The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Clippers are only a third of the way through what is sure to become a historic season not just for the franchise, but throughout the world of basketball.
It’s just after dawn in the new Clippers professional basketball team home. It’s mid-morning, we haven’t quite woken up fully despite coffee, but the synapses are definitely firing. By the time the sun is beaming down from the middle of the sky, there’s a good chance we’ll be hitting our stride and effortlessly plowing through the day’s goals with vigor.
The Clippers get into the mid-morning (early 2nd third) of their schedule this week having played only 9 of their 22 games on the road and winning just 5 of those 9 away games to this point. Watch out, though, NBA. The Clippers are just starting to play anything resembling decent basketball. The ceiling for this team is very high (noticeably sinking with Chauncey’s injury), but it’s also rather tenebrous. No one’s really quite sure what this team will look like, especially with the signing of Kenyon Martin. Can he return to high-level form and stay healthy and, more importantly, motivated without Chauncey Billups? Previous to the injury, I predicted that the Clippers would end this regular season with over 44 wins and I don’t think I’m quite giving them their due respect after the injury. They have a legit shot at 50 wins in their first season together as a team (remember that means more in a 66-game season). They could win 60 in an 82-game 2012-2013 season and that’s no exaggeration. These are phrases that have never been spoken about the Clippers… EVER.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but this is akin to what the New England Patriots did in the NFL, going from the laughing stock of the country in their respective profession but redeeming themselves and establishing their brand as the paradigm of the league both on and off the field. Patriots fans expect more from that team after 3 championships in such a short time span, but it wasn’t much longer than a decade ago that predicting the Pats to even make the playoffs was a long-shot. The Clippers have put together one of the best teams in the NBA, but have a lot to learn and work on to establish themselves as the class of the NBA off-the-court as the Patriots did.
We’ve really started to see what it looks like to have Chris Paul’s trademark branded on the ass of the Clips game plan from how they move on offense outside of and in the pick and roll, but especially on the defensive end of the floor where the broken ancestors of the now flourishing City of Lob Stars struggled for so many decades. A past-his-prime Dominique Wilkins still playing selfishly (and poorly) and casually strolling to the defensive end of the floor embodied Clippers “defense,” which was really anything but. That attitude and laziness seems completely unacceptable to this new Clippers team and probably a sure way to get stuck on the bench until you shape up. They aren’t having that. Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups (even in a supporting, cheerleader role on the bench) have an infectious determination and will to win that cannot be resisted. The Clippers identity hasn’t been so finely tuned yet, but it was never unknown to them, if not all of us (at least subconsciously).
The only things I’m worried about as a die-hard Clippers fan are injuries and one Mr. Vinny Del “Pánico” Negro. Vinny, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, plays the stars too many minutes and seems to be neglecting the second unit in terms of time spent actually coaching them. This can certainly be attributed to needing the starters to gel quickly in order to be successful, perhaps just establishing priorities in where his time needs to be spent with so little time between games for practice and film sessions, however Mo Williams is not Kobe Bryant. Foye has excelled as a starter and took a noticeable hit in confidence coming off the bench, though I believe he’ll step up again in this starting role. Having K-Mart down-low, should he still be capable of at least serviceable determination, effort and physical ability will absolutely help the bench’s chances, but only, of course, if one keeps in mind that chemistry takes time to really develop and become tangible in this game. The second unit needs a lot of work on both ends of the floor and has really hurt the team as a whole at various points thus far in the regular season. Look for more uneasiness and general lack of cohesion in this second unit while they get used to one another and get some games under their belt.
The Clippers are going to the playoffs. A top-4 seed was all but guaranteed before Billups went down. Expectations have changed, however unfair that may be, and they aren’t being toned down due to Chauncey’s season-ending Achilles injury. Fans have seen the potential. Losing in the first round is not an option anymore. We’re not far from “Finals or bust!” mode. The guys really seem to be embracing it, though. You could see something going on in the locker room and on the bench if their work on the court hadn’t persuaded you. Tonight in Cleveland, we’ll find out what this team is really made of by how they react to losing one of their biggest leaders and headiest players.
This is a winning team: leaders in the Pacific division. This is an exciting team: best road attendance in the NBA and best TV ratings. This is a great team: For the first time in Clippers history, there will be 2 Clippers starting in the 2012 All-Star Game. This is the season Clippers fans never saw coming and I’ll continue looking the other way and plugging my ears (with a sadistic smirk) every time I remind myself that the only reason we have Chris Paul is because of some surreptitious, questionable, possibly career-ending decisions made by the league office under a Mr. David Stern that significantly altered the course of NBA history (most notably not in the favor of the Los Angeles Lakers).
Say what? Is that you, Laker fan? I do believe Kobe’s 3-point percentage will near 15%, yes. I do believe that it may be poor logic for the Lakers to be relying on the knees of Kobe Bryant (with stem cells) and Andrew Bynum (with extraterrestrial medicine). I do believe that Kobe Bryant should pull his best Magic routine and become the facilitator to push Bynum and Gasol to the next level. Goudelock is not a point guard. There’s some serious offensive problems in the Lakers’ playoff future, but that’s for another column.