TrueHoop: Los Angeles Clippers

Clippers keep drawing successful combos

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
9:38
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive

LOS ANGELES -- Credits earned in the regular season don’t always carry over into the playoffs, as the Los Angeles Clippers learned last year when their first Pacific Division championship, home-court advantage and a 2-0 lead in the first round quickly vanished into the teeth of the Memphis Grizzlies.

It feels like this season’s Clippers squad has a higher credit rating. If there’s one thing the Clippers have earned, it’s the benefit of the doubt even as they carry an array of injury issues with them into the final stage of the season. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford might not suit up in any of the remaining regular-season games? That might go for Danny Granger as well? Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick are walking around like they could use a day spent at the chiropractor’s office? Shouldn’t matter.

The Clippers have proved their adaptability over the course of the season. They have played at least nine games with four versions of their starting lineup, and have winning records with all four of them. They’re 11-5 with Chris Paul, Redick, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin and Jared Dudley. They’re 8-3 with Paul, Crawford, Jordan, Griffin and Dudley. They’re 6-3 with Darren Collison, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Matt Barnes. They’re 12-2 with Paul, Collison, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes.

Sunday was the first time they used the lineup of Paul, Redick, Jordan, Griffin and Barnes, and they’re 1-0 with that combo after beating the Lakers 120-97.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBlake Griffin has jammed on successfully with a rotating cast of Clippers.

“Our mindset as a team -- and you can just feel it before every game, no matter who’s playing or who’s not playing -- we’ve just got to go execute our stuff and we’ve got a chance to win, every single night,” Griffin said. “I think that was really evident, especially when CP went down [13-6 without Paul in the starting lineup]. Because everybody kind of wrote us off a little bit. And then when he came back, J.J.’s out. Guys don’t really make excuses. ‘Oh, he’s not playing tonight? It’s my turn, it’s his turn, it’s somebody’s turn.’

“That’s encouraging going into the playoffs, just to know that whoever we have on the court, we’re going to compete.”

It’s the best thing they have going for them. And sometimes all it takes is having one best thing.

“I think we know who we are,” Griffin said.

They have to realize that they’re not defensive stalwarts. They’re also the second-worst team in the league in allowing opponents offensive rebounds, even though Jordan is the NBA’s top individual rebounder. But they’ve maintained the NBA’s top scoring offense despite the lineup fluctuations. That has to start with Griffin, of course, averaging 24 points a night with only five games with fewer than 20 points since Dec. 16.

More attention should be paid to Collison, who has gone from backup point guard to starting point guard to starting shooting guard depending on the situation.

It looked bad Jan. 4 when, in Collison’s first game starting after Paul injured his right shoulder, the Clippers lost by 24 points in San Antonio. Reflecting on it later, Doc Rivers realized they let Collison down by asking him to fill Paul’s role rather than play his own. After that, the Clippers won five in a row and 12 of their next 14 while Paul recovered. Collison averaged 14 points and six assists and shot 51 percent during that stretch.

“If I’m going to start, I’m going to play my game,” Collison said. “That’s when I play my best. I firmly believe that. I’m an aggressive player -- sometimes I can be overaggressive -- but that’s just how I play.”

You’ll often hear Rivers and other Clippers players say they’d like Chris Paul to share that mindset -- to look for his shot from the get-go. That’s especially true now that Paul has regained his 3-point shooting touch. His 3-point percentage of .349 this season is one of the lowest of his career, but he made all four of his attempts Sunday, the fourth time in the past six games he’s made at least four 3-pointers.

So here are the safe bets for the Clippers heading into the playoffs: Griffin and Paul playing like top-10 players. Double-doubles from Jordan. Collison quietly doing what’s necessary. Group confidence in Doc Rivers.

That’s a lot to work with, before adding the possibilities of Redick (who made 7 of 11 shots Sunday) and Crawford.

At this point, the knowns are outweighing the unknowns.

“It just shows we have a lot of experience out there,” Collison said. “No matter who’s down, no matter who’s hurt, it seems like another guy’s coming in, stepping in and contributing the way he needs to contribute.”

Doc Rivers has got the moves

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:53
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kate Fagan says that if the Clippers make a big leap in these playoffs it'll be because of some subtle strategy shifts from Doc Rivers.

Heart of a Flyin' Lion

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
11:06
AM ET
Han By Andrew Han
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Blake Griffin and Chris PaulJuan Ocampo/Getty ImagesBlake Griffin has taken off in Chris Paul's absence, and the Clippers are better off because of it.
The Clippers had just dispatched the Golden State Warriors, punctuated by an emphatic, one-handed follow slam by Blake Griffin that led the team’s TV crew to dub him the “Flyin’ Lion.” With the win, L.A. didn’t just take down two birds with one stone; it was more like five: The Clippers notched their 46th victory of the season, extended their win streak to nine (and then to 10 and 11 this weekend, tying the season high set by San Antonio and Portland), created some breathing room in a tense Pacific Division, maintained their narrow lead as the No. 3 seed in a Botox-tight playoff race and, of course, sent their interstate rivals home with a loss.

After Staples Center had mostly cleared out, Chris Paul worked quietly around the hardwood, raising shot after shot in front of surprised and excited fans who reveled in the impromptu shooting session. The order seemed random, but Paul moved with purpose: left elbow, right elbow, 3s from the wing, now from 18 feet, a couple of free throws. About 45 minutes later, Paul concluded by hoisting a few jumpers from the corner … about 3 feet behind the 3-point arc, out of bounds.

“During the game, you wouldn’t think, but I say it all the time: I struggle with confidence and things like that,” Paul, who shot 5-for-15 in the win, said later during his postgame press conference. “I just didn’t feel like I could throw it in the ocean, so I wanted to go shoot now.”

The consensus best point guard in the league, a perennial MVP candidate, sometimes struggles with confidence.

The Clippers are 13-2 since Paul’s return to the active roster from a shoulder injury, and the notions of how the team would adjust to their star guard have been easily quelled. His ability to facilitate largely remains unchanged, as his assist rate has improved slightly, and for all of his offensive genius, Paul’s return has coincided with an 8.2 points per 100 possessions improvement to the team’s defense. So, why reveal weakness?

The answer may be that Griffin has emerged from a cocoon these recent months without the star point guard. All the freedom and inspiration Griffin displayed his rookie year seems to have metamorphosed before Paul’s very eyes. And the clearest approval the point god could stamp on Blake is allowing him to fly. Griffin’s career-high usage rate of 29.6 in Paul’s absence has declined only 0.5 in the 15 games since CP’s return, a result of the now-commonplace sight of the power forward coordinating the fast break. Blake pushes the pace, and if nothing materializes, the ball goes back to Paul to execute effective and efficient half-court sets. Despite the Lob City moniker and flashy pyrotechnics, these Clippers had never been an up-tempo team. Chris Paul is a basketball pace car. He doesn’t have an internal clock so much as a metronome. But Griffin’s recent elevation has married the natural high-end speed of the team with Paul’s low-end torque.

And the results have been dramatic. Los Angeles has been blowing by the competition since the tandem reunited, with 112.4 points per 100 possessions, while yielding only 97.8 points. Extrapolated over the season, that would give the Clippers the best offense in the league and third-best defense.

Yet there is a distinct lack of satisfaction among the Clippers these days. Players take pride in hard work bearing fruit, wins continuing in succession. But there is an appreciation that best is the enemy of better. Under Vinny Del Negro last season, there was an anxious pursuit to recapture the magic of the Clippers’ perfect December. As the season wore on, the team would change defensive schemes on a game-to-game basis, searching for the optimum foil to an opponent on any given night. It’s the kind of mentality that doesn’t allow for improvement, doesn’t allow for mistakes. Either a plan is executed perfectly and success is achieved, or it isn’t and a new strategy is formulated.

The chase for perfection both crowded and suffocated the Clippers.

Nowadays, Doc Rivers finds faith in his strongside pressure defense. And unlike earlier in the season, when only the Clippers’ starters seemed comfortable on that end, the aftermarket arrivals of Glen Davis and Danny Granger have plugged season-long defensive holes. Neither Davis nor Granger will likely impact the team in a substantial way -- although Granger’s shooting outburst against the Warriors on Wednesday night offers some intrigue -- but their ability to rotate and help on defense provides trust on a variety of levels. The starting unit can sit on the sideline and recuperate without constant trepidation that the game will move out of reach. The injured players -- and there have been many this season -- can focus on recovering rather than rushing their rehab to help the team. And, of course, there is the trust on the court: Teammates know that the player behind them understands his function in the machine.

[+] EnlargeLos Angeles Clippers chart
Courtesy of Andrew Han
So what is the identity of these Clippers? Asking the players would be to tread on the old clichés of aspiring contenders: “We want to be defense-first. To hang our hat on the defensive end.” For fans, the Clippers are a dynamo offensive juggernaut, ready to ignite at any moment under the bright lights of the big stage. But considering the amount of attention paid to process this season, the Clippers’ identity may simply be to be better, a shift embodied by Griffin.

In nine seasons, Paul has always been the best player on his team. Griffin remained the final credit in player introductions when Paul arrived in Los Angeles three seasons ago, but these courtesies rang hollow. The team belonged to CP3. Paul would lead, Griffin would follow. And Griffin was forced to make adjustments much faster than expectations should have dictated. How often is the burden of title contention put upon a player still on his rookie contract?

But in the 18 games Paul has missed, Griffin has assumed the mantle of a contender, filling Paul’s annual seat in the “third-best player in the league” conversation. And Griffin has afforded the point guard the opportunity to analyze himself for possibly the first time since his knee injury in 2010. What can Paul do to validate the strides the team has made in his absence? The topic doesn’t revolve around what’s been accomplished or what the expectations are; it’s about getting better, a Griffin ethos.

In that sense, vestiges of Rivers’ “ubuntu” mantra have found their place in Los Angeles. The value of a team identity is unity of its parts to be more, no matter how individually brilliant those components may be.

To always be improving requires a candid appraisal of oneself. It’s tough to resolve weaknesses if you’re not honest about what they are. That’s a frightening proposition. Who isn’t squeamish when reflected their flaws? But the Clippers realize that being a contender is more than just looking the part. It’s also about facing all the deficiencies the process reveals and having the luxury to be self-critical.

"I'm just here to try to win. I want our guys to believe that. I want our organization to believe that. I want to act like that: a winner,” Rivers said. “And I always tell our players there's no guarantee to it. You just have to be willing to get your heart broke, and then you have a chance to win. And if you don't do that, then you can't win. I believe that. So that's basically it."

Andrew Han writes for ClipperBlog. Follow him, @andrewthehan.

Thunder fall out of first as Clippers close in

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
9:33
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Big win for the Los Angeles Clippers in Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s not a mistake. Even though the scoreboard said it was the Lakers that beat the Thunder, 114-110, the Clippers were the biggest beneficiary.

When the Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points last week the accomplishment was lost amid nationwide scuba diving to determine just how low the Lakers had sunk. Maybe now the Clippers’ accomplishments in that landmark victory and their seven-game winning streak can bob to the surface. People can realize that the Lakers didn’t simply roll over, the Clippers did plenty of kicking. The Clippers turned a 15-point lead against the Lakers into a 52-point lead. The Thunder turned an 18-point lead into an 18-point deficit, and then an L. “You can’t play the score, you have to play the game,” Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher said, in one of those veteran-y quotes.

Oh, and the Clippers are now within 2½ games of Oklahoma City’s second spot in the Western Conference standings. So, yeah, Sunday was a good day for the Clippers.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists but OKC fell to the Lakers.

The one thing you haven’t heard the Clippers do lately is lament. As in: “We did not come with the defensive intensity that we needed in the third quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamented.

That’s a verb used only when you don’t get what you want. The Clippers have gotten the W in their past seven games, making them the hottest team in the league at the moment. They’re beginning to grasp the defensive concepts Doc Rivers is preaching, and held four of seven opponents to less than 100 points during the streak, a standard they failed to meet in nine of their previous 10 games.

While they’re reaching a crescendo, the Thunder have fallen into what Coach Brooks called “a defensive valley,” allowing opponents to score 110 points per game and shoot 47 percent while losing five of their past eight games. They dropped into second place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won six straight and have to be feeling good about themselves as well.

Brooks was as critical as he gets about his team, saying, “It comes down to taking pride in guarding your man and we had trouble staying in front of the basketball tonight” as well as “In the third quarter we did not come out with the defensive toughness it takes to win in this league.”

The Thunder aren’t making excuses about the absence of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clearly an issue.

“Thabo is a defensive player,” Brooks said. “Perk is one of our best defensive players. He’s not only good on the post, he’s good on the pick-and-roll coverage and he’s good at communicating.”

Perkins communicates not only on the court but in the locker room and through the media, quick to call out insufficient efforts from his team. He wasn’t around Sunday, so that left it to Fisher.

Yes, Kevin Durant, a 40 percent 3-point shooter on the season, has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in February and is 9-for-32 (28 percent) in four games in March. And just when it seemed Russell Westbrook had regained his shooting touch by making 58 percent of his shots in the previous five games, he cratered to a 7-for-23 (30 percent) shooting performance Sunday afternoon.

Those aren’t the type of things that have Fisher concerned.

“It’s a larger perspective in terms of just where we are as a team, our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game,” Fisher said.

“As a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team’s success, then you’ll start to see offensively and defensively things tighten up the way they need to tighten up. … Just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs.

“I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team, I’m just saying we’re not right now putting it out there on the court."

The Thunder left the arena muttering to themselves, the Lakers were granted a temporary reprieve from their miserable season, and Jodie Meeks had a career-high 42 points to savor. Nobody had it better than the Clippers, though. They had a day off to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in L.A., and their status improved at the same time.

Moving up without moving on

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
10:14
AM ET
By Brendan I. Koerner
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Michael Olowokandi and Blake GriffinGetty ImagesAfter decades at the bottom, the Clippers' sudden rise is still tough to grasp for longtime devotees.
When I swore fealty to the Los Angeles Clippers in fall 1984, at the start of the team’s inaugural season in my sun-kissed hometown, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to wait more than a few years to attend my first championship parade. My concept of the ebb and flow of basketball fortunes had been warped by the Los Angeles Times sports section, which had conditioned me to expect Lakers titles on a biennial basis.

By my naive third-grade logic, any franchise that alighted in L.A. had to be the Lakers’ equal in terms of talent and organizational prowess; otherwise, why would they have the temerity to challenge the city's most cherished team for the population’s hearts and minds? Surely the Clippers would have their turn atop the NBA's summit, perhaps once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally called it a career. And when the team inevitably earned its first ring, I would be the only kid at school who could claim to have been a true acolyte since Day 1. All those smug, conformist Lakers fans would marvel at my prescience -- including my dad, who once declared that the sweetest sound in the world was the snap of the net after a James Worthy jumper.

I didn't fully awaken to the folly of my plan until 4 1/2 years later, after poor Danny Manning's right ACL turned into mincemeat on a grim Milwaukee night. By the time that cataclysm occurred, I was already more than a bit bewildered by the Clippers’ obvious deficiencies on the court. In sharp contrast to the Showtime Lakers, who ran the break with such balletic grace, the Clippers played an ugly brand of basketball that featured lots of errant passes and boneheaded fourth-quarter fouls, punctuated by the more-than-occasional Lancaster Gordon air ball. The roster teemed with over-the-hill veterans who gasped for breath after every missed rebound, plus a smattering of overhyped greenhorns who seemingly lost all heart upon first setting foot inside the squalid Sports Arena. When Manning’s knee gave way just 26 games into what was supposed to be a Hall of Fame career, I knew for certain that I had mistakenly opted for a life of misery by casting my lot with the Clippers.

Yet I never came close to abandoning my ill-starred team, even though I understood that decades’ worth of heartache lay ahead. After a boyhood spent obsessing over sports, I understood that there are few archetypes more justly despised than the fair-weather fan. We must suffer the consequences of our bad choices, even when those choices were made before we understood all of the variables involved. To reject the Clippers just because they were a tragic punch line would be tantamount to begging the cosmos for special treatment. And no one respects the guy who’s always asking for mulligans when things don't go exactly according to plan.

Instead of turning my back on the Clippers, I learned to appreciate their minor regular-season triumphs and, more important, to take a peculiar pride in the absurdity of their tribulations. When owner-cum-supervillain Donald Sterling raised the possibility of making the players buy their own socks, for example, or allegedly asked a prostitute whether he should hire Alvin Gentry, I felt strangely elated. With such an odious character atop the hierarchy, the fact the Clippers actually managed to make the playoffs every once in a blue moon was arguably quite a feat. Or when questionable first-round picks such as Michael Olowokandi and Bo Kimble proved the conventional wisdom correct by flaming out, I could only congratulate myself for sticking by a team whose college scouting department was evidently staffed by utter dolts.

Having developed these coping mechanisms during 30 years of Clippers fandom, I now find it difficult to believe that Lob City is anything more than a mirage. We’ve been teased before, of course, notably during those few brief days when it seemed that free-agent signing Baron Davis might get the chance to feed Elton Brand in the post. When Brand opted to break our hearts by signing with the Sixers, no bona fide Clippers fan was surprised -- we accept that our lot in life is to have contentment snatched away from us at the last moment, much like Tantalus never quite being able to grasp that fruit branch in hell.

And so I fear that a sudden stroke of misfortune will doom this winning Clippers team that has brought me so much joy. Perhaps Chris Paul’s oft-repaired legs will permanently turn to Jell-O. Or Blake Griffin will suddenly forget all he's learned about playing with his back to the basket. Or Sterling will scare away a crucial free agent by once again saying something shockingly boorish or racist.

[+] EnlargeDanny Manning
AP Photo/Lennox McLendonThe current-day Clippers' success and high-wire act can't heal all old wounds, for better and for worse.
Yet a small part of me also feels nostalgic for the darkest of Clippers days, when there was a perverse sense of honor in adoring such an infamously dreadful team. It is easy to feel a special kinship with fellow Clippers fans who can recite chapter and verse about the frustrations of the Benoit Benjamin era; suffering unites in a way that success never can.

Once, while traveling through Slovakia, I bumped into a fellow Clippers aficionado with whom I shared a long exchange about our infamous 1987 draft, when we somehow managed to convert three of the first 19 picks into Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman -- in other words, nada. I daresay the connection we made that day, as we commiserated over 30-cent glasses of red wine, was an order of magnitude richer than anything two Lakers fans could forge while discussing the glorious Pat Riley years.

The legions of new Clippers fans, who have flocked to the team as its style has evolved from plodding to dynamic, are a bunch that I regard with both suspicion and pity. I have no quibble with folks who will one day tell their kids that their Clippers love was sparked by the artistry of Paul -- I accept that most origin stories of fandom are less narcissistic than my own. But I suspect that a fair chunk of the new fan base will not see their commitment through to the grave, but rather just until the day that Griffin takes his talents elsewhere. Anyone who stops supporting my Clippers at that moment will miss out on plenty of emotional tumult, for better and for worse.

Alas, I needn't even bother worrying about whether my son will be a Clippers lifer. Though I made sure to dress him in a Brand onesie during his toddler phase, the boy has opted to pour his heart and soul into pulling for the Knicks. At least he’ll develop a deep understanding of how teams can be ruined by capricious owners.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of "The Skies Belong to Us." Follow him @brendankoerner.

Why Iman Shumpert is still a Knick

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
3:59
PM ET
Broussard By Chris Broussard
ESPN.com
Archive
Iman ShumpertTom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Thunder and Clippers were both interested in Knicks guard Iman Shumpert at the trade deadline.
While there's certainly no need to panic in Oklahoma City, the Thunder's last two losses have exposed a need for the Western Conference favorite: perimeter defense. Miami's Dwyane Wade and the Los Angeles Clippers' Jamal Crawford combined to score 60 points on 65 percent shooting from the floor in those games.

Granted, Wade and Crawford light up a lot of teams, but the fact is that, outside of starting 2-guard Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City provides very little resistance in the backcourt. That's why the Thunder were hoping to land Iman Shumpert before last Thursday's trade deadline.

Even after Shumpert suffered a strained left MCL in a Knicks loss last Wednesday, Oklahoma City was willing to part with this season's first-round draft pick to land the Knicks shooting guard, according to sources with knowledge of the trade discussions. The Knicks, however, refused to do the deal because they weren't getting a current player in return who could help them make a push for this season's Eastern Conference playoffs. At the end of the day, they deemed Shumpert more valuable than the 28th pick (or whatever low pick OKC gets) of the draft, sources said.

The Knicks' priority all along in trading Shumpert was to attach Raymond Felton's contract to the deal and get a solid point guard in return. That nearly happened with the Clippers.

While Shumpert's injury did not deter the Thunder, it did kill the Knicks' hopes of sending him to Los Angeles. Clippers coach Doc Rivers really wanted Shumpert, sources say, and Rivers was willing to do a deal that would have sent Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Byron Mullens and two second-round picks to New York for Shumpert, Felton and Beno Udrih. But Clippers owner Donald Sterling and others within the organization were hesitant to bet on Shumpert after seeing him go down in Wednesday's game at New Orleans, according to sources.

Shumpert's camp was hoping for a trade, but it can rest assured that he'll be back on the market around draft time.

To live and vie in L.A.

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
7:59
PM ET
By Jordan Heimer
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Pau Gasol, DeAndre JordanKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Lakers have long been Staples' glamour tenant, but the court belongs to the Clippers now.
It’s been an hour since the final buzzer sounded on another Lakers loss, a 17-point, home-court drubbing at the hands of the lowly Utah Jazz that dropped the Lakers into dead last in the Western Conference. On "Lakers Line," ESPNLA 710's postgame call-in show, host A. Martinez sounds dispirited. "Laker fans, here’s what I want to know. Does it matter to you that the Lakers avoid finishing last? Does it even make a difference at this point?"

The phones light up, and A. puts a caller through: Robert, calling from Hollywood. It’s clear that Robert considers Martinez cretinous simply for raising such an obviously stupid question. "I can’t believe you’d even ask that, A. Of course, it matters."

"Why?"

In the mornings, Martinez co-hosts "Take Two," a current-affairs show on NPR's Pasadena, Calif., affiliate. He’s a die-hard, but his loyalties aren’t blind. "This team isn’t making the playoffs. What’s the difference?"

Robert sounds belligerent, maybe drunk. "We’re the Lakers," he says. "We don’t finish last."
[+] EnlargeChris Paul and Blake Griffin
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul and Blake Griffin are grasping a real breakthrough in the L.A. basketball dynamic.

Something weird and metaphysical is happening in the world of L.A. basketball, and to understand it, you have to fully appreciate the distance separating its franchises. It’s not just that the Lakers have been better than the Clippers. The Yankees are usually better than the Mets. Alabama is usually better than Auburn. What needs to be understood is that the Lakers are always better than the Clippers, to such an extent and with such regularity that it’s hard to convey without resorting to analogue. The Lakers are the Road Runner, and the Clippers are Wile E. Coyote. The Lakers are award-show invitees, the Clippers are seat-fillers. It’s so basic it might seem banal, but it’s pretty extraordinary when you think about it: The most consistently relevant and consistently irrelevant teams in NBA history share not just a city but a building.

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, this might all seem, oh, about 2½ belated. You follow basketball. You’re familiar with the Chris Paul trade -- and isn’t that when the fortunes of these teams truly changed?

Well … kind of.

Two distinct strains of Clippers skeptics emerged after the Paul trade. The first were the sports reductionists, who espoused what might be called the Desecrated Graveyard theory of continued Clipper putrescence -- they never have won, so they never can win, QED.

The second line of skepticism, much harder to dismiss, conceded that the present was bright, but that perhaps Lob City was a boomtown built on an active fault line. Yes, the pairing of Paul and Blake Griffin was unlike anything in the franchise’s history, but there was something eerily familiar about certain front-office decisions. For instance, in 2012, team architect Neil Olshey was allowed to leave for Portland, while haircut Vinny Del Negro was retained. It wasn’t just the whiff of cheapness emanating from the penthouse at Sterling Towers, it was the self-defeating illogic of pairing a championship core with a suspect coach on a one-year deal.

If, as Joe E. Louis quipped, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel, then rooting for the Lakers is like rooting for the Fed -- problems tend to seem manageable when you print money. The Clippers excelled only in failure. There’s a reason Bill Simmons wrote Griffin an open letter when he was drafted advising him to "run like the star of a horror movie." Worst ownership, worst record, worst luck, a history of (ahem) frugality with regards to free agents and facilities. There was the occasional moment, like the 2006 season, when a relative Lakers down season might coincide with a relative Clippers upswing, but it was always understood to be temporary. The Clippers might pull up a chair now and then to the adult table, but only until the Lakers returned from the bathroom.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures." Every business is the accumulation of its decisions. New gestures, new man.

In other words, what if Wile E. Coyote woke up one day and thought, "Enough of these Acme Products," and immediately went out and hired J.P.L. to redesign his rockets?

With a series of successful gestures, the Clippers have quietly crafted a new personality. Those gestures have been both large and small. Doc Rivers was hired. The Paul re-signing was a dignified nonevent despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling.

Over the past few seasons, the Clippers’ player development staff has increased from a one-man shop to four full-time coaches and a shooting guru. The scouting budget has increased. The training staff now includes a nutritionist, a chiropractor and a deep-tissue masseuse. Giant likenesses of current Clippers were hung during games to cover the Lakers championship banners. Their two stars are among the most marketable in the league, three if you count Cliff Paul.

In a weird, fractal way, Doc is in charge of channeling those "gestures" on a nightly basis while also being one of those gestures himself. His messages are simple and consistent. Preseason, he talked about his plans to maximize Griffin’s playmaking skills, then installed an offense that did just that. Questions about DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting are answered with comparisons to Bill Russell. At a recent postgame news conference, Doc was asked if he knew that Jared Dudley, who had made the go-ahead shot on a set play late in the game, had been 0-for-6 to that point. Doc said that he never looked at the box score during the game. "We draw up plays because we know they work," he said.

Meanwhile, since the passing of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, there has been a definite sense of drift, a feeling of not-quite-rightness that comes through in the voices of the anxious "Lakers Line" callers. A feeling that this time maybe there’s no guarantee things will come out right. Purple and gold has always been superstar catnip, only Dwight Howard chose deep red and a low state income tax.

There have been three coaches in two seasons (Hi, Bernie Bickerstaff), one Princeton offense and a revised printing of Jeanie Buss’ memoir released midseason referred to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni over her fiancÚ, Phil Jackson, as a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back."

Kobe Bryant signed a deal so massive it suggests the Lakers’ brass might in fact know that the team won’t compete seriously again for years and is doing what it can to shore up ticket sales. And even with all that cash, Kobe still hasn’t been deterred from public sniping over recent moves, calling last week’s Steve Blake trade "not cool."

Over on "Lakers Line’s" Clippers equivalent, "Clipper Talk," everything’s cool -- even after a tough Clippers loss against Golden State. Manny from Highland Park calls in and tells Isaac Lowenkron, the show’s host, "I know I’ve called before and said I thought the Clippers could win, but this year I actually mean it."

I’ve listened to Isaac for years. If "Clipper Talk" has historically been a dive bar where down-and-outters can gather and commiserate, then Lowenkron is the friendly bartender, the one who knows his job is to listen and sympathize. But tonight, there’s no empathy in his voice, only something that sounds more like giddy anticipation. "You know what the best part is?" he asks. "This is just the beginning."

Ready for Lillardpalooza

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
10:04
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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The Portland Trail Blazers had just suffered their second tough loss to a top competitor on back-to-back nights, and Damian Lillard stood in the visitor’s locker room and discussed what lay ahead for the Blazers.

“I think the break will be good for us,” Lillard said. “Kind of come back fresh, and ready to turn up."

Except “break” and “fresh” are the only two things NOT on the schedule for Lillard over the weekend. He has an unprecedented five events tap: the Rising Stars game Friday night, the skills challenge, dunk contest and three-point shootout Saturday night and the All-Star game Sunday. That doesn’t even count all of the media sessions, community service events and promotional appearances that eat up players’ days.

So what’s Lillard’s energy-conservation approach? There is none.

“I’m going to jump in,” Lillard said. “I’m going to go out there in every event to compete. Most of all, I’m just going to go out there and have fun and enjoy it.
It’s a great opportunity for me. A lot of fans have been tweeting me about it and are excited about it. I’m going to go out there and do it with all my heart.

“I’m not going to do it halfhearted and act like I’m too cool for it. I’m going to do the skills and the three and the dunk, I’m playing both games. I’ll be fine.

“I think I have a chance to win all of them. If I didn’t think I had a chance to compete, I wouldn’t even put my name in it.”

We'll see if he sounds as enthusiastic on Sunday night. Blake Griffin had a similar slate during his rookie foray into All-Star weekend in 2011: the Rising Stars game, the dunk contest and the All-Star game. And then there was the Clippers’ schedule leading into the All-Star break.

“We had just come off a five-game road trip,” Griffin said. “[Wednesday] was our last game, in Minnesota. We flew back here, then everything started for me Thursday morning and felt like it went non-stop.

"Every situation is different for every guy. That was also my first year, playing 38 minutes and still trying to figure out everything.”

In addition, Griffin learned the night of the game against the Timberwolves that his close friend Wilson Holloway had died of complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma. After the break, the Clippers went on the road to Oklahoma City, Griffins’s first game back in the state where he grew up and went to college. It's hard to imagine a more physically and emotionally draining stretch for a player. And it's worth noting that Griffin's scoring and rebounding averages and shooting percentages were all lower after the All-Star break than before.

Griffin had one piece of advice for Lillard: “Just get your rest when you can…because that second half is a beast, especially when you’re making a playoff push.”



Clippers, Blazers know the score in West

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
3:10
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Just think of Wednesday night’s Trail Blazers-Clippers game as an alternate Western Conference finals, taking place in a world in which two-time MVP Steve Nash led Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns to back-to-back championships and rendered defense obsolete.

The Clippers and Trail Blazers are two teams that have spent this season among the upper echelon of the Western Conference, with aspirations of winning multiple playoff series. But if the postseason started today, they’d be matched up in the first round as the fourth and fifth seeds.

It’s not only that the Thunder and Spurs have better records, it’s that they are better equipped for the playoffs because of their superior defense. Both teams allow 97.5 points per game, the fewest among the current Western Conference playoff teams. The Trail Blazers allow the most, at 103.7. The Clippers are just over 100, at 100.6.

On the flip side, the Blazers and Clippers are the two highest-scoring teams in the league, and if nothing else, that can make for some entertaining regular-season ball. It helps that they’re so similar, with All-Stars at point guard and power forward, and an acceptance that they are offensively driven teams.

On Wednesday night, they hooked up for a game that produced 239 points and featured 40 lead changes and 18 ties. The Clippers used just enough defense at the end to prevail, most notably when Chris Paul pried the ball away from Damian Lillard, with DeAndre Jordan swooping in to scoop up the ball and commence a two-on-one fastbreak that led to a Matt Barnes alley-oop lob to Jordan. It put the Clippers ahead by three points with a minute and a half left, and they went on to win 122-117.

“It just felt like if you could get one or two stops in a row you would win the game,” said Jamal Crawford, who continued his role as the supplementary scorer to Blake Griffin with 25 points. “Finally at the end, we did.”

Still, the emphasis of this game was offense. It was really a matter of offensive efficiency more than defensive effectiveness. Even after his Clippers team shot 60 percent and scored 61 points in the first half, coach Doc Rivers said that during intermission, “I was upset offensively. We had nine possessions where we just didn’t get into anything. Maybe one of those games you’re going to need those possessions.”

It will be asking a lot to change either team’s identity to defense in the remaining two months of the season. So it becomes a matter of fine-tuning the offense. Griffin has become a player who can get 30 points at will; he scored 36 on Wednesday night. That they came on 21 field goal attempts shows how he has become more efficient as well as a better free throw shooter. Griffin was called “our MVP all season long,” which was most notable because the words came from Paul.

It will help the Clippers to get J.J. Redick back; he missed the game with a sore right hip. The Blazers will be served by the further development of C.J. McCollum, a promising rookie who went off for eight points in the final two minutes of the third quarter to give the Blazers the lead heading into the fourth. It was just his 17th game.

But these teams will have to beat some combination of the Thunder, the Spurs and possibly the surging Houston Rockets to advance deep into the playoffs. It’s worth noting that for all of Kevin Durant’s offensive fireworks of late, the Thunder’s defensive rating of 102.2 is their best since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

“In the playoff situation, we can be a dangerous team,” Portland’s Lillard said. “There can be a three-game stretch where we just really get hot. We can really score the ball. We defend well in spurts. Once we figure out what we need to do to defend more consistently, we can be a really dangerous team.”

Can defending well in spurts get it done in the playoffs?

“I don’t think it can get done what we would like to get done,” Lillard said. “Offense can be fool’s gold. It might carry you. Last year, I think Golden State’s offense carried them. I think if we can find a way to be more consistent on D, we’ll be tough to play against.”

Until then, they’re at least fun to watch, especially when they’re up against their reflection in the Clippers.

Chris Paul returns with offensive fireworks

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
1:17
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- So how would Chr -- sorry, there wasn’t even enough time to ask the question before we had the answer. Chris Paul’s return from a shoulder injury after Blake Griffin occupied the driver’s seat for the past 18 games immediately showed what the Clippers' offense would look like with Paul back: a devastatingly effective force. It produced the largest margin of victory in Clippers franchise history, a 45-point drubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Turns out it was like wondering if water would still run down the riverbed after the next torrential downpour.

The pregame curiosity didn’t stem from if it would work so much as how it would work with Paul running the show again after Griffin had grown accustomed to occupying whatever spot on the court he wanted during Paul's absence. All parties insisted it wouldn’t be a problem, with coach Doc Rivers saying the only noticeable difference would be more outlet passes directly to Griffin, which had been a thing lately. We saw some of those, in addition to times when CP3 gave the ball to Griffin on the fast break much earlier than he usually does.

“We just kind of let it happen,” Griffin said. “If he’s out ahead, I’m going to give him the ball 99 percent of the time. But if I’m out ahead or on the side and we’ve got runners, why not. That’s something we kind of learned throughout this stretch.”

So Paul trusts Griffin with the ball in transition, while Griffin was content to return to playing off the ball in the half-court offense. It took just a couple of minutes to get that point across.

The Clippers won the tip and Paul fed Griffin along the right baseline for a layup. Then he flipped a pass to Griffin for an open jumper that Griffin missed. Next came a Paul pass ahead to Matt Barnes for a transition layup. It was 4-0 and the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t come anywhere near that close again. The Clippers led 28-5 after six minutes and 46-15 after one quarter. It was a spectacular 12-minute display of efficiency. They made 72 percent of their shots and assisted on 14 of their 18 baskets.

Yeah, um, so about that reintegration of Chris Paul?

You guys talked about it,” Rivers told the media. “I said we wouldn’t have to. And we didn’t, as you could tell.”

“It was tough,” Griffin deadpanned. “But we managed.”

Paul said, “It was just tempo,” and that he could figure out where to fit in just from watching games from the bench.

With the compulsories out of the way, the Clippers started freestyling in the second quarter. Paul threw the ball off the backboard to Griffin, who windmill-dunked it home. Then Griffin flipped a behind-the-back pass to Paul, who lobbed it back to him for another windmill dunk.

The Clippers led by as many as 56 points in the second half. Keep in mind, they did it without J.J. Redick, who makes the Clippers even better offensively with his outside shooting and constant movement off the ball. Redick missed his third consecutive game with a sore hip; he is expected to return for the Clippers’ important Western Conference showdown against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night.

The Clippers will be more potent. And Paul, whose moves seemed a bit slower and jump shot a little flat, should be a better scorer as he gets his timing back. His court vision is already there. He had eight assists in 23 minutes, which was enough time for him to log a plus-minus rating of plus-42 in the Clippers’ 123-78 romp.

Griffin had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists. DeAndre Jordan rebounded 20 of the 73 shots the 76ers missed.

“They just beat us down,” Philadelphia’s Evan Turner said.

That much was obvious. Apparently, so was the matter of Chris Paul’s impact on the team.

'Hack-a-Jordan' clouds Clippers' win

February, 8, 2014
Feb 8
2:34
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- At some point, the NBA needs to care enough about its product to eliminate the loophole in the rules that allows games to degenerate into nine players standing around watching the league's worst free-throw shooters take foul shots, while draining the sport of all its athleticism, skill and entertainment value.

That's the only thing to take away from the Los Angeles Clippers' 118-105 victory over the Toronto Raptors. Well, you could also take away that Blake Griffin has gotten really good at basketball, but that should have been evident before tonight.

[+] EnlargeJordan
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesDeAndre Jordan hit 10 of 22 free throws Friday, which were plenty to keep the Clippers' lead safe.
It's also been obvious for more than a decade that intentionally fouling players who don't even have the ball has been a detriment to the sport, but the NBA continues to allow these travesties. In 2000, the Portland Trail Blazers sent Shaquille O'Neal to the free throw line 25 times in one quarter of a playoff game. Friday night, a desperate Raptors squad, behind by 20 points, commenced fouling DeAndre Jordan every time the Clippers had possession, regardless of whether he had the ball.

Jordan wound up taking 16 free throws in the quarter, making eight. The third period wound up taking 41 minutes to play, thanks to the constant stops to shoot free throws. When it ended, with Clippers coach Doc Rivers substituting for Jordan with 2:48 remaining in the quarter, the Clippers still led by 16 points.

"It changed the rhythm of the game, I will say that," Rivers said. "Because we had a great pace and we never got back to that."

Indeed, the Raptors quickly sliced the lead to nine points once Jordan left and normal basketball resumed. They had "junked the game up," as Jamal Crawford put it, but they still fared better by trying on defense, instead of allowing so many opportunities for Jordan to score.

Give even the worst free-throw shooters enough opportunities and they'll make some. The stops in play will also give the defense a chance to get set, thus making it harder for the team that's fouling to come back.

Speaking of defense, isn't that just as much a fundamental element of the game as making free throws? So spare the talk that better free-throw shooting would eliminate this. Better defense would do the job as well. (The Detroit Pistons and their ferocious defense won a championship in 2004 without resorting to gimmick fouls against O'Neal).

There are simple ways to eliminate this. Heck, the NBA already employs a deterrent in the final two minutes of games -- fouls away from the ball result in two shots plus possession. Put that rule in effect for all 48 minutes and watch the fun return.


Fouling a man without the ball is like walking someone who's sitting in the dugout.


- J.A. Adande

"I don't know where to go on it," Rivers said.

"Maybe go to three [free throws] to make two? I don't like that."

I'm not crazy about that either, but it's better than what we see teams try to do against the likes of Jordan and Dwight Howard.

Rivers compared intentional fouls to intentional walks in baseball. But intentional walks -- with four pitches and take your base -- don't drag games out as long as fouls do. And at least walks are a deterrent against someone who poses an actual threat, in the batter's box. Fouling a man without the ball is like walking someone who's sitting in the dugout.

You won't find anyone who enjoys this stain on basketball. Not the coaches who employ it, nor the players who execute it, nor the fans who watch it. What about the networks that broadcast it, and would like to have games fit into a 2 1/2 hour window and move onto the next program? The NBA should certainly take the high-paying broadcast partners into account.

Jordan tried to put a positive spin on it.

"If I'm going to go up there and practice my free throws, then that's fine too," Jordan said.

As if that's why people pay to watch NBA basketball.

Takeaways from Heat-Clippers

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
3:29
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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LeBron JamesAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesLeBron James and Blake Griffin had many opportunities to challenge each other.

• The Los Angeles Clippers don’t subscribe to the idea of moral victories, at least not vocally, but the vibe around the team after the 116-112 loss to Miami Heat was comparatively rosy for a team that lost on its home floor and didn’t have one of the four best records in the Western Conference for the first time in well over a month. The Clippers weren’t happy about the turnovers and the defense, but they’d wanted a tempo game against Miami and they’d accomplished that. They wanted to keep the ball moving against Miami’s pressure in the half court, and they nailed that task as well.

•  When Chris Paul suffered an AC separation of his right shoulder, he said emphatically that he didn’t believe in silver linings. Serious injuries derail momentum and disrupt the season -- for player and team. So to honor CP, let’s call what the Clippers are seeing from Blake Griffin over the past month an unintended consequence rather than a silver lining. On Wednesday, 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, and as if that’s not a full demonstration of his dominance, consider this: 52 of the Clippers’ 98 possessions ended in a Blake Griffin field goal attempt, a Blake Griffin field goal attempt that resulted in a pair of fouls shots, a Blake Griffin assist or a Blake Griffin turnover.

• LeBron James turned in another “1-through-5” game, guarding every position on the floor for Miami. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when LeBron became an equal opportunity defender with the Heat, but we can look at a Sunday night in January 2011 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. The Heat spent much of the game bogged down in the half court, at which point Erik Spoelstra unleased an early incarnation of Heat small ball. Miami went gangbusters as James found himself covering 7-footer Marcus Camby. Wednesday night, James matched up with DeAndre Jordan and Griffin for stretches and did his usual work on his perimeter counterparts. James loves to roam when his assignment is a secondary or forgotten option of the offense -- and Jordan snuck underneath a couple of times on LeBron -- but the multi-tasking was impressive as always.

• Only LeBron can avenge a technical foul call that clearly irritated him and set him off into a flurry of rage that materialized in … assists and facilitation. On the possession following the tech, LeBron pounded the ball upcourt and was met by Griffin at the 3-point arc. James then performed what might have been a pointed imitation of Griffin’s elaborate between-the-legs, eat-your-heart-out-Anthony Mason shtick. LeBron then orchestrated the prettiest half-court set of the night. In a five-second span, James dished the ball off to Ray Allen, moved into a screen for Allen, caught the pass from Allen while rolling hard to the rim, then stopped short to lob an alley-oop to Chris Andersen. One hockey assist and another basketball assist followed on the subsequent possession as the Heat capped a 6-0 run to build their lead back to 17 points.

• Griffin drew the assignment to guard James to start the game -- and for much of the finish while the Heat were still small. [We discussed the decision] this morning before shootaround,” Griffin said. “It was actually T-Lue, Tyronn Lue. I guarded him a couple of times when we played them in Miami.” Griffin did an adequate job as roadblock, and James spent most of the possessions opposite Griffin setting up Wade on some pretty cuts, and moving the ball to the weakside, which the Clippers routinely vacated or merely forgot about.

•  Doc Rivers spoke pregame about the miracle of Allen’s shotmaking. Four hours later, he experienced it firsthand when Allen nailed the dagger as the third option on a play designed as a single-double for Mario Chalmers, with a contingency pick-and-roll with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When nothing materialized off either action, Wade swung the ball to Allen, whose 3-pointer gave the Heat a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. “It was a little bit of a broken play,” Spoelstra said. “We had been running a little bit of an action to try to get some different matchups to take advantage of the switches. [The Clippers] switched, and Dwyane [Wade] was able to drive. Because they had switched and handed off so many things, sometimes defensively you lose sight of guys on the weak side, and that’s what happened.”

•  Neither the Clippers nor the Heat did much to stop the other in the half court. Miami’s aggressive schemes left them vulnerable to weakside actions, cuts and duck-ins. The Heat were late to rotate when they trapped up top, and when they did, they’d end up with Mario Chalmers crashing on Griffin in the lane -- generally a bad idea for the guy who isn’t Griffin. The Clippers, meanwhile, “lost guys” all night in the words of Rivers. They switched everything for Griffin and the guards appeared confused as their counterparts breezed around screens. It was ugly on both ends defensively.

New Year's revolution

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
10:55
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Which team has the best offense since New Year's? The answer may surprise you.

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Clippers in good hands without Chris Paul

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
10:20
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Blake GriffinAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillBlake Griffin and the Clippers have taken a big leap forward while Chris Paul's shoulder mends.
In Portland a few nights after Christmas, LeBron James spent the evening in a camo tee, brown leather pants and a tan jacket. On the floor, his teammates beat a hot Trail Blazers team on a late 3-pointer by Chris Bosh. The Heat got some nice minutes from Michael Beasley, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis on a night that wasn’t Dwyane Wade’s most efficient.

About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.

So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
[+] EnlargeChris Paul and Blake Griffin
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokSitting out has been tough for CP3, but the Clips are 11-5 without him.

“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”

Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.

The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.

One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.

In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.

He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'


-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul

With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.

But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.

It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.

The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.

Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.

If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.

The NBA's "global money machine"

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
1:49
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In Forbes' 2014 ranking of team values, the NBA is said to have become a "global money machine," with almost every team making money and franchises like the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls worth more than a billion dollars each. Editor Kurt Badenhausen explains.
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