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Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Clippers are in the contender conversation

By Jovan Buha
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- There is a fine line between being a legitimate title contender and merely a good playoff team. Thirty-four games into their season, it's still unclear which distinction best fits the Los Angeles Clippers.

"We've played at a pretty good level most of the year," coach Doc Rivers said after the Clippers' 112-85 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night at Staples Center. "It's just a work in progress. It takes time."

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are playing some of their best ball this season, but the team needs a boost from the rest of the lineup to take the next step.
With 40 percent of the season behind them, the Clippers have had plenty of time. As such, it's more than appropriate to start dissecting the Clippers' 2013-14 résumé.

Among Western Conference teams, the Clippers have managed the second-best in-conference record at 15-6, which is a positive postseason indicator given the West's depth and talent. The Clippers also rank seventh in both offensive and defensive efficiency -- elite marks only two teams (the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs) can match.

At the same time, Los Angeles is just 7-6 against the Eastern Conference, with embarrassing road losses to the lowly Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets -- a sign that they can easily lose focus and blow winnable games.

So, which side of the contender line are the Clippers tip-toeing on?

Well, with the Clippers losing three of their past five games -- to three of the West's hottest teams, no less -- there has recently been a public loss of faith in Los Angeles' title hopes given their subpar record (22-12) compared to last season's mark at this point (26-8) and the records of the league's elite this season (Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland).

The aforementioned teams rarely drop winnable games, instead generally losing on acceptable terms -- i.e., against equal competition, on the second night of a road back-to-back, with a star player out or injured, etc.

The Clippers, of course, have already dropped a handful of such contests and should undoubtedly have a more polished record.

"I think our team is watched under a microscope," Matt Barnes said last week. "What we do is magnified, and the little things we do are blown out of proportion."

Barnes is right, to an extent.

There's a strong chance the Clippers are being overlooked, as there are a couple of key factors that actually point toward the Clippers' being just as dangerous as any other contender as they near the halfway point of the season.

First, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are arguably playing their best basketball together.

Griffin is enduring his best offensive stretch ever, commanding double teams in the post, leading fast breaks like a point guard and consistently hitting 18- to 20-footers. He has finally grasped Rivers' defensive system and often makes the right reads on that end.

Paul, meanwhile, has never balanced scoring and facilitating this well.

He's churning out assists at the second-highest rate of his career; the only time he had a higher assist percentage than this season (54.2 percent) was in 2008-09. Just as impressive, he's averaging 20.2 points per 36 minutes, his best mark as a Clipper.

If Griffin and Paul can maintain their current production the rest of the season, the Clippers will be just as tough of an out in the playoffs as any team. The NBA is a star-driven league, and playoff series are often dictated by how far an All-Star duo can lead a team.

Additionally, the Clippers are just behind the Spurs and Thunder as the only teams boasting top-seven efficiency ratings on both ends of the court.

A top-10 rating on both ends is generally the benchmark of a true contender, and as long as the Clippers can remain in the top-10 defensively, they'll have their best shot at a deep postseason run since Paul arrived in 2011.

The only thing that has held the Clippers back this season is their inconsistent defensive effort and supporting cast.

The Clippers' defensive efficiency, while largely up and down, ranked third in the month of December. Wednesday's win over Charlotte shows L.A.'s potential, while Monday's loss to Phoenix also shows its room for improvement.

With significant injuries to J.J. Redick and Barnes for about half the season, two of L.A.'s top role players -- and best perimeter defenders -- have been either unable to contribute recently (Redick) or taken a while to readjust (Barnes).

Redick is arguably more important than anyone initially thought, as he has the highest on-court net rating (plus-10.0) of any Clipper who averages 15-plus minutes. His off-ball movement shifts defenses' entire coverages, and his ability on defense has long been vastly underrated. No one else besides DeAndre Jordan has supplemented Griffin and Paul with above-average offensive and defensive production, which is a steep drop off from last season's loaded rotation.

"The thing that makes teams great is that all of them have to be good," Rivers said. "It can't be four or five guys."

It's too early to tell what will happen, but the Clippers are more than likely to receive a serious boost once Redick returns, Barnes readjusts and the defense continues to gel -- all developments that can happen in the next couple of weeks.

"Your three or four stars could come in and be ready to play and you could have one guy not ready, and it hurts your team -- especially your defense," Rivers said. "I'm more of a team defensive guy, and if one guy is off in your team defense, it affects your defense. That's what affects consistency. That's what we talk about every day."

Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.