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Monday, December 17, 2012
10 things we've learned about the Clippers

By Arash Markazi

The Los Angeles Clippers’ record book isn’t very long and it isn’t very impressive. That’s what happens when you make the playoffs only five times since 1976 and have won only three playoff series in franchise history.

Chris Paul didn’t know much about the Clippers’ franchise history when he joined the team last year. He’s actually still learning about it in the midst of rewriting a record book that was about the size of a bad greeting card when he arrived in Los Angeles.

It has become Paul’s mission since he joined the team to erase, or at least surpass, every record in franchise history.

Paul took another step Monday night when the Clippers defeated the Detroit Pistons, 88-76. It was the Clippers’ 10th straight win, their longest such streak since the team has been in Los Angeles and the longest overall since it won 11 straight as the Buffalo Braves in 1974.

The Clippers swept a four-game road trip for the first time in franchise history and now are 18-6, their best start in franchise history. The Clippers sit atop the Pacific Division with an eight-game lead on the Los Angeles Lakers and are tied with the Miami Heat for the second-best record in the NBA.

So what does it all mean?

Here are 10 things we’ve learned about the Clippers during their 10-game winning streak.

1. A Tribe Called Bench

Get used to the nickname, corny or not. It’s not going anywhere, and neither is the Clippers’ bench. On paper, the Clippers looked like they would have the deepest team in the league before the season began. Fast-forward through the first quarter of the season and the Clippers not only have the best bench in the NBA, they’re blitzing teams while without Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups and a still-working-his-way-back-into-shape Lamar Odom. It’s a second unit that will only get deeper and stronger as the season progresses, which has to be a scary proposition for the rest of the league. The Clippers’ second unit not only preserves leads, it creates them, builds them and helps turn close games into blowouts. In fact, the Clippers' starters haven’t even needed to step onto the court in the fourth quarter five times this season, as Paul and Blake Griffin are playing career-low minutes in games and in the fourth quarter.

2. Griffin’s return

After a relatively slow start to the season, Griffin has regained his old form in December. He already won his first Western Conference Player of the Week award to begin the month and will be in the running again. He is averaging 20.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals in December after averaging 17.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals in November. Griffin also is shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 60 percent from the free throw line this month, while showcasing a midrange game that was nonexistent last season. Griffin is one of only two players in the NBA this season averaging at least 18 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists. It’s no coincidence Griffin’s improvement has blossomed during the Clippers’ winning streak.

3. Stealing the spotlight

The Clippers' bread and butter is scoring in transition. That is when Lob City is at its very best. And for that to happen, the Clippers need to get steals and create turnovers. Luckily for fans who have paid to watch Paul flip picture-perfect passes to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, no team is better at that than the Clippers. This season, the Clippers lead the league with a plus-3.7 differential in steals, which is 0.36 better than the New York Knicks. If you just focus on the Clippers’ past 10 games, however, that number rockets to plus-5.7, which is a staggering plus-3.0 better than the next team in line. Paul leads the league with 2.6 steals per game, and Eric Bledsoe is averaging 1.5 steals in 18.6 minutes per game.

4. Jordan’s offense

Despite adding seven new players to the roster this season, perhaps the biggest addition has been a newfound post game for DeAndre Jordan. It’s no secret that Jordan was, well, very limited offensively, to put it kindly. This season, the Clippers are looking to give Jordan the ball early in games and establish him as an offensive weapon. He has responded with post moves, counters to those post moves and a confidence with the ball he hasn’t had before. He is averaging a career-high 9.7 points per game on a career-high 7.0 attempts per game and is getting more and more comfortable with each game as he works with shooting coach Bob Thate. He had back-to-back 20-point games last month after failing to hit that mark once last season. He might never be a 20-10 player, but he doesn’t need to be in this offense. He just needs to make teams respect his offensive skills, which they are doing now for the first time.

5. Bledsoe’s rise

You know you have a deep bench when the seventh man in the rotation is the most athletic player. Bledsoe has been a revelation this season, a speedy bundle of energy who has had played so impressively he has earned the nickname “Mini LeBron” and, in many circles, has stolen the title of best shot-blocking guard from Dwyane Wade. Beckley Mason touched on Bledsoe’s improvement in detail. But the big takeaway is that his per-36-minute averages of 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 3 steals on 50.7 percent shooting would be enough to put him in All-Star conversations. The only problem is he averages just 18.6 minutes, a small amount of game time that might decrease when Billups returns to the lineup.

6. Crawford’s role

There was some question about the Clippers’ pursuit of Jamal Crawford this offseason. Some thought they should have gone after Courtney Lee or Ray Allen, but in the end they inked Crawford to a four-year deal for $21.7 million. The deal was met with mixed reviews given Crawford’s disappointing last season in Portland. The signing has proven to be exactly what the Clippers needed. Crawford leads the NBA in points per game off the bench and most points per game in the fourth quarter. He has thoroughly embraced his role as the Clippers’ sixth man ... which wasn’t always the case with Mo Williams last season. Crawford is largely thought to be the early favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year.

7. Chris being Chris

It can be easy to overlook Paul, which is just fine by him. In his perfect world, he would simply be a facilitator, racking up assists and leading the Clippers to wins. Of course, that’s not exactly the role you’d want a player as talented as Paul to have. He is averaging 16.0 points, 9.3 assists and 2.6 steals this season and has been told to be more aggressive early in games. It’s not exactly a role Paul is comfortable with, but one that he has shined in during the win streak and enabled him and the starters to essentially become highly paid cheerleaders late in blowouts. His leadership in the locker room also is hard to quantify. He has single-handedly changed the culture of the Clippers, and it makes you wonder if that aspect of his personality would have ever been truly felt if he were traded to the Lakers and played second fiddle to Kobe Bryant.

8. Barnes a surprise

Of all of the Clippers’ offseason acquisitions, Matt Barnes was the last and probably most under the radar. The Clippers signed Barnes to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum just before training camp after Paul and Barnes were playing a pickup game at the Clippers’ training facility. Paul always liked Barnes’ energy, and when Barnes told Paul in passing that he was still a free agent, Paul immediately called the Clippers and told them to sign him. Barnes, who pleaded no contest in September to misdemeanor charges of unlicensed driving and resisting arrest, was worried he might start the season without a team. The Clippers, however, took what Barnes called “a chance,” and he has so far rewarded them with his best season in four years. He is averaging 9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists off the bench, which, as Lakers fans will tell you, is better than the other L.A. team ever got from him.

9. Del Negro’s simplicity

No one is ever going to confuse Vinny Del Negro with the best tacticians in the game. When he was asked to describe his system and the Clippers’ offense earlier this season, Del Negro smiled and said, “Chris Paul.” It might be simplistic, but on a team as talented and deep as the Clippers, with a point guard as skilled and savvy as Paul, maybe it’s a good thing the Clippers have a coach like Del Negro who doesn’t overthink and overmanage them. He gives Paul and Billups the freedom to essentially serve as generals on and off the court, which some coaches -- especially ones on the hot seat, like Del Negro is this season -- might not be comfortable doing.

10. Family matters

There’s no question that teams calling themselves a family have become a cliché in sports. But you would be hard-pressed to find a more together group than the Clippers this season. Their locker room after home games has turned into a makeshift playground for players’ kids -- who play with each other in the middle of the room and hand out pictures they have drawn of their dad's teammates. On the road, players tweet out pictures of each other sleeping on buses and planes and go to the movies and dinner together when they’re awake. Having a good relationship off the court doesn’t always equate into wins on the court, but it certainly hasn’t hurt this squad.