With the Los Angeles Clippers due at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to play the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, Steve Perrin from Clips Nation took the time to let us know what we can expect from the Clippers. Not unlike the Pacers, it sounds like the Clippers are trying to find their stride again after a strong start and heightened expectations from the fans ans media. I really appreciate Steve taking the time to enlighten us.
IC: The Clippers have been struggling over the past four weeks, 7-9 since February 18th. What are the general issues leading to losses? Do the same problems continually crop up in losses? For all of the dynamic talent on the roster, the team was thrown together in a hurry to start the season, are there still familiarity issues with players learning how to play together?
SP: I really wish I knew what was wrong with the team. Something has just been off, ever since Chris Paul threw the ball to Gary Neal as the Clippers held a three point lead in the final seconds of that San Antonio game. The simple answer is that they are losing close games, which they won earlier in the season. They were 7-3 in games decided by three points or less prior to February 18; they then proceeded to lose 6 of 7 close ones over the next four weeks, before getting a pair of close wins back-to-back this weekend. Little things make a big difference, and if you give the Clippers a 6-3 record in their recent close games to match their success earlier in the season, then suddenly they're 10-6 in the last 16 -- not so bad.
It's not just the close losses though. The Clippers have also had a tendency to play down to their competition, particularly against wounded opponents. They lost to a Cleveland team when Kyrie Irving was a late scratch and the Clippers came out flat. They looked terrible against Portland playing without LaMarcus Aldridge before pulling out a win. They recently suffered their worst defeat of the season against a Suns team that was resting Steve Nash and Grant Hill. In recent losses to New Jersey, Golden State and Minnesota, the Clippers were listless early, fell behind by a large margin, and then fought furiously to come back in the fourth quarter, only to fall just short in the end. It's as if the team is disinterested for large stretches of games, and then thinks it can flip a switch and win -- and frankly, they're not good enough to do that.
I would say that familiarity is an issue, but the pattern doesn't really support it. The Clippers were much better early in the season, when familiarity should have been a bigger problem. Now, they have steadily added players to the rotation who have joined the team either from outside or returning from injury -- Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe, Bobby Simmons and just this week Nick Young -- so they're continually having to incorporate new pieces. But the offense is anything but complex, and the issues seem more related to sustained effort than to synchronicity.
IC: We see all of the highlights, but Blake Griffin appears to be having another impressive season. Aside from the high-flying finishes, how is his game developing? Still on track for monster superstar status? Where does he still need work?
SP: I feel more than a little greedy when I criticize Blake Griffin's game. After all, the guy is averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game, one of only three players in the league averaging more than 20 and 10. But the simple fact of the matter is that Griffin has plenty of things to work on, which in the long run is a good thing, because it means he can be even better than he is.
Griffin's raw numbers have regressed a bit from last season, when he averaged 22 and 12. When you go back and look at the splits from his rookie season, and see that month of January when he averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds, there's even more of a tendency to think that he's not quite as good as he was last year. But there are a couple of factors at play here. For one thing, this is a better Clippers team that doesn't need Griffin to score quite as much as he did last season. Also, opponents are figuring out the best way to defend him and giving him a lot more attention than he was getting early in his rookie year. His shooting percentage is significantly better (.535 versus .506), so it's tough to say he's regressed offensively.
But at the same time he hasn't gotten a lot better. He's still more of a highly skilled mega-athlete than a low post basketball player. Check out this move from Sunday's game -- I mean, what is that? Who can do that? It's not something you can practice, he just does that kind of thing. It's crazy. But if you ask him to take a simple drop step and a shoot a jump hook, it comes out different every time. His post technique leaves much to be desired. Defenses are realizing that the most important thing with Griffin is simply to keep him from the rim. He doesn't have a go to move that allows him to score over people or away from the basket, so defenders are learning to just stay down on his fakes, to lean on him, and to take their chances from there.
He just turned 23 last week, and he's in his second season in the NBA. He's got time to work on these things, and he'll get better. His jump shot is improving, particularly when he just catches and shoots without overthinking things -- likewise it's his head that is the biggest problem with his free throw shooting this season. His defense also still leaves much to be desired. But he'll continue to improve in all of these areas, and then he'll be truly scary.
IC: How nice has it been to have Chris Paul? So jealous of that situation. He seems to be playing heavy minutes. With Chauncey Billups out is that a concern? Thinking back to question one, do you think the team has mentally hit a lull before they start ramping up for the playoffs?
SP: The Clippers history is terrible, but their history as concerns point guards is even worse. I've been reduced to cheering for Rick Brunson, Jason Hart and Dan Dickau in recent seasons. Ick. In the last two decades, the Clippers have had one season of Sam Cassell and the few occasions when Baron Davis decided to care of above average point guard play. By the same token, Cassell was the closest thing the Clippers have ever had to a closer. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette were nice players, but not the kind of guys you could give the ball to in the final possession of a close game. In one player, the Clippers have the solution to two eternal problems.
Paul has been absolutely amazing for the Clippers this season, but of course we get greedy with him as well. Take Sunday's win over Houston for instance -- Paul finished with a near triple double, 19 points, 15 assists, 9 rebounds and 4 steals, with 15 of his 19 coming in the fourth quarter and overtime, including all the big shots. But why did he wait until the fourth quarter to assert himself? Paul's tendency to defer early in games is great in theory, but in practice he's so much better than most of the guys to whom he's deferring that the Clippers will often fall behind if he's not aggressive in the early going.
I don't think minutes per se are a major concern -- he's below his career average, after all. But the nature of the compressed schedule could be a concern, as indeed it could be for pretty much any player in the NBA. As for the lull theory, the Clippers are entering the final third of their season -- if they start playing their best basketball in this final third, no one will remember or care that they played poorly in the middle third (the same goes for the Pacers of course).
IC: Thinking of Griffin, Jordan and even Bledsoe, I often think of the Clippers as a young team, but really there is a nice mix of veteran players on the roster whose experience should help in April and possibly May. How has Vinny Del Negro done handling the roles of the vets? Seems like that could be a challenge at times. Does Del Negro do a good job keeping everyone moving in the same direction?
SP: Because they WERE a very young team last season, and because they have some highly visible young players, the Clippers are often thought of as a young team. But you're right, they're not really all that young when you get right down to it. It's actually a pretty great situation -- Griffin (23), Paul (26) and Jordan (23) form the core, so they have youth to build around there for years to come. But veterans like Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin and Mo Williams (all former All-Stars, mind you) are integral parts of the team as well. The loss of Chauncey Billups, the eldest, most experienced and most playoff-savvy player on the team, definitely hurts there, but he's back with the team at this point and can still provide some leadership on the bench and in the locker room.
As for Vinny, well I'm not sure he's got the team moving in any direction at all. He's frequently got the 'deer in the headlights' look in his eyes on the bench. When they hired him, the Clippers never claimed that Vinny was a great Xs and Os coach, but instead they presented him as a motivator and a developer of young talent. Well, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan aren't exactly on the fast track of development, and the motivation to play hard against lesser teams has been completely absent in the last four weeks, so I'm left wondering what exactly it is that Vinny brings to the party.
5. The Clippers are definitely a team that demands attention. When they are on TV you have to stop and watch. Have you noticed the change in attention both locally and nationally (heck, world wide)? I hope you are enjoying it, my friend.
SP: It's definitely noticeable. I've been accredited to cover the team for several seasons now. Two seasons ago, I would be one of three or four journalists covering the team -- it was me, the beat writer from the LA Times, a guy from NBA.com and maybe the guy from HoopsWorld -- that was it. I got to sit in the press section on the baseline on the arena level. The media room started to fill up a little bit last season with the Blake Griffin phenomenon. Now, I'm banished to the rafters of STAPLES Center with the riff raff, as the local and national media rush to cover the team.
Am I enjoying it? I'm certainly enjoying the fact that the team is winning, and that they are relevant. But I'll tell you, it's a different experience, rooting for a team that has the weight of expectations on them. I mean, here the Clippers are, fourth in the West and 8 games above .500, and the fan base is up in arms over the recent lackluster play. It's amazing how quickly fans can re-calibrate.