Can the Clippers Win the NBA Title?
When Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury on January 3rd against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers were 23-12. They looked like an above average team, but most wouldn't have included them in the conversation among the NBA’s elite. Many thought that without Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would struggle to score, the Clippers’ offense would become stagnant and they would inevitably drop significantly in the standings. As we now know, none of this was true.
In 19 games with the league’s best PG unavailable the Clippers went 13-6, largely in part to outstanding play from their backcourt. Darren Collison filled in admirably for Paul at PG, averaging 13.4 points, 6.3 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game while committing only 2.2 turnovers per game in his 19 starts while Paul recovered from injury. Additionally, Jamal Crawford stepped up in a major way at SG, averaging 22 points and 4.7 assists per game while Paul was on the shelf.
With that said, what truly made the difference for the Clippers was the emergence of Griffin and Jordan as one of the most dominant frontcourt pairings in the league. Coming in at 4th and 11th respectively in our numberFire player power rankings, both of the Clippers big men have seemingly turned the corner this season, a claim that I will cover in much more detail shortly.
Considering how well the Clippers were playing without their starting PG, many were curious about what that team would be like upon Paul’s return. Although it was against the lowly 76ers defense, we got a taste of how scary this team can be with their full complement of players on Monday night.
The Clippers annihilated the 76ers by 45 points, in a game that started 30-5 and was 69-30 at the half. L.A.'s starting lineup was so dominant that both Paul and Jordan each had a plus/minus of +42, with the rest of their starters all with a plus/minus of +30 or better. Conversely, every single one of the 76ers starters had a plus/minus of -25 or worse, with four players at -40 or worse, including a ridiculous -43 from Evan Turner.
While much of this specific performance can be attributed to facing the 76ers’ league worst defense, it's tough to ignore just how spectacular the Clippers looked. Despite having the seventh-best record in the league, the Clip have been so impressive that they currently rank second in our team power rankings. This leads us to the main question of this article: if healthy, is this Clippers team good enough to win a championship?
Here are just a few reasons why I think they can.
Lob City Big Three
Developing a team around a “Big Three” has been one of the most effective formulas for winning a title, specifically over the past decade. We saw the Spurs win the Larry O’Brien trophy with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Celtics put together the championship-caliber trio of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, and, most recently, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
This season, there is only one team who has three players in the top 15 in our player power rankings. And no, it’s not the two-time defending champion Heat. It's the Los Angeles Clippers.
That’s right, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan (who rank 4th, 7th and 11th in our player rankings, respectively) make up the best trio in the NBA this season. In fact, the Clippers' trio has been so much better than every other team’s best three that the Thunder is the only other team with two players ranked in the top 15 of the rankings (Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka).
Averaging 23.9 points, 9.8 boards and 3.6 assists per game, Griffin has been one of the most dominant players in the league this season. With a monstrous 14.7 nERD, if not for KD’s historic first-half, the Clippers' star PF might even have my vote for MVP at this point in the season. Brett Weisband, a fellow contributor at numberFire, wrote an article about how Griffin has elevated his play nearly a month ago, and the Clippers’ forward has only gotten better since. Griffin is currently top 10 in the NBA in minutes played (1,945), points per game (23.9), player efficiency rating (24.1), usage percentage (28.4) and win shares (5.8). More importantly, the former Oklahoma Sooner has steadily improved as the season has progressed, despite Paul missing 19 games.
|Games Played||Field Goal %||Rebounds Per Game||Assists Per Game||Points Per Game|
Because of his play, fans and analysts are beginning to realize that he is more than just a prolific dunker. Sporting a 115 offensive rating, Griffin has become one of the elite offensive players in this league. In addition, the Clippers forward continues to improve on defense. So far this season, he's posted a career high in defensive rating at 102 and already has 2.8 defensive win shares.
Much like Griffin, DeAndre Jordan is having a career year. At just about the halfway point, Jordan has posted career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game.
|MPG||RPG||APG||BPG||PPG||PER||Off. Rtg||Def. Rtg||Win Shares|
Jordan isn’t just having his best year, but he's been one of the best big men in the NBA. The Clippers’ center currently leads the league in rebounds per game (14.1) and field goal percentage (65.6%), and is top 10 in the league in blocks per game (2.4), defensive rating (97.8), win shares (7.3) and defensive win shares (3.9). Additionally, Jordan’s 10.6 nERD is fifth in the league among centers.
With the Clippers’ frontcourt playing so well a lot of weight has been lifted from Chris Paul’s shoulders. Paul has always been at his best when he is less of a scorer and more of a facilitator, which is exactly what the emergence of Griffin and Jordan has allowed him to do. At 11.1 assists per game, the Clippers’ PG leads the league in assists by a whopping 2.1 per game. This has helped lead Paul to the fourth-best player efficiency rating in the league (27.2), the third-best offensive rating in the league (123.2) and the third-best nERD among all guards (12.5).
A Supportive Supporting Cast
Although Griffin and Jordan deserve a ton of credit for extending the Clippers’ lead in the Pacific Division in Paul’s absence, the Clippers' role players deserve just as much recognition for their play this season. The Clippers are one of only four teams who have six or more players with a nERD of at least 2.0 (the others being the Spurs, Pacers and Suns).
As I mentioned earlier, Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford played great while Paul was on the shelf, but before they were fixtures in the starting lineup, they were both playing very well coming off of the bench. Collison, who has a 3.4 nERD, has averaged 10.1 points, 3.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game in just 23.5 minutes per game while Crawford, who has a 2.1 nERD, has averaged 18.4 points, 3.3 dimes and 2.3 boards per game in 30.4 minutes per game.
Although he averages more minutes per game, Crawford was forced into the starting lineup due to J.J. Redick's inability to stay on the court. But when Redick has been healthy, he's been effective. The former Duke star has averaged 15.7 points, 2.2 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game in 28.8 minutes. Additionally, Redick has shot 45.9% from the field and 91.4% from the line. With a 3.6 nERD, which good for fourth-best on the Clippers, Redick is an important player to have on the floor at the end of the game because he rarely turns the ball over (averaging 1.2 turnovers per game) and shoots so well from the free throw line.
The issue with the Clippers’ bench is that they lack frontcourt depth. Jared Dudley has been ineffective in 26.4 minutes per game, and Antwan Jamison and Byron Mullens have contributed very little when they have been forced into action. This has led to Griffin and Jordan being forced into playing huge minutes. In fact, only Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson have played more minutes than Griffin and Jordan, who rank third and fourth in minutes played this season, respectively. With the trade deadline coming up, it may be in the Clippers’ best interest to go out and get another quality big man if they want to contend for a championship.
Although the Clippers are far from an elite defensive unit, they have actually been better on the defensive side of the ball than most have realized. The Clippers are tied for eighth in defensive efficiency at 104.4 so far this season, giving up 100.3 points per game to opposing teams.
While 100.3 points per game may seem like a lot, one of the main reasons why the Clippers give up so many points is because of the pace they play at on offense. They score a lot of points (ranking second in the league at 106.7 points per game) and often do so quickly, ranking third in the league in fast break points per game. This leads to their opponents getting an inflated number of possessions, scoring more points per game.
With that in mind, the stat that really tells the story about the Clippers’ defense is their point differential. The Clippers currently rank third in the league with a +6.4 point differential, only behind the Pacers and the Thunder.
Much of the Clippers’ success on the defense end can be attributed to DeAndre Jordan’s play as the anchor of the defense. Jordan has posted career bests in defensive rebounds per game, steals per game, blocks per game and defensive rating, which has had a major impact on the Clippers’ defense as a whole.
Another aspect of the Clippers’ defense which often goes over looked is their ability to turn defense into offense. Big defensive plays often lead to fast break opportunities, and with Paul leading the league in steals per game and Jordan ranking fourth in the league in blocks per game, it is easy to see why the Clippers are able to get out on the fast break so often.
As the Clippers’ defense continues to improve, the team will only get better, which is a scary thought considering they are already the second-best team in the league according to our algorithms. Lob City has become more than just an exciting team to watch - they've evolved into one of the elite teams in the NBA.