How The Clippers Became The Best Team In The NBA: A Guide
The Los Angeles Clippers are on a 14-game winning streak and putting in a serious claim to be the league's team to beat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.