In a massive turnaround from pretty much every season in franchise history prior to this one, the Los Angeles Clippers have established themselves as the league’s best team about a quarter of the way through the season. Now, by best, do I mean that they’ll be holding a championship trophy come June? Not exactly — as logic dictates, the Miami Heat are still the team to conquer, with Oklahoma City firmly ensconced in second place. But right now, the Clippers are dominant; they’ve won a remarkable 14 games in a row, and their average point differential of +9.6 is not only a full point above the second-place Thunder’s — if it held, it would also be one of the best in NBA history.
So, how have the perpetually moribund Clippers reached such great heights? I’ll show you.
3. Chris Paul
Chris Paul reached a peak in performance during the 2008–09 season before seeing a dip, partly caused by injuries and partly caused by a lackluster Hornets supporting cast, from 2009–2011. But his trade to the Clippers before last season reinvigorated the league’s best point guard, and his numbers this year — 16 points and 9.5 assists per game on .479/.368/.889 shooting — hint at how superb he’s been. More than just stats, though, it’s the winning percentage that really conveys how good Paul, as the team’s floor general and quarterback, has been, and if hockey assists were counted in basketball (a pass that leads to a pass that leads to a score), you’d see that he’s involved in basically every Clippers play when he’s on the floor.
Like any top point guard in the modern NBA, Paul can score for himself, though it’s not his preferred mode of operation. Compensating for his small stature, Paul has magnificent handles and a well-measured floater, which he put above the excellent shot-blocker JaVale McGee during this possession from the Christmas night game against the Denver Nuggets.
And then there are passes like these, the ingenuity and thrill of which are as great as any in basketball.
Moving down the court at full speed, Paul initiates a pass to his right. It’s only a ruse, though; he puts so much English on the ball that it comes back to him like a yo-yo, at which point he flings it across his body to a streaking Willie Green. Check it out from a better angle below:
The fake gets Ty Lawson to completely leave his man, creating an easy and efficient layup.
Paul doesn’t need his teammates to be in front of him to make the play; here, after seeing his path to the hoop stopped up, he rises into the air, finds Matt Barnes behind him, and makes a seamless feed to Barnes, who finishes uncontested thanks to ball’s swift movement between attackers.
That leads us to our next player of note:
8. Blake Griffin
Last year’s Clippers and their considerable success — they made it to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs before losing to the San Antonio Spurs — was mainly attributed to the play of Paul and his superpowered running mate Blake Griffin, so I’ll cover him next. Despite seeing slight dips in his field goal percentage and points scored per game, Griffin is actually playing more efficiently, with a higher free-throw percentage, fewer turnovers, fewer fouls, and more steals per game. He’s also playing considerably fewer minutes per game — from 36 last year to 32 this year — thanks to the Clippers’ improved bench and rotation. And, true to the essence of being Blake Griffin, he still throws down monster alley-oops like this one.
Having received a long pass from Paul, Barnes barely breaks stride before delivering this perfectly timed oop to Griffin. Griffin finishes with his usual aplomb.
Griffin’s profile has become such that defenders often won’t contest his dunks if he’s coming with enough momentum, as is the case after this feed from Paul. Without so much as being grazed, Griffin cuts through three Nuggets, leaving one of them sprawled helplessly on the ground.
Blake isn’t the only Clipper who poses a threat in the paint, though.
12. DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan first broke out as a legitimate NBA starter last season, during which he blocked 2.0 shots per game and shot an impressive 63% from the field. While his numbers across the board are down slightly in 2012–13, he’s improved as a defender and he continues to be an athletic and able finisher.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are three-fifths of the Clippers’ starting lineup; the other two are Caron Butler and Willie Green. But Butler and Green are starters more in situation than in importance. In reality, the Clippers’ fourth and fifth men as far as effectiveness and minutes played are Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, who are the first two men off the bench. As a wing, Barnes plays a flexible role in the Clips’ offense and defense, often guarding the other team’s best scorer and contributing as both a passer, three-point shooter, and at-the-rim finisher as needed. Barnes is having the best season of his career by a significant margin this year, scoring more and more efficiently and playing better defense than he ever has before. Some of his contributions are spread through the GIFs in this story. More worth considering on an individual and visual level, though, is the success of Jamal Crawford.
14. Jamal Crawford
As a designated scorer for most of the teams he’s played for in his career, Jamal Crawford developed a tendency toward volume-shooting and erratic contributions in other areas of the game. This reached its apex last year, when he shot a miserable 38% from the field for a disappointing Portland Trail Blazers team. But in L.A., Crawford has returned to the deadly, versatile scorer who served as a major part of the 2009–10 Atlanta Hawks, anchoring the Clippers’ majestic second unit, which I’ll get to in more detail in a bit.
For now, let’s focus on this one play that shows why Crawford is so deadly.
As one of the NBA’s best dribblers, Crawford can consistently create his own shot, proving a valuable asset any time the offense gets bogged down or hobbled by a defensive set. Here, he uses a dizzying behind-the-back crossover to render Andre Miller a stone statue, going right and putting it high off the glass. If you think it looks good from that angle, check this out:
Crawford won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award after that excellent 2010 season with the Hawks, and he’ll definitely be in the thick of the race this year as well.
Speaking of Sixth Men of the Year…
17. Lamar Odom
The NBA collectively left Lamar Odom for dead after he showed up out of shape and disinterested for last year’s Dallas Mavericks, but after returning to the city of Los Angeles — the place where he won two championships with the Lakers and started his career with the Clippers — Odom finally appears to be returning to form. Although he’s still not scoring at any rate worth celebrating, Odom doesn’t really need to be, considering the talent of the rest of the Clippers. Instead, he’s contributing rebounds, blocks, and the occasional handful of assists, like this one.
Odom’s a part of the Clippers’ tremendous bench, but the guy who’s really symbolic of how good that bench is is Eric Bledsoe.
19. Eric Bledsoe
Considering how formidable that Clippers lineup of Paul-Crawford-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan is — including Paul, an MVP candidate, and Griffin, a likely All-Star — you might be surprised to find out that it’s only the second-most-effective lineup on the team. The first, according to 82games.com, is made up entirely of bench guys, led by Crawford and point guard Eric Bledsoe (plus Barnes, Odom, and Ronnie Turiaf at center). This isn’t just a small-sample-size phenomenon, either — these five are the second-most-used squad on the Clippers — and the reason they’re so dominant is that this could be a starting group on plenty of teams in the NBA. Instead, it’s going up against, and destroying, other teams’ reserves.
Bledsoe is easily L.A.’s most improve player from 2011-12 to this season, and his play has become so impressive — and his value has grown so high — that plenty of observers have wondered whether he’ll be traded soon. From last year to this one, Bledsoe’s points per 36 minutes have improved from 10 to 17, and his field-goal percentage has risen a full nine points, up to 48% — a terrific rate for a guard. Also terrific for a guard is his .8 blocks per game, one of which you can see here.
Earlier this season, in a game against Sacramento, the Kings’ Thomas Robinson got out on the fast break and looked to have an easy dunk. Robinson’s an athletic power forward and a capable finisher at the rim, so the result seems inevitable: he’ll slam home the ball, and the Clippers will run it back. Not so, says Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe — who is NINE INCHES SHORTER than Robinson — runs Robinson down and blocks him from behind.
To say the feat displays freakish athleticism would be an understatement. Bledsoe blocks like a much taller man, and he throws it down the same way, here finishing an alley-oop from the guy he backs up, Chris Paul.
Despite being, again, only 6 feet 1 inch tall, Bledsoe can play above the rim on both ends of the court as well as run a more traditional offense. Having a piece like that stowed on the bench is symbolic of why the Clippers are so damn good, and as Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups approach full health, they could get even better.
Let me put it this way: The Clippers are so good, for the first time in recent memory, nobody’s talking about Vinny Del Negro getting fired.