For years the Los Angeles Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA, but Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have turned the Lakers’ little brother into a legitimate contender. After beating the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals series, the Clippers are making the case that this is their best chance to finally win a championship.
L.A. doesn't have an easy road to the NBA Finals, having to go through the No.2-seeded Houston Rockets, and likely the 67-win Golden State Warriors in the next round. But the Clippers made an important first step on Monday, taking the series opener and home-court advantage from the Rockets in Game 1. The win has made Los Angeles the favorite to win the series, and their odds to win the title (6/1) are among the best in the NBA.
Since trading for Paul in 2012, the Clippers have been among the league’s best teams. His first season saw L.A. post the best winning percentage in franchise history, and Los Angeles has won 56, 57 and 56 games in the last three years. Reaching the playoffs for a fourth straight year, the Clippers are good enough to become NBA champions.
No team is better at scoring points than the Clippers. Even the Warriors, who ranked second in the league, didn’t average the 109.8 points per 100 possessions that L.A. recorded in the regular season. Paul put up his best numbers as a Clipper, averaging 19.1 points, 10.2 assists and a 48.5 field-goal percentage, good enough to place him sixth in the best MVP race in recent memory.
Griffin is also playing at a level that he’s never reached. He’s averaging 24.4 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.1 assists in eight postseason games, having posted two consecutive triple-doubles. On Monday, Griffin totaled 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, leading L.A. to a 16-point road victory without an injured Paul.
If Paul’s hamstring keeps him sidelined for an extended period of time, the Clippers’ playoff run won’t last much longer. Otherwise, Los Angeles has two of the top 10 NBA MVP vote-getters, something that no other team can say. Add in the league’s leading rebounder and third-place finisher for Defensive Player of the Year in DeAndre Jordan, and the Clippers’ starting five is as talented as any in the NBA.
The Clippers’ biggest weakness, and what could be their ultimate undoing, is their bench. With the likes of Austin Rivers, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu, Los Angeles’ second unit has trouble holding onto the lead given to them by the starters. Jamal Crawford remains the Clippers’ best bench player, but his sub-40 percent field goal percentage can be a detriment in big games.
Los Angeles’ starting lineup of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick had the best per-game plus/minus (7.5) of any five-man unit in the regular season. Of the team’s seven-most frequently used lineups besides their usual starting five, none had a per-game plus/minus better than 1.3. Three of those combinations were outscored by the opponent.
Any extra production from the Clippers’ bench would go a long way, and it’s something they’ve received on occasion in the playoffs. Rivers has been one of the league’s worst players since he was drafted in 2012, but he’s made a difference in a few games, hitting seven of eight shots in a Game 4 victory against the Spurs and scoring 17 points as Paul’s replacement against Houston.
Until the Clippers finally make the conference finals, Paul and the rest of the team will continue to receive their share of criticism for performances in big games. Since being drafted in 2005, Paul has never made it beyond the second round of the postseason. Though he’s been among the NBA’s best point guards over the last decade, the eight-time All-Star has a stigma attached to him that he can’t get the job done in the playoffs.
The Clippers have only recently shed their image of being the league’s punching bag. After joining the NBA in 1970 and reaching the playoffs in three of their first six years, Los Angeles went 30 years without winning a postseason series, failing to make the playoffs in 31 out of 35 seasons.
Acquiring Paul has helped make the Clippers a perennial contender. Despite the way he’s thought of by some, Paul’s level of play has been just as good in the playoffs, averaging 20.9 points, 9.5 assists and a 48.2 shooting percentage. Having played the first half of his career with the then-New Orleans Hornets, and facing stiff competition with the Clippers, it might be difficult to make the case that Paul has underachieved in the postseason. His supporting casts simply haven’t been good enough to contend for a title.
But Paul is on a team in 2015 that can go all the way. L.A. beat the San Antonio Spurs in seven games, defeating a team that was dominant for much of last postseason. While James Harden is playing at an elite level, the Clippers are in the driver’s seat against the Rockets.
Getting by Golden State might not be likely for Los Angeles, especially considering the Warriors are nearly unbeatable at home. But a healthy Paul would certainly give the Clippers a fighting chance.
Verdict: The Clippers have a very good shot of advance to the West Finals, but this seems like the Warriors' year. Rivers will need a career-defining series from Paul to get by Golden State, and the prospect of holding off a team like the Chicago Bulls or Cleveland Cavaliers may be a stretch, too.