Last week we enlisted the help of Jay Ramos from HotHotHoops to answer a few questions about the Miami Heat. This week I reached out to Steve Perrin of ClipsNation and he gave us some fantastic insight into the season at hand for the Los Angels Clippers:
RHQ: It seemed like everyone was really excited about DeAndre Jordan at the beginning of the season but that excitement seems to have dissipated a bit. What happened?
SP: Man, I wish I knew. DeAndre Jordan had basically not made a successful post up move in his four prior seasons in the league, and I had resigned myself to that. If he can play defense, rebound, block shots and finish at the rim (all things he does well to very well) then he has value and he doesn't have to be able to post up. Then he made some jump hooks in pre-season and people started to get excited, and I said "it's a mirage, it's not real." Then he made some jump hooks early in the season and I thought, "maybe it is real... no, it's not real." Then he scored 20 in back to back games for the first time in his career, and I finally gave in and started to believe -- and then it turned out not to be real! DJ's offense is vastly improved this season, there's no question about that. His productivity has fallen off since November, but a lot of that is him losing minutes to Lamar Odom as Lamar has gotten into better shape. DeAndre is playing well, and still provides a little of that new found offense, but the Shaq-says-DJ-is-the-best-
RHQ: There has been some talk of late about Jamal Crawford potentially being an All-Star in the West. Obviously this didn't happen. Is there any merit to that argument?
SP: There's merit to the argument in a vacuum -- Jamal's been the leading per minute scorer, second leading per game scorer on a top three team. The Clippers second unit, which is widely considered the best in the league, is almost entirely dependent on Crawford to generate offense for them. Those are significant accomplishment in a league that rightly values scoring. But All Star selections are a zero-sum game and there are only so many spots available. As good as JCrossover has been, the best I could justify for him is seventh best guard in the West, behind Kobe, CP3, Westbrook, Parker, Harden and Curry, and he's well behind those six in my book. Curry is a much bigger snub that Crawford. If Curry's ankle and Paul's knee were to keep them out of the game, Crawford might get a call from the commissioner, but the coach's did their job's pretty well in this case.
RHQ: Eric Bledsoe vs Pizza: Which is better?
SP: They're both pretty effing good, I'll tell you that much. Bledsoe's definitely better than Dominoe's. It's astounding the number of ways that Bledsoe impacts a game. He leads the league in steals per minute. He has taken over the mantle of best shot-blocking guard in the league from Dwyane Wade and leads the league in blocks per minute for players 6'6 and under -- AND HE'S 6'1 (if that). Likewise he is far and away the best per minute offensive rebounder among guards, and only your pal Kyle Lowry competes with him as an overall rebounder at their size. As an aside, both Bledsoe and Lowry are better per minute rebounders than Andrea Bargnani, which, as you know, is just sad. With Chris Paul out, we're getting an extended look at "Bledsoe the starter" as opposed to "Bledsoe the high impact backup" and it's a bit different -- he's easier (certainly for Vinny Del Negro) to take in smaller doses, as he will still get completely out of control from time to time. But he's a definite difference maker, and I think he'll be a star in the near future, particularly if he can continue to improve his perimeter shot.
RHQ: People like to point out Blake Griffin's defense as a weak point in his game. What is your opinion of his defensive game? have you seen any improvement in it this season?
SP: Griffin has in fact become a much better defender this season, which is a major component in the team's improvement from 18th in defensive efficiency last season to fifth this season. Griffin has always had the tools to be a great defender -- there's no quicker big man in the NBA. So although he doesn't have the length to be a great shot blocker there's no reason he can't be great at every other aspect of defense. Mostly he's just made more of a commitment to defense. The deeper team means the burden on offense is being shared more (though that's less true with Paul out) so Griffin has less excuse to take defensive possessions off. He's become an absolute monster at blitzing the ball-handler on pick and roll defense and a Paul-Griffin or Bledsoe-Griffin double team against the opposing point guard is a terrifying thing to behold. Steal numbers don't always tell an accurate story about defense as they can indicate that a player is just gambling more, but in Griffin's case his leap forward in steals per game (from 0.8 last season to 1.5 this season) is a good indicator of his increased defensive activity.
RHQ: I know we are only about halfway through the season but, realistically, is this a team that could win the title?
SP: In a word, yes. Until Paul got hurt, the Clippers were in a statistical dead heat with the Spurs and Thunder for best team in the NBA, by almost any measure. Even after a Paul-injury-mini-slump, it's still a three-team race, though the Clippers have understandably dropped off the pace a bit. Half a season is enough -- the Clippers have the talent to beat anybody. That doesn't mean they'll win it of course -- I'd recognize arguments that say that the Thunder, Spurs and Heat all have a better chance in the playoffs. But anyone who thinks the Clippers aren't right in that conversation or that some other team like Memphis or New York should be viewed as more likely to have playoff success hasn't been paying attention (ahem, Charles Barkley). This is one of two teams in the league in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, with the deepest bench in the NBA AND superstars to turn to with the game on the line. They have some weaknesses that opponents will try to exploit, but every team has weaknesses. The Clippers record is no fluke -- these guys are good. And they still haven't played a game this season with their top ten players all healthy.
RHQ: Is Chris Paul Coach of the Year?
SP: Poor Vinny; he's never going to get a lot of respect, is he? I wonder what it is... is it the hair? Actually, Vinny was on track to coach the Western Conference All Star team until Paul got hurt. That would have been quite a shock for everyone.
But your point is well taken, and it's not just Paul. Paul, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, even Lamar Odom. This roster is strewn with some of the best leaders, highest basketball IQ guys in the league. And that clearly makes a coach's job a lot easier. Del Negro has been criticized for not running an overly complex offense, but it turns out that "Chris Paul high pick and roll" is a very good offense, even though it's simple. In Paul's absence they've had to adjust -- and guess what, they have. Griffin gets the ball in near the foul line more where he can use his playmaking abilities (he has 19 assists in his last two games).
Actually, Paul should also be a candidate for executive of the year. After Neil Olshey bolted for Portland, the Clippers used the triumvirate of Del Negro, club President Andy Roeser and Director of Player Personnel (since promoted) Gary Sacks to handle their off-season business -- but Paul's finger prints are on almost every transaction. Paul wanted Crawford, he vouched for his former teammate Willie Green, he liked Ryan Hollins, he recruited Hill, and he convinced the team to sign Matt Barnes during summer pick up games at the team's training facility. Let's face it -- Chris Paul could be successful at pretty much any basketball-related endeavor.
Follow Steve on Twitter @ClipperSteve and read his writing here.
My answers to his questions can be found here.