With one game left in their regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers are comfortably on top of the Pacific Division standings and own the 3rd seed in the tough Western Conference. While their 56 wins have tied their franchise best, many people are still asking if the Clippers are really contenders, or just pretenders.
To answer that, let’s take a look at the numbers:
It Starts with D
Much of the Clippers success has been attributed to the system that Doc Rivers has put in place. ESPN LA writes:
“Rivers’ system is based on principles that his team buys into, and they don’t change — regardless of the personnel. The strong-side pressure defense system that his Boston Celtics teams mastered when Tom Thibodeau was on his staff remains the same. And his motion offense that is able to thrive when the pace is pushed or in the half court is easily recognizable.”
This team has indeed bought into Rivers’ system. The most noticeable difference has been on the defensive side of the ball. In particular, the Clippers’ three-point defense has completely tuned around from being 26th in the league last year to 1st this year. They are only allowing their opponents to shoot .332 three-point field goal percentages per game.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other defensive categories have also been very impressive:
The Clips are holding their opponents to a .441 field goal percentage, which is good for 5th best in the NBA. They are holding their opposition to 100.8 points per game, and again this is 5th best in the entire league. They are also forcing 14.7 turnovers per game, which is top seven in the league. Their 8.6 steals per game is tied for 4th overall.
Although the Clippers started the season at 23-12, things looked bad when Chris Paul separated his shoulder last January. However, the Clippers took that as a challenge and looked to their other star, Blake Griffin, to lead them.
Theleaguenews.us reported on 3/1/14:
“When Paul went down with a separated shoulder, it was up to Griffin to deliver, and deliver he did. While the Clippers went 8-8 without Paul last season, Griffin guided them to a 12-6 record sans Paul this season, and it’s been because of how good he’s become.”
Paul’s last game before he got injured was on January 4, and Griffin had a stellar January stat line: 25.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
The Blake Show
Blake Griffin hasn’t just been great while CP3’s been out. He’s having his best offensive season as a pro. Griffin’s numbers this season have increased in almost all departments:
When asked about CP3’s injury, Griffin said this via ESPN.com on January 29:
“We’ve buckled down, played within ourselves and really relied on our system to get us through. Nobody’s really trying to do too much. That’s what you need when someone like C.P. goes down, because you always worry about someone trying to replace him. You can’t replace him.”
Griffin’s right, Paul is irreplaceable. He is the best point guard in the league and the leader of the Clippers, but Blake did a great job weathering the storm while he was out.
Aside from Griffin, Chris Paul is having his best season as a Clipper. And while many agree that Doc Rivers’ basketball system has given the Clippers their identity, it’s been the MVP performance of Chris Paul that’s really inspired this Clippers team.
Portland Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts said this of Paul before the season, according to LATimes.com on 10/28/13:
“Chris is in the Jason Kidd category as far as seeing the game before it happens. At both ends of the floor, he’s able to anticipate what’s going to happen. He’s one of those guys that makes their team better, players better and guys like playing with him.”
The team has certainly been better offensively this season.
The Clippers are 3rd in the NBA in FG% at .475. Their +7.1 point differential is 2nd in the league behind only the San Antonio Spurs. They are playing better as a team by averaging 24.6 assists per game, which is ranked 3rd in the NBA. They also own the 2nd best assists to turnover ratio at 1.84 per game. The Clippers are also the top fast break team in the NBA at 18.8 points per game.
Not only has Paul made his team’s numbers better this year, he’s also improved his stats from last season:
Paul leads the NBA in assists and assists to turnover ratio (4.53 per game). His ESPN player rating has increased from 37.22 to 41.03, while he has 38 double-doubles this season, versus 31 last season.
The Return of CP3
Paul’s injury was the turning point of the season. It showed that Griffin has matured as a leader and has vastly improved as a player. The team proved too, that they can find other ways to win without CP3. And this was what Doc said even before Paul came back.
In a report by ESPN.com on January 17, Coach Doc Rivers said:
“They’ve learned other ways. They can’t just rely on him on the pick-and-roll. We have to be more creative offensively. We have to move the ball. We’re playing in-and-out. We’re using Blake as the facilitator a lot. They’re just learning how to play, and that will be even better when Chris comes back.”
And they have been indeed better. The Clippers have played like a contender since Paul’s return. They are 22-6 since his February 7 comeback and have solidified their place in the Western Conference. They are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the best home record in the NBA at 33-7. They have the second best record against the tough Western Conference at 35-15, and they are peaking at the right time. Look at the last 10 games of the top contenders as of April 14:
Record Last 10 games
The Clippers are 7-3 and have been a consistent .700 team this season. They own the third best record in the NBA at 56-24. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are playing their best seasons, and they have a deep bench. They’ve added Danny Granger and Glen Davis for the playoffs, and their coach is NBA champion Doc Rivers. Now who still says the Los Angeles Clippers are not serious contenders?