This season has seen many surprises: the Lakers are 7-5 and at 4th place in the West after being the laughing stock of the conference since the Dwight Howard fiasco, DeMar Derozan is leading the league in scoring as one of three 30 point per game scorers and one of ten with over 26 points per game, and even after making many quality acquisitions over the off-season, the Pelicans are still just 2-10 despite historic levels of production from Anthony Davis.
The biggest and most substantial surprise this season, however, has been the unbelievable play of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leading up to the season, there were many reasons to be pessimistic about the Clippers. For one, Chris Paul is entering the age range where players’ best years typically end. Paul is now 31, and he will be 32 by the time the playoffs come to an end. Paul is a great team leader, but some of his best abilities like playing the passing lanes, on ball defense, and getting to the rim are all reliant on age and athleticism.
The other Clippers all-star, Blake Griffin, relies on athleticism even more. Griffin’s age (27 and 28 in March) is not as discouraging as his increasing injury history. Griffin missed his entire rookie season due to injury, and after only missing four games the proceeding four seasons, Griffin missed 15 games in 2014-15, and 47 games in 2015-16. The track record of players similar to Griffin, like Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Kemp, would suggest Griffin will become unable to avoid injury, and that he will continue his antics.
There are also J.J. Redick (32,) Raymond Felton (32,) Alan Anderson (34,) Jamal Crawford (36,) and Paul Pierce‘s (39) ages to consider. They lost a plethora of players from last season as well. These players include Branden Dawson, C.J. Wilcox, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Green, Josh Smith, and Lance Stephenson, most of whom are still contributing to teams.
On top of all of this, the Clippers are simply old news; of all the core groups in playoff contention, the Clippers’ core of DeAndre Jordan, Griffin, and Paul has been playing together the longest. While this is good for the chemistry, it is bad in that other teams that beat them in the playoffs know exactly how to beat them.
Yet these things haven’t been issues this season. The Clippers currently have the best record in the league. They are 10-2, and own the NBA’s best defense and the 4th best offense. They’ve beaten good teams like Portland, Utah, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, and they’ve beaten teams by large margins as well. Four of their wins were by 20 or more points, and nine of their ten victories have been by double digits.
With all of these issues, how have they managed to find so much success? The answer is that they finally fixed the team’s longest issue: their bench. Even with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin playing their lowest minutes of their career, the Clippers have the best record in the league. After years of the Clippers’ starters having one of the league’s best margins while the bench had one of the worst, the Clippers bench is finally on par with their starters.
Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers are back, but Wesley Johnson, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, and Brandon Bass give Los Angeles a whole new dimension in the front court when Griffin and/or Jordan need a spell. The Clippers’ bench has 3.1 win shares through 10 wins this season (31%) versus a percentage in the 20s last season.
The Clippers have the best record in the NBA, but come Playoffs time, will they be enough to beat or at least contend against Golden State? They just might.
Opposing NBA point guards have shown the ability to slow Steph Curry down in major playoff series. Kyrie Irving was able to do it last season, and Chris Paul is a better defender than Irving with a better rim protector behind him as well with DeAndre Jordan.
The new role Klay Thompson has on Golden State as more of a floor spacer and less of a scorer is a role J.J. Redick has spent years perfecting his craft in. So far Redick (46.6% from three and 113 offensive rating) has been better than Thompson (31.1% and 100) this season.
Kevin Durant is going to win his matchup against Luc Mbah a Moute. It is just two completely different levels of players. Mbah a Moute, however, can slow down Durant because he is a skilled defender with some length.
Draymond Green and Blake Griffin should be a very interesting match-up. Griffin played pretty well against the Warriors the last time the teams squared up in the playoffs, but that was the Marc Jackson days of Golden State. Griffin can win this match-up if Green continues to struggle, but Green’s intensity will be hard to beat in a potential series.
Jordan can definitely win his match-up against Zaza Pachulia. He is a better defender, rebounder, and pick and roll roll-man than Pachulia, and he should have no issues here.
Golden State’s bench would have obliterated Los Angeles’ in the past, but this year is different. The Warriors lost Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Brandon Rush, and Leandro Barbosa in the offseason – Speights even joined the Clippers.
This Clippers bench has played better than the Warriors bench has. Andre Iguodala isn’t the same player that he used to be. Only Patrick McCaw and Kevon Looney have a positive box plus/minus on the Warriors bench. Four of the Clippers key contributors off the bench (Felton, Speights, Bass, and Craword).
In terms of match-ups, the Clippers are the better team. In terms of the talent, Los Angeles might be at a disadvantage. It’s nearly impossible to pick a team with four all-stars and a finals MVP to lose in the playoffs, but the Clippers have been playing very well so far.