The 2013-2014 NBA season has been a bizarre season to say the least. In the East there have only been two teams mentioned as possible title contenders, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat; however, the West has had a plethora of competition with a small amount of games separating teams. Having said that, talk of these teams winning it all have primarily been between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite just finishing an 11-game winning streak, the Clippers have gone under the radar and as a result are underdogs to win the championship.
The question is why exactly are the Clippers under the radar? There are many possible answers to this question. One unfortunate answer is that they are the Clippers. It may be unfair, but the fact of the matter is that the Clippers have one of the worst histories in the NBA, only making it to the playoffs six times since the 1984-1985 season, twice in the Conference Semis and never in the Western Conference Finals. Between this past history and their controversial owner, there is no surprise as to why many remain skeptical about the organization winning it all.
However, over the last few years, the Clippers have put together quite a team. What differentiates this team is their ability to stretch the floor in an inside-outside game. In particular, they very well could have the best front court in the NBA.
While he may have his detractors, Blake Griffin is playing the best basketball of his entire career by averaging just under a double-double per night at 24.3 ppg and 9.7 rpg — a significant improvement over his 18 ppg and 8.3 rpg last season. He may not have the finesse, but when given an opportunity, no one can stop him at the rim between his quickness and strength at the basket. Additionally, his rebounds are up.
While Griffin has improved, no one has seen quite the upside as DeAndre Jordan who may very well be the most underrated and most improved player this year. A scorer he is not, but he went from a mediocre rebounding center at 7.2 rpg last season to leading the league in rebounds to a 13.8 average. He has also turned into a threat in the paint as the third leading shot blocker in the NBA with 2.4 bpg compared to last season’s 1.4 average. In fact, many could make the argument that he should be in the conversation of defensive player of the year.
Finishing off the front court is Matt Barnes. While he may not be the most consistent player on the squad, when he gains momentum, there is little that can stop him such as last week when he scored 28 points in addition to several 15-17 point games over the last ten. For better or worse, he also is one of the most physical players in the league on the defensive end.
The last main piece to the puzzle of course is Chris Paul who when healthy, is one of the best point guards in the league in the traditional sense with his league leading average of 10.9 apg along with his 2.4 steals per game and 18.6 ppg. What really separate Paul from other guards is his unselfish play. He always gets a large amount of assists, but unlike when he was in New Orleans, he doesn’t have to be the prominent scorer on the squad.
The Clippers’ biggest strength though has to be their depth. While they have a strong front line, they have a cast of role players that comes second to none in the NBA. J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, while their numbers are down, can pose as scoring threats, past All-star Danny Granger has shown signs of life since leaving Indiana, role players Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Darren Collison are also players that can be relied upon while the big guns sit on the bench..
What really separates this team from others is the coaching of Doc Rivers. It’s confusing how the Clippers are underdogs to win the championship with a proven championship coach. In fact, it is because of Doc Rivers’ respect that the Clippers have been able to acquire such a talented roster. Between Danny Granger and Glen Davis who were both acquired at or immediately after the trade deadline to many of their offseason pickups, they appear to be the top destination in the NBA.
The thing about Rivers is that he is a coach that does three things about as good as anyone. He preaches defense, is one of the best managers of egos around and knows his stuff when it comes to adjustments in game. All of these are great strengths for a championship team as he has proven in his seasons with the Boston Celtics.
If nothing else, take a look at his on paper record. Over his 15 years he has managed a 635-494 record, which is better than most. Additionally, only three of those seasons had a sub .500 record, one of them being a 2003-2004 season that he only coached 12 games. He also was the 1999-2000 coach of the year. Bottom line with Rivers is he is someone who can turn a team into a champion.
So, the Clippers have the talent, bench, coaching, offense, defense and rebounding that are all of the characteristics needed of a great team. On paper, they don’t seem to have a weakness, but they do. Injuries. If there is one thing that can derail this team it is injuries. Currently, Jamal Crawford is out with a strained left calf, Jared Dudley is out with a bad back and J.J. Redick is most likely out for the season due to a bulging disk in his lower back.
While those injuries are bad, they aren’t enough to derail the team. The problem though is that there are several players on the squad who are injury prone, starting with their leader Chris Paul who has been on and off the court this season with groin and ankle injuries. Sadly, without Chris Paul, the Clippers are unlikely to win a championship as everything runs through him. Yes, they went on a few runs without their starting point guard, but in the playoffs things are different and they need their floor general.
Paul isn’t the only injury plagued player though. Matt Barnes has also had injuries this season — not to mention he has a hot temper and has been known to rack up technicals, get thrown out of games and even suspended. The latter of which certainly cannot happen if the Clippers are to make a run.
Glen Davis, who isn’t a principle member but a solid role player off the bench also is injury prone. He missed approximately 10 games this season with the Magic before coming to the Clippers. Danny Granger who has been a great help off the bench is probably the most injury prone player, having played only 37 games this season and only 5 games last season in Indiana.
While the Clippers may very well have the greatest depth of any team, they also have several risks that can dismantle the team if their players get hurt.
Another weakness is their small forward position. Yes, Barnes can turn in a great game on both the offensive and defensive areas of the floor; however, his consistency isn’t there. Beyond that, one has to look at the teams vying for a championship like the Heat, Pacers and Thunder who have MVP candidates Lebron James, Paul George and Kevin Durant respectively. To be able to defeat these teams, either the Clippers have to double team these star players or play these small forwards out of position. As great of a defender Barnes can be, he cannot do it on his own.
The one thing that has the doubters not taking the Clippers seriously though is that of their playoff experience. They may have on paper the most talented team in the NBA. However, the regular season is quite a different experience than the playoffs. In the last two years, the Clippers have a 6-11 record in the playoffs. Worse yet is last season where they lost to the lower seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
However, one thing people have to consider is that the last few seasons, Doc Rivers was coaching the Celtics. This is the first season with Doc as coach and they have proven to up their game and play like a team. The last few years they were coached by Del Negro, who while he led the team to great records, his playoff coaching experience left a lot to be desired.
While the Clippers have had a fantastic season and have arguably the best squad in the NBA, nothing is a sure thing in the NBA when it comes to the playoffs. However, the clippers have developed quite the team chemistry between its players and coach, and if they are able to stay healthy and not collapse under the pressure, these underdogs may very well steal the championship.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey