), with losses to the Pistons, Pacers, and Nets. Oh, and they have the Cavaliers up next on Thursday.
Still, this has been a great start to the season for L.A. up until the moment it got flipped upside down. Here are a few of the elements of this season and how they grade out.
This team was never a perfect fit. When Chris Paul was traded in 2012, Blake Griffin was 23, DeAndre Jordan 24, and Paul was 27. Griffin and Jordan were exuberant on the night of the trade, yelling, famously "Lob City!" in a scene caught on camera. Paul, meanwhile, was ultra-business. He was ready to win, and win now, and felt like he had to bring the veteran toughness and discipline to a young, athletic squad.
There were struggles. You'd read stories of the team balking at Paul's constant lashings, see them rolling their eyes at his constant intensity. DeAndre Jordan almost left 18 months ago, with much of that decision reportedly influenced by his relationship, or lack thereof, with Paul.
But this year, it seems different. Griffin and Jordan have grown into themselves as businessmen. And all the things that have befallen the team, from the first-round punking by the Grizzlies in 2013, to the heartbreaking loss to the Thunder in 2014, to the 3-1 collapse against the Rockets, to Blake Griffin's drama and injuries last season, to Paul's broken hand in the last postseason against the Blazers, all of it has served to bring them closer. That's the reality of teams. Good times don't bring teams together nearly the way that hard times do. Listening to J.J. Redick's podcast over the summer, that was the sense you got, but we all still eyed it warily.
But it does feel different. The Clippers are there, hanging out with the Cowboys. The Clippers are there, swarming teams defensively when the shots don't fall. The Clippers are there, finding each other with passes instinctively after years and years of playing together. Maybe the end result won't be different, but you don't watch the Clippers and feel like they're a clunky, incoherent mess (even with this week's disastrous losing streak). You watch the Clippers and feel like, if nothing else, even if they disappoint in the playoffs again, that this team really does get one another.
Of course, Paul, Griffin, and Redick are all free agents at the end of this season, so ... you know ... enjoy it now.
Pick-and-roll combos, all of them: A+
Pick and roll is the lifeblood of the modern NBA. What post play was to the 90's, pick and roll is to the modern age. The Warriors do some complicated stuff with and around it, but it remains a huge function of how their offense rolls. And the Clippers are second-best in the league (behind the Celtics) in points off the pick and roll, including passes out of it, according to Synergy Sports.
So you know Paul and Griffin and Paul and Jordan are awesome in the pick and roll. You don't need a breakdown on that. They're both gifted and athletic, huge and fast, and Paul's a tremendous shooter so if you pull back to cover the lob he shreds you with the mid-range J.
What's interesting is how fluid the rest of their pick and rolls are becoming. Take a look at what they're able to do with Griffin as the ball handler with Redick screening:
That combo of Griffin and Redick working together either in pick and rolls or dribble hand-offs is deadly. They're able to find open looks constantly because Griffin has the handle to drive, the vision to pass, and Redick is maybe the best shot hunter in the NBA.
And Redick's able to find buckets on his own if the defense stays home on everyone else.
The really killer part of the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin pick and roll isn't just the lobs to Griffin, it's the secondary pass. Here's what happens when the defense has to step up to contain Griffin and stay home on the corner ...
That's just a maddening series of crashes you have to worry about.
And if you stay home on Jordan, he will find the corner shooter. In this case, it's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who, shockingly, is shooting above 40 percent from the corners this season.
All of this makes the Clippers one of the -- if not the best pick-and-roll team in the league.
The Clippers have the league's second-best mark at 99 points per 100 possessions allowed. That's terrific. But most of it is based on the first two weeks. Up until Nov. 16, the Clippers had the No. 1 defense at 94.6. Since then, they're 23rd. They've fallen off a cliff, and that started even before the losing streak.
Their big problem has been giving up shots in this stretch. Rebounding, turnovers, points in the paint, all those numbers are still fine. They foul at a league-median rate since the 16th. But they're giving up a high percentage of 3's, and giving up a high percentage of makes.
Most of this is stuff they can fix and get back to, but it's enough to drop their grade.
The Achilles' heel has always been their bench, but it's stepping up this year. They're eighth in the league in bench scoring per game this year, according to HoopStats.com. Via NBA.com, they're only 17th in offensive rating for the bench units, and a net negative. But given how good their starters are, you live with it. Mo Speights has given them a boost, Austin Rivers is playing well, and Jamal Crawford continues to defy time. If this unit can just be "not terrible," it's going to set the Clippers up well this season.
In an 82-game season, you're going to have good wins (tough opponent, on a back to back, etc.) and good losses (playing a good team close and losing on "one of those nights") and bad wins (barely getting past a team you should trounce) and bad losses (losing to a team you should handily beat, who was short-handed with injuries, etc.) The Clippers have good wins vs. the Jazz (even short-handed), the Grizzlies, Spurs, Pistons, Thunder, Bulls and Raptors, and bad losses to the Pistons (getting trounced the day after Thanksgiving), the Pacers, and of course the Nets. The Brooklyn loss came on a long road trip against Eastern Conference teams, without Blake Griffin, in double overtime. But, come on. It's the Nets.
So they've got a good resume, and a signature win vs. the Spurs. But the rest of the wins are only OK-to-good and two of them (Grizzlies and Thunder) have been in a two-game split early on. They have a good resume, but not a flawless one, and these last three losses really hurt their overall marks. They've got two huge opportunities to boost that resume in the next week, though, with games vs. the Cavaliers and Warriors.
Convincing us this year will be different: C-
Again, this last week is bad, and it hurts them. They've done everything they can to prove they're not going to be the same one-round-and-out squad they've been every year, but you can't undo postseason failures in the regular season no matter how good you look. Not to mention, this stretch seems like the kind of fall back to earth that leaves you wondering if they're just going to do the same thing again.
There's also the worry that the Clippers will be one of those teams who looks awesome for a month, and then fades away for the rest of the year, never recovering that early season charm. It happens all the time. L.A. brought to mind comparisons of how the 2011 Mavericks looked early on two weeks ago, and now they seem more likely to be a team that had a hot streak early, and now things are settling down. You want to resist that idea with so much talent, but that's the thing with the Clippers. No matter how good they look, you're always left with that nagging skepticism.
We've just seen it too many times.