TrueHoop: Eric Bledsoe

Suns reload for future with flurry of trades

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
Schwartz By Michael Schwartz
Goran DragicAP Photo/Rick ScuteriBy trading the unhappy Goran Dragic, the Suns' young core got even younger.
PHOENIX -- The Suns didn’t have much of a choice.

By making public his intentions not to re-sign with the team when he could become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Goran Dragic forced the Suns to make a move or risk losing their third-team All-NBA performer from a season ago for nothing, a potentially disastrous outcome for a front office intent on asset accumulation.

So in a flurry of moves before the deadline Thursday, out went Dragic and in came Brandon Knight as Phoenix made three trades minutes before the deadline to reshuffle the deck and make one of the league’s youngest cores even younger.

“At the end of the day, I’m absolutely convinced that we are in a better place now than we have been since I’ve been here,” Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said at a news conference Friday.

The main reason for that is the Suns’ crucial 2015 free agent now becomes the 23-year-old restricted free agent Knight rather than the 28-year-old Dragic, who can become an unrestricted free agent.

If the team signs Knight to an extension of at least four seasons, Eric Bledsoe (age 25), Knight and Markieff Morris (25) will be under contract through the 2018-19 season and Alex Len (21) will be under team control through 2016-17. Dragic, meanwhile, turns 29 in May and will be eligible for a more lucrative long-term contract this offseason than Knight based on his years of experience in the league.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Knight
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesBrandon Knight's ability as a closer is a welcome addition for a Suns team that struggles to finish off opponents.
“A major motivation was going from 28 [Dragic’s age] to 23 [Knight’s], and I think that’s a major positive for us,” Babby said. “The group will hopefully stay together and grow together and reach their prime together.

“Maybe if we’re lucky, by that time Tim Duncan will be 48 years old and things will begin to change in the Western Conference. You have to look at the whole picture of where we are and where everybody else is.”

That whole picture includes a loaded Western Conference with seven teams boasting winning percentages of at least .630. Unless one of those teams falters, that leaves the Suns fighting with Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot in the West -- the teams currently own identical 29-25 records -- and, of course, that’s just to reach the postseason, to say nothing of making a run.

Beyond their building blocks, the Suns’ youth includes recent first-rounders Archie Goodwin (20), T.J. Warren (21) and Reggie Bullock (23), as well as overseas stash Bodgan Bogdanovic (22) and the three first-round picks acquired Thursday to keep the Suns’ future pick stash full.

“The principle we follow is the same principle that we’ve been following for the last couple years,” Babby said. “We’re not going to do anything to help us in the short run if it’s going to hurt us in the long run. We expect to compete for this playoff spot, and we’re excited about the opportunity. We get the challenge, but at the same time we have to be focused on the future.”

The Suns’ wealth of draft picks and young prospects could put them in a good trading position the next time a disgruntled star seeks to force his way to a new squad, but for now the Suns are relying on the improvement of their young core.

That now includes Knight, a player Suns general manager Ryan McDonough lauded for being a “closer,” citing his stats in late-game situations. Knight has scored 85 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or OT when the score is within five points, the seventh-most such points in the league. The Suns could use help in clutch situations as they are just 2-9 in games decided by three points or fewer, the second-worst win percentage in the league in such games.

Knight will now share a backcourt with a fellow former Kentucky guard in Bledsoe, giving the Suns a pair of multitalented players to push the pace and share lead guard roles just as Bledsoe did last season with Dragic.

As a 40.9 percent 3-point shooter this season, Knight could be a good fit playing off the ball while also being able to attack when called upon.

“We have two very high-level guys in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight that we feel like have the potential to be All-Stars and have the potential to be a terrific backcourt for years to come,” McDonough said.

The Suns have spent much of this season in one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference, yet Thursday’s activity is a reminder that Phoenix is still a rebuilding team, albeit one with a better record than most of the league’s other young teams, as McDonough pointed out at Friday’s news conference.

The team now has additional future cap space with Isaiah Thomas off the books, draft picks far enough down the line that Babby joked owner Robert Sarver’s children will be making one of the selections, and a potential cornerstone player five years younger than the cornerstone the Suns shipped out.

“We have a lot of young players we feel are just starting to scratch the surface of their potential, and we feel like their best basketball is ahead of them,” McDonough said. “The goal is to get to that championship level. Every move we’ve made over the last couple years is with that in mind. I feel like we’re getting closer to seeing the core of the next great Suns team, but we’re not going to stop until we get it right.”

Setting Eric Bledsoe free

July, 2, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
After three seasons of healthy debate about Eric Bledsoe’s potential, the NBA marketplace has now given us an appraisal of the electric 23-year-old guard. In exchange for Bledsoe and a second-round draft pick, the Clippers fill both of their wing positions (with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley) and unload a weighty contract (Caron Butler’s $8 million salary).

The Clippers scored, but for a segment of their fans, Bledsoe’s departure to Phoenix comes with a tinge of sadness. Bledsoe was a cult hero in Los Angeles and for hoop junkies everywhere. He elevated risk to an art form and was the most entertaining sideshow at Staples Center. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will always provide thrills, but we come to expect transcendence from superstars.

Bledsoe was another thing entirely -- a sinewy bundle of chaos whose whole game was predicated on the element of surprise. Already, Bledsoe is a top five on-ball perimeter defender, a one-man press who can slice a 24-second possession in half. He’s the most dangerous shot-blocking guard since Dwyane Wade, and with a few more reps could become one of the fastest end-to-end guards in the league with the ball.

Bledsoe isn’t without imperfections. Although he improved both his 3-point shot and turnover rates considerably last season, he’s still not a player you want to see rise and shoot off the bounce -- or even the catch most nights -- nor is he a born distributor. The ball pressure is nasty, but Bledsoe’s aggression can occasionally cost him defensively off the ball.

For Bledsoe’s cultists, these shortcomings were merely a byproduct of Bledsoe’s unruly style, collateral damage that could be easily tolerated. His trajectory was too promising, his game too infectious to be bothered all that much. Teammates named him “Mini LeBron,” and Chris Paul’s dad called him “Little Hercules.” He’s one of those head-and-heart players who appeals to both stat geeks and the aesthetes.

Bledsoe’s skill set has never conformed to classic standards, and he could never earn the complete trust of Vinny Del Negro, a coach with conventional definitions of what it means to be an NBA shooting guard. Bledsoe doesn’t space like a traditional 2, but he and Paul were wildly successful as a tandem last season, scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions while giving up 104.7.

This is why there remains a segment of Bledsoe devotees who believe that the team’s shooting-guard-of-the-future has been wearing a Clippers jersey since he was drafted No. 18 overall in the 2010 draft.

In the end, Bledsoe was set free. This is what he’s wanted for the past nine months and it's easy to understand why. When the Clippers and Paul consummated their future plans on Monday, it signaled Bledsoe’s inevitable goodbye.

By liberating Bledsoe, the Clippers land their starting shooting guard and small forward in one stroke. The Clippers ranked fourth in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, so it’s easy to overstate the problems, but spacing in the half court remained an issue. Center DeAndre Jordan has no range away from the hoop, while Griffin works best as an attacker, even as he has improved his midrange shot.

With Redick and Dudley, Paul has two proficient targets on a drive-and-kick. By extending the floor, Redick and Dudley give Griffin more room to operate down low and make life tougher for defenses that want to slough off Jordan. Dudley and Redick are solid system defenders and two players who invite accountability. Both want their minutes, but those calls aren't disruptive demands so much as expressions of confidence. Shooters can be like that.

The renovation isn’t cheap for the Clippers. The move places them up against a hard cap, with only a midlevel exception, a $1.6 million trade exception and minimum offers remaining in their quiver. But that’s the price of contention, and the Clippers are clearly serious.

For the Benevolent Order of Bledsoe in Los Angeles, the price is more psychic: They’ll never experience the magic of a full-time Paul-Bledsoe backcourt.

How the Clippers could walk away

June, 18, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

How could the Los Angeles Clippers possibly walk away from a negotiation that would’ve yielded them Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers for a relatively unproven young center, a couple of first-round draft picks and the relatively small burden of taking on one or two mid-level contracts?

That’s the question gnawing at some Clipper fans and many Clipper skeptics on Tuesday, but however ineffectual the organization appears on the surface for folding up their tent, the Clippers made a sound decision.

Two key points:

What’s the hurry?
The Celtics’ situation is in flux and they’ve signaled to the world that they’re ready to pursue the wise course of rebuilding. If they buy out Paul Pierce’s contract on or before June 30, where does that leave Garnett and Rivers? Neither is wild about the idea of being part of the reconstruction process without their comrade, and both would prefer they join forces with a team driving for a title, a team like the Los Angeles Clippers.

In other words, if the Clippers want to acquire Kevin Garnett for DeAndre Jordan, they can do so after July 1. The only complication there is the report that Garnett isn’t interested in playing for any coach other than Rivers, a primary reason this whole drama started.

That’s why if I’m the Clippers, I hold off on hiring a coach until after the Pierce situation is resolved. Apart from the Clippers, the only remaining coaching vacancies are Memphis, Philadelphia and Denver. There’s virtually no overlap between the Clippers’ short list and that of 76ers president of basketball operations and general manager Sam Hinkie. Memphis will likely hire current assistant Dave Joerger. At worst, the Clippers lose one of their top three choices (most likely Lionel Hollins or Brian Shaw) to Denver while they wait. In exchange, they maintain the possibility that Rivers could join them after July 1. Boston will have no more impetus to pay Rivers $7 million to coach a bubble team than they do now. Ditto for Garnett’s $18 million guaranteed, assuming KG would return to a Pierce-less Celtics team.

There’s some worry that the Clippers’ inability to strike a deal with Boston might prompt Chris Paul to look elsewhere, but the concern has been overblown. If the Celtics are truly moving into rebuilding mode, time is on the Clippers’ side. If the Celtics decide to fire up the wagon for another run, then so be it.

Was the deal worth it?
Few veterans in the league bring Garnett’s gravitas, pedigree and presence and it’s easy to be charmed by the prospect of Garnett’s taking Blake Griffin under his wing and teaching him the dark arts of defending the pick-and-roll and becoming a championship power forward.

But Garnett is 37 and isn’t good for more than 26-28 minutes per game going forward. As transformative as he is as a minister of culture, Garnett’s past performance isn’t a reliable indicator of what kind of production he’d give the Clippers next season -- and the season after if the team decided to pick up his $12 million option for 2014-15.

So far as the leadership, Garnett is regarded as one of the league’s best teammates and mentors, but the Clippers went down that path last offseason when they brought back Chauncey Billups, signed Grant Hill and loaded up on good-guy vets to add to the collection they already had. Veteran leadership wasn’t the problem when the Clippers lost four straight to Memphis in the first round.

If anything, the Clippers need to get younger and establish a sustainable core around Paul and Griffin. Truth be told, Jordan probably isn’t the best frontcourt counterpart to Griffin since both are most dangerous in the basket area. And although Garnett would offer the midrange stretch that would best complement Griffin and is still a very steady defender, is 2,000 minutes of Garnett the best the Clippers can do for Jordan, whose athleticism and talent have many admirers around the league?

We don’t know the answer to this question, but a team like the Clippers that desperately needs a couple of wings who can defend and shoot from distance has an obligation to listen to offers -- and they’re out there for Jordan, both in the form of talent and picks.

Rivers is one of the five best coaches in the game and clearly has the respect of NBA players. But there’s a reason teams don’t trade assets for coaches. Doc Rivers can’t guard Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, James Harden and Stephen Curry. A few front office execs who were asked about the idea of handing over a pair of first-round picks for the privilege of paying a coach $7 million per season found the proposition absurd. While there was almost unanimous respect for Rivers’ acumen, the transaction was seen more as a salary dump than anything else.

The notion that a pair of first-round draft picks is a paltry sum to pay for Garnett and Rivers is short-sighted. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, first-round picks have never been more valuable. They are the mother’s milk of the NBA trade market. With the exception of a few superstar max contacts, rookie-scale contracts represent the best values in the game. All across the league, there are young executives who know how to turn post-lottery picks into Chandler Parsons, Serge Ibaka and Eric Bledsoe, among others.

Teams value these picks and will offer the Clippers quality, on-court talent for them. A first-round pick is the kind of asset that could get a team to swallow the final year of Caron Butler’s contract, and could accompany Eric Bledsoe to get a top-line starter in exchange.

The Celtics also wanted the Clippers to take on additional payroll in the form of Jason Terry and/or Courtney Lee (this in addition to the $1.5 million that would’ve been added to the Clippers' salary number in a Jordan-for-Garnett swap). With only Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Jamal Crawford and Bledsoe locked in for next season, and Paul due a maximum salary, the Clippers need to preserve all their available exceptions. But adding Terry and/or Lee would’ve brought the Clippers precariously close to a place where they’d lose one or more of those slots, which are going to be vital in filling out their depleted roster.

It’s entirely possible the Clippers blew it big time by turning down an opportunity to sign a Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career and one of the most respected coaches in the game. Acquiring Garnett and Rivers would’ve made Paul ecstatic and endeared the team to the local media that have been pounding them in recent weeks.

But in forfeiting one option, the Clippers open themselves up to many others, including several that might actually address the team’s needs beyond 2014. In the meantime, Garnett and Rivers are still in Boston awaiting word on the direction of their team. If and when the Celtics decide to break up their current core, Garnett and/or Rivers will be looking for life rafts -- and the Clippers still have one.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

May, 3, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers will be pushed to the brink without a healthy and effective Blake Griffin.

The void
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.

The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.

The contingency
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.

This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.

The juggernaut
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.

This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.

The Q
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.

Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.

Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.

The consequences
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.

On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.

Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

April, 25, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.

The unspeakable
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”

Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.

Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”

Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.

The block
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.

There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.

The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.

All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.

The whistle
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.

Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”

Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.

The freak
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.

Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.

No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.

The coach
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.

Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.

So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.

These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.

Memphis at Clippers: Five things to watch

April, 22, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies can't -- and probably won't -- get pummeled on the glass as they did in Game 1.

The Glass
Finding signs of encouragement after a 21-point loss can be like leading a search party in the dark, but if the Grizzlies are looking for some reassurance, it should come in the near certainty that they won’t be outrebounded again by a 2-to-1 margin. If that seemed unprecedented, that's because it was. Memphis didn't come anywhere close to a margin like that in any game during the regular season.

There’s a general belief that rebounding doesn’t slump in the NBA. A team like the Grizzlies, which dominated the boards in the regular season (second in overall rebounding rate), doesn’t forget how to ply its trade. Short of injury or a deliberate strategy like a zone defense or fronting the post -- tactics that can make it harder to crash the glass -- a debacle such as Saturday night's is an outlier.

The Grizzlies better hope so. They’re not a team endowed with much perimeter firepower or natural athleticism. They win basketball games by controlling possessions, something they simply can’t accomplish if the Clippers are collecting 42 percent of their misses.

The Point God
Chris Paul exerts an element of control over a basketball game that’s uncanny, and this hasn't been news in ages. What’s more interesting to observe is how he manages his role within the emotional and strategic contours of that game, not unlike LeBron James, in a sense. Is Paul creating for others, or hunting shots for himself? Is he conserving energy off the ball, or is he in Probe Mode?

On Saturday night, the answer was all of the above, and that’s really where Paul needs to be for the Clippers to achieve their full potential as an offensive club. We saw some new wrinkles to the Clippers’ half-court game, with Paul not exclusively an initiator but also a scorer. He came off screens for live-ball catches in a couple of inventive sets, the kind of stuff we haven’t always seen from the Clippers. But Paul also claimed several possessions for himself to test the mobility of the Memphis big men.

For Memphis, the pick-and-roll coverage has to improve, and the Grizzlies know that. They’re an exceptionally well-prepared group that’s completely devoted to the execution of a very intelligent defensive system. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and several players laid it out Sunday at practice.

“The guards have to do a better job of pushing up on the ball handlers,” Mike Conley said. “They were flipping the screens, so our big would show one way, but then their big would flip the screen and Chris would see it. I’d run into the screen pretty good and he’d get a full head of steam on our big man, and you can’t guard him when he’s got a full head of steam with the confidence he has in the paint.”

A defense might not be able to take away Paul’s confidence, but it can take away some real estate.

The Gamble
OK, so who’s going to defend Paul? A tough question because there’s no entirely satisfying answer. In Game 1, Hollins opted for Conley. This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.

Conley did an acceptable job of checking Paul during last year’s playoff series. Paul certainly created some quality shots, but he worked for just about everything and spent a fair amount of time in spots on the floor where he had no interest being.

But on Saturday, it wasn’t just that Paul got where he wanted to go, but that he got there in such little traffic. As Blake Griffin said, there was something extremely un-Grizzly about the Clippers' "getting what they wanted," and it can largely be attributed to the little resistance encountered by Paul.

The obvious alternative would be to stick Tony Allen on Paul, but that presents other risks, such as Chauncey Billups dragging Conley into the post. We saw Billups draw Conley on a switch in Game 1 and then promptly back Conley down before draining an easy midrange shot over him.

There are no good choices for guarding Paul, but that might be a risk the Grizzlies have to take. If nothing else, it’s putting your best defender where he’s most useful.

The Center
The league has only a handful of players through whom you can run your offense at the high post. Marc Gasol is one of them. On the possessions when Memphis’ offense is at its most fluid and attractive, chances are Gasol is stationed at the elbow.

The Grizzlies need Gasol to spend time at that spot and feed his teammates, but they also need him to generate some offense for himself, which is why Gasol’s ratio of low-post to high-post touches has been increasing recently. When Gasol is aggressive down on the block, he’s effective, and it’s not as if working down low strips him of his ability to be a playmaker. Instead of playing high-low with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies can play block to block -- horizontal passes rather than vertical ones.

Having Gasol set up in the low post has its drawbacks. For one, it cramps Randolph a bit. The right block is where Randolph makes his living and serves his team best, and he needs a ribbon of empty space around him. But the Grizzlies do a nice job of staggering the minutes of their big men, which should provide Gasol with plenty of feeds closer to the basket.

The Spark
When the Clippers were ripping off 17 straight wins in December, the margins of victory could be credited to the performance of the second unit, which was decimating the league. Between Eric Bledsoe’s bedlam, Jamal Crawford’s marksmanship, Matt Barnes’ wiliness, Lamar Odom’s versatility and Ronny Turiaf’s … turiafity, the Clippers featured the most exciting and most productive bench in basketball. When excitement and productivity meet, you’re generally in a good place.

That’s the world the Clippers returned to in Game 1. “It felt like December” was something we heard a lot Saturday night and into Sunday, and nothing triggered that sense of deja vu more than the play of the bench.

The Grizzlies do chaos very well themselves, even if their complementary players aren't as talented. They also encountered this last April, so there’s no element of surprise. What they have to do now is neutralize to some degree the energy generated by the Clippers’ reinforcements.

Who is the fastest player with the ball?

February, 15, 2013
By Mark Haubner

Getty ImagesSkills, scmills. Who's the fastest guy with the ball?
Mark Haubner is the founder of The Painted Area TrueHoop Network Blog. Here's his HoopIdea to make All-Star weekend more exciting.

Are you excited for the NBA Skills Challenge coming up on Saturday night?

Of course you’re not.

Watching point guards dribble around an obstacle course at half-speed, occasionally stopping to pinpoint a rudimentary chest or bounce pass, is a pointless exercise worthy of fast-forward treatment on your DVR.

Ten editions of the Skills Challenge have proved that the event not only provides minimal entertainment value but also is irrelevant to the conversation of sports fans. Though intended to showcase the fruits of passionate, dedicated training, if anything the Skills Challenge conveys a sense of apathy, with players going through the motions in an event in which they are required to participate.

It’s time for a change.

It’s time for the Fastest Man With The Ball competition to replace the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday.

(Note: the idea was first floated in this corner of the internet by John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog as part of a 2009 TrueHoop Network roundtable on improving All-Star Weekend, and deserves a re-airing in the HoopIdea era.)

“Who is the fastest man with the ball?” is a question that you’ll periodically hear on NBA broadcasts. It’s a topic that’s fun for fans to debate, and it’s a crown that players might actually aspire to compete for and hold.

The specifics of the rules can be up for debate. Let’s say players start on the baseline and go down and back the full court, needing to make a layup each time, before finishing with a sprint back to half court, for a total of about 70 meters with the ball. Perhaps two baskets could be set up at each end of the court for some head-to-head competition. There might need to be something like a minimum number of dribbles to prevent players from simply throwing the ball ahead and sprinting after it.

Feel free to tweak away at these ideas all you like. I’m sure we can come up with something reasonable. The key is agreeing on the premise of finding a way to measure top speed with the ball, something that would resonate with fans from casual to hard-core much more than navigating the Skills Challenge labyrinth.

Who would win the 2013 Fastest Man With The Ball competition? My guess is that the odds-on favorites would be John Wall and Ty Lawson.

Who else would be in my ideal eight-man field? Well, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo would be no-brainers if they weren’t injured. Without them, I’ll put Tony Parker, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison on my list as definites, and I have Eric Bledsoe just edging out Nate Robinson in the freak-of-nature category.

And yeah, I’m saving one last spot for LeBron James, just because I’d love to see what would happen.

Here's the best part: While the Skills Challenge doesn't really tell us who the most skilled player in the NBA is, the Fastest Man With The Ball would result in a meaningful title that could be debated and discussed all season.

I know I’d be eager to watch and see the results, and that’s a lot more than I can say about the Skills Challenge. It’s time to try something different.

The Clippers and the temptation of success

February, 8, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty ImagesEric Bledsoe and Chris Paul: The Clippers' embarrassment of riches at the point.

Momentum is a precarious thing in the NBA.

Five weeks ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were romping through their schedule, dispatching teams with brutal efficiency en route to a 28-8 record. The Chris Paul system was flourishing. Blake Griffin’s expanded offensive repertoire was blossoming, and his defense was coming along very nicely, thank you. The second unit was scaring the bejeezus out of the league, and the depth -- a rotation 11 deep with Grant Hill’s return -- allowed the team to send a wave of reinforcements at opportune times.

Then bodies started to fall. Paul bumped knees with J.J. Redick on Jan. 12, suffering a bone bruise. Griffin picked up the slack, carrying the load as the featured player in the Paul-less offense, but then tweaked his hamstring earlier this week. He has missed the Clippers’ past two games. Supersub Jamal Crawford is day-to-day with a sore shoulder. Since Paul’s collision with Redick, the Clippers are 7-8.

Despite the bumpy ride, the Clippers aren’t overly concerned. They feel the healthy version of their team can make a rightful claim as one of the league’s elite powers, and are confident they're a top-three seed in the West. When intact, the Clippers’ starting unit thrives. Their bench squad is gangbusters. All the permutations of their closing lineup -- whether it’s Lamar Odom or DeAndre Jordan at center, or whichever combination of Crawford, Matt Barnes and Caron Butler at the wings -- kill the competition. Well aware of this, the Clippers have exercised caution with their stars’ nicks and bruises, and now the returns of Paul, Chauncey Billups, Griffin and Crawford are imminent.

Once they're restored to full strength, the Clippers are presented with a dilemma:

Do they stand pat, faithful that the on-court efficiency and locker room chemistry is enough to put them on equal footing with San Antonio and Oklahoma City? Or does the tough competition from these seasoned rivals out West necessitate upgrading the roster if the right opportunities present themselves?

This is a tough proposition for the Clippers. If you’re Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, you can roll the dice with impunity because you have little to lose at this point. For an organization adrift, change, in and of itself, can take the pressure off a beleaguered front office and buy it some time. But the Clippers have a far more delicate balance to maintain. Every team wants to improve, but there are no guarantees that any deal, no matter how attractive it appears in the Trade Machine, will do that. The risk of upsetting a winning formula is real, but so is the risk of not capitalizing on a chance to improve.

The situation in Los Angeles contains a series of intriguing variables and conflicting agendas. For instance, if you’re in management -- a custodian of the future well-being of the franchise -- trading away a young player on a value deal isn’t something you do lightly. Adding savvy veterans is always nice, but at what burden to the spreadsheet and at what cost to the current chemistry?

But if you’re a coach or a star player whose contractual relationship with the Clippers expires on June 30, you have all the motivation in the world to push all-in for a chance to win the big prize in June. That’s especially true if you’re a head coach who values reliable vets with championship pedigrees more than younger players with raw, unrefined talent.

Specifically, Eric Bledsoe is the Clippers’ most compelling case study. If Chris Paul returns to Los Angeles next season on a long-term deal, Bledsoe is somewhat (not entirely) expendable. At the very least, he becomes less valuable to the Clippers than to a team in desperate need of a point guard of the future. The best way to ensure Paul returns is to win now, and if Bledsoe can fetch a piece that can aid that effort, as our Kevin Pelton has outlined, does it make sense to move the young point guard?

The counter-argument goes that Bledsoe is not only insurance for Paul, but he’s helping the Clippers now as the catalyst of the league’s most successful second unit and as the team’s best on-ball defender. Deal him at your own peril. Management understands this, which is why Bledsoe will more than likely be a Los Angeles Clipper in two weeks.

Jordan is a more complicated matter. He isn't likely to go anywhere, but his situation prompts some interesting questions. Vinny Del Negro puts a premium on experience, and he has been reluctant to place Jordan on the floor in big spots on a consistent basis, particularly now with Odom at his disposal. Moving Jordan could make sense for a couple of reasons. We can debate the validity of Del Negro’s skittishness with Jordan, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides. But the fact remains that the confidence from the staff isn’t there, so why not equip the roster with a big man whom they can trust, provided such a player is available at a reasonable price?

Then there’s the issue of Jordan’s contract, which he signed during the 2011 offseason -- another two years and $22.4 million after this season. This isn’t a horrible deal because big men with Jordan’s athleticism who can protect the rim are in short supply. But if they’re riding the pine during crunch time, that salary is a bit more burdensome. The Clippers could try to deal Jordan, much like what the Nuggets did when they developed buyer's remorse over Nene soon after signing him to a slightly overvalued deal. Truth be told, landing in a place where Jordan is handed the center spot without reservation might be a welcome change for the big man, who has worked diligently over the past few seasons to polish his game. Jordan has maintained a stiff upper lip, but can get frustrated with his role, even as he loves being part of the tight-knit group that exists with the Clippers.

All of which brings us back to that delicate balance for this organization enraptured by its current success after eons of futility. Do the Clippers stick with a program that has yielded the best results in the franchise’s history, or do they adopt the one move away plan, and act on the irresistible temptation to get over the hump, even if it comes at the expense of future success?

Thunder at Clippers: 5 things we saw

January, 23, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Durant Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant took over the game with a 24-point second half against the Clippers.

Kevin Durant at the top of his game
There isn’t enough length, ball pressure, traps, help or divine intervention to stop a run like Kevin Durant put together down the stretch on Tuesday night. The All-Star forward scored 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the field in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 109-97 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

"When a guy is nearly 7-feet tall with a crossover like Jamal [Crawford's], it's going to be tough," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said of Durant's performance.

Durant can hit from anywhere, but he loves nothing more than to work from the top of the floor, which makes the game a living hell for the defense. It would be hard enough to defend Durant in a utility closet, but when he has the ball way up top with the floor spread, help defense becomes treacherous because the opposition is stretched from sideline to sideline -- which is how something like this happens.

In addition to the firestorm he started in the fourth quarter, Durant also racked up seven assists. Driving down the gut of the lane, Durant hit Thabo Sefolosha for a couple of corner 3-pointers and found Serge Ibaka for a 3-pointer and another baseline jumper. He also found Ibaka on a basket cut from that perch. The more Durant built his nest at that spot, the more you’re going to his assist rate soar as it’s doing this season.

Life without Chris Paul
It’s not that the Clippers can’t find shots without Paul, but, organizationally speaking, things don’t run as smoothly. Because there isn’t a tried-and-true system in Los Angeles, Paul is essentially the on-the-spot play designer for the team. After the game, Clippers forward Blake Griffin described how the game is harder for the Clippers when Paul isn’t out there.

“[Paul] controls the game,” Griffin said. “He’s calling plays. He’s making sure guys are in the right spots. He’s always thinking and always talking. When he’s out there, he’s your guy you always look to see what we’re in, or what we’re doing or what we’re trying to do.”

Blake Griffin's big night
"We really don't double," Thunder coach Scott Brooks when asked why his team chose not to send extra defenders at Griffin, who finished with 31 points, hitting 11 of his 19 field goal attempts. Griffin had to dig hard for those 11 field goals, as he had to wrestle with Ibaka for position down low. Meanwhile, the Thunder weren't allowing Caron Butler and other Clipper wings to set that cross-screen to free up Griffin to catch the entry pass from the wing, then quickly storm the basket.

Still, Griffin had a tremendous outing on a night when he had to dig for every inch of space on the right block and contend with Ibaka's combination of length and savvy as a defender. The driving spin move was in full effect, as was the fadeaway baseline jumper.

"He had a great game," Brooks said. "He's one of the strongest, quickest athletic guys. He's an awkward scorer. You don't think he's going to jump, but then he jumps, or he jumps off the wrong leg. He just has a knack. He's an amazing player."

Kevin Martin making good
In 61 seconds of court time spanning the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, Martin drained three 3-pointers to turn a six-point Thunder deficit into a one-point lead that the Thunder would never relinquish.

How did Martin get those looks? The first came on a double-single, with Martin looping counterclockwise around his teammates from the top of the floor to the left sideline. The second occurred when Martin found an open lot along the arc after DeAndre Liggins collected a long offensive rebound. The third was more familiar, something we might have seen while Martin was playing in Rick Adelman’s corner offense -- a little set with Nick Collision situated off the left elbow with Martin swinging around from the top to collect a handoff, then shoot from beyond the arc.

“We still put in a little corner action, having me play off Nick Collison in the high post just like Brad Miller,” Martin said. “But you have to do more than one thing. You have to be able to take people off the dribble, come off screens, read, iso. Here, with the second unit I have to be more of a scorer. Then, when I’m out there with [the starters], I can be how I was in Sacramento when I played with Mike Bibby and [Chris Webber], just roam and get open jump shots.”

We don’t immediately think of Martin as a versatile player, but he’s demonstrating in Oklahoma City how many ways he can hurt defenses with different actions and approaches.

Eric Bledsoe, starting point guard
The common knock on Bledsoe is that the third-year guard isn't fully verse in running an NBA offense. It’s one thing to lead the storm-troopers in the Clippers’ second team, but quite another to orchestrate the team’s more studied starting unit. Contra those skeptics, Bledsoe filled in nicely for Paul during the Clippers’ 3-0 road trip last week, but there were moments on Tuesday night when, as the Clippers’ starting point guard, he got out over his skis.

The Clippers tried to make life easy for Bledsoe by running a series of elbow sets in which Bledsoe fed Griffin in the high post then cleared. They also called for a steady stream of pick-and-rolls for Bledsoe and Griffin. Too often, Bledsoe missed the angle on an entry pass, or held the ball a moment too long while the offense ground to a halt. As a result, Bledsoe, a 26 percent shooter from 16-to-23 feet, launched five shots from that range in the game’s first nine minutes. On the Clippers’ first possession of the second half, Bledsoe fired up another 22-footer indiscriminately when he couldn’t find an immediate alternative.

Bledsoe still had his moments -- a block on Nick Collison, timely cuts to the basket, vicious ball pressure on Westbrook and a couple of unseemly offensive rebounds out of nowhere. But he’s just beginning to grasp that delicate balance between patience and aggression that Paul understands better than any point guard in the game.

Dealing with Chris Paul and Kevin Durant

January, 22, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Chris Paul and Kevin DurantNBAE/Getty ImagesDevising a strategy against Chris Paul and Kevin Durant is at the center of any Clips-OKC matchup.
“Like a playoff game in November” is how Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks characterized the Thunder’s 117-111 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thanksgiving eve.

It was a riveting, but odd game. Chris Paul spent much of the night pinned against the left sideline by Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder’s troop of big men. As a result, Paul logged one of the worst statistical nights of his career.

Blake Griffin battled foul trouble, which disrupted the Clippers’ rotation, as did the absence of Caron Butler. Both teams had prolific spurts when they scored at will, yet there were lengthy stretches when the game became an offensive slog. And neither team put together many big runs. Yet when it was all over, the Clippers and Thunder had played an instant regular-season classic. On Tuesday night, the two teams will face off again, and the winner will leave Staples Center with the best record in the NBA.

It’s still early and the San Antonio Spurs will have a hand in assembling the Western Conference playoff bracket, but the way the standings have started to settle, a Thunder-Clippers matchup with high stakes is highly likely. The Clippers feel they match up well with the Thunder. They’re 3-2 against the Thunder in the Chris Paul era (three of those five games played in Oklahoma City), and one of those losses came in that overtime game. The Clippers' primary worry about a potential matchup with the Thunder -- no wing to match up with Kevin Durant -- was addressed in the offseason when they signed Matt Barnes. No team in the West truly matches up well with the Thunder -- there are only degrees of desperation trying to guard them -- but Barnes helps, as presumably will Grant Hill who has returned from injury.

A faceoff between the Thunder and Clippers presents each team with a series of tough riddles, starting with how to deal with the opposing superstars. Interestingly, the two teams will employ similar strategies against Paul and Durant respectively, largely because they have similar attributes defensively.

The Thunder locked up Paul in the first meeting, and Sefolosha deserves much of the credit. Paul finished with nine points on 2-for-14 shooting from the field with four turnovers and nine assists. On the Clippers' pick-and-rolls, Sefolosha glued himself to Paul’s right shoulder while Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins forced Paul miles from the paint. When Paul was able to get some middle, he would run into a third defender pretty quickly. As far as shooting over Sefolosha, Paul struggled with that, as well.

The Thunder have improved their team defense this season. They rank sixth in the league overall in efficiency (points surrendered per possession). More important, the Thunder are learning some important truths about themselves. They’re beginning to recognize that they have the length and speed to do some very cool stuff defensively. Ibaka and Russell Westbrook would have to break character to thrive in a strict Tom Thibodeau-style defense, but the Thunder are starting to understand they can still apply some of its main principles. Against the Pauls and Tony Parkers of the league, they can afford to load up the strong side of the floor because guys such as Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have the length and speed to zone up the weak side while Sefolosha and the other big man are harassing the ball.

As dynamic and crafty as Paul is with the ball, he’s a point guard who thrives most when his big man provides him with a solid screen. That means Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom need to give Sefolosha a harder time, give him the right tackle treatment that will allow Paul to split the defenders and get to the middle with a layer of space around him. You can send a third man at Paul once he clears the two pick-and-roll defenders, but with momentum and control, Paul will find a way to make a play for himself (floater, pull-up jumper, little scoop shot or just draw contact for three freebies).

No doubt Paul will spend some time today thinking about how to adjust his strategy against Sefolosha and the Thunder’s defense, and he's unlikely to go 2-for-14 from the floor again Tuesday.

The Clippers’ defense has seen an even more dramatic improvement than the Thunder's, jumping from 18th to fifth in defensive efficiency. The defense had plenty of flaws last season, but a central one was the absence of anyone on the Clippers who could lock down a bigger wing (Eric Bledsoe can pressure the life out of smaller guards, but, at 6-foot-1, you can’t assign him to Durant).

This season, Barnes wasn’t explicitly brought in for the veteran minimum to be the designated stopper, but it’s a job he can handle more than adequately. Durant scored 35 points in 47 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting from the field. Nineteen of those 35 points came at the line, although Barnes was responsible for only three of the nine fouls committed on Durant.

Barnes did a good job of forcing Durant to his left. A gambler by nature, Barnes roamed very selectively as he devoted careful attention to Durant at all times. Jump shots were contested aggressively. Durant turned the ball over six times, four of which can be credited to Barnes on strips and deflections.

There’s no such thing as a Durant-stopper and likely never will be -- and 35 points is 35 points -- but Durant used a ton of possessions to get there. It will be curious to see how Vinny Del Negro assigns the task of covering Durant, especially with Butler in action, but the Clippers have a very nice option in Barnes, something that wasn’t available to them last season.

How the Thunder contend with Paul and how the Clippers contend with Durant are just two facets of a matchup with an endless number of facets. Both teams will be tempted to go small, as they did in the first meeting, but it’s unclear who has the advantage in that scenario. The Clippers are a paint team defensively, more focused on the rim than the arc. Can they find a balance? The Thunder turn the ball over excessively, something that will kill a team against the Clippers. If Bledsoe is the Clippers' best option on Westbrook, someone else has to surrender minutes.

However these questions get answered and regardless of the new ones that surface, one thing is certain: A playoff series between these two teams would be spectacular.

Killer Lineup: The Clips' tribe called bench

January, 9, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Bledsoe | Jamal Crawford | Matt Barnes | Ronny Turiaf | Lamar Odom
Minutes Played: 230
Offensive Rating: 102.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 87.2 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Like a 10-cylinder sports car -- not always the most practical vehicle, but an explosive one that can burn up the track at warp speed and is a whole lot of fun.

It didn't take long for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to carve out large portions of the second and fourth quarters for this lineup composed entirely of reserves, and it immediately paid dividends. The second unit took on the nickname "A Tribe Called Bench," and it wasn’t long before you could hear “Scenario” during timeouts at Staples Center.

Tribe's overall offensive numbers aren't anything impressive. This unit actually scores 4.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than the Clippers as a whole, and much of that production comes in transition, where the lineup is racking up 27 fast-break points per 48 minutes.

This lineup was built to run. Bledsoe has lethal speed and can ignite an instant break off a live-ball turnover. Long after Crawford retires, we’ll still be talking about his handle, a weapon he uses to shred backpedaling defenders in transition. There isn’t a big man whose skill set is better equipped for the open court than Odom’s. A fast break is a dance number and Barnes understands the choreography and can run the floor as well as anyone in the game. Finally, Turiaf can throw an outlet pass, run and finish.

This group doesn’t excel in the half court, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since structure isn’t something that maximizes the strengths of either Bledsoe or Crawford. Bledsoe marshals a majority of half-court possessions, but a fair number of them originate with -- and terminate at -- Crawford. Regardless of who’s at the controls, most of the sets rely on penetration by either guard, off which Barnes, Odom, Turiaf or the other guard cuts baseline, dives from the weakside perimeter or flashes to the middle of the floor.

Bledsoe has improved considerably as a playmaker, but he’s still not fluent in the art of running an offense. (Apart from Andre Miller, Pablo Prigioni and a handful of others, few NBA backups are.) When Bledsoe has the ball against a set defense, the Clippers might run a double ball-screen for Bledsoe with Odom and Turiaf at the top of the floor, or an angle pick-and-roll with Odom.

Working with Barnes and Odom has been a quality education for Bledsoe, who in his first two seasons at the point rarely scanned the court for opportunities that might be materializing off the ball. Now he knows that Barnes is always reading the floor, finding angles and timing cuts that make him a smart target. Bledsoe has also learned that Odom can do plenty with the ball if Bledsoe can find him off the initial pick.

Crawford prefers to work alone on an island against his defender, and he gets plenty of opportunities to isolate, a role he’s thrived in with the Clippers. One-on-one basketball is a passion of Crawford’s and even though it doesn’t always make for the most efficient brand of offense, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Crawford whittle down defenders to little nubs off the dribble.

Odom has gradually worked his way into shape and can be found nightly in the high post slinging passes to cutters underneath the hoop and working the glass. He has logged the Clippers’ best overall on-off rating over the past 20 games. Barnes plays within himself as an offensive player and Turiaf does work in the trenches.

How it works defensively
The Clippers have jumped from 18th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to third overall this season -- and this unit is responsible for the largest share of that statistical improvement.

How ruthless is "A Tribe Called Bench"? They surrender only 87.2 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, no other unit among the NBA’s Top 50 most commonly used lineups came in below 90.0. Opponents posted an effective field goal percentage of 41.6 percent (only one other unit in the Top 50 held the opposition below 45 percent), and that doesn’t even account for the fact 20 percent of opponents’ possessions end in turnovers.

The second unit isn’t running a system so much as a fire drill, and it all starts on the ball with Bledsoe, who barrels through or over every high pick. The ball rarely gets to where it wants to go because point guards simply can’t shake Bledsoe’s pressure. A simple entry pass into the high post becomes an adventure because Bledsoe can jump 20 feet in the air standing still. Bledsoe pushes every penetrating point guard toward the sideline, which allows the rest of the defense to tilt the floor.

This isn’t the coordinated encroachment you see in Boston or Chicago, where two backside defenders are explicitly responsible for zoning up the weak side of the floor. What the Clippers’ backups do is more improvisational -- and they can afford to be because rarely do teammates have to bail out Bledsoe after a blow-by, and this freedom gives them the luxury to cause trouble. In addition, Bledsoe's ball pressure means Odom and Turiaf don't have to front so aggressively in the post, which allows them more flexibility to make defensive reads, something both guys do well.

But just because the scheme isn’t scripted doesn’t mean the defense is sloppy. Barnes is careful, and you’ll rarely see him blitz an offensive player without first taking inventory of the floor. Once the ball pressure has disrupted the offense, Barnes will quickly survey the mess and figure out where he needs to go next and move there quickly. When guarding a big man on the weak side, Odom and Turiaf react similarly. Odom has a long leash to roam because the Clippers don’t lose much if he gets caught defending a guard after a blitz or has to cover for Bledsoe, who has decided to jump the passing lane.

What occurs as a result of these impromptu double-teams and relentless pressure is sheer chaos. You can see Bledsoe perform one of his best tricks when a point guard dumps the ball into a teammate at the elbow. As he clears to the weak side of the floor, the guard will then try to rub Bledsoe off the recipient of the pass. Rather than follow his man to the far corner, Bledsoe will instead stop to harass the guy with the ball, going for a strip or simply working with Turiaf or Odom to smother the player into submission.

Even when offenses recover from moments like these, the possession has essentially fallen apart. With the shot clock ticking down, the offense out of position and the defense smelling blood in the water, "A Tribe Called Bench" will double down and tighten the vise.

These guerrilla tactics don’t come without risk -- and it’s not unusual to see an offense whip the ball over a double-team to an open shooter -- but the collective speed, length and instincts of this unit make gambling worthwhile. Elite teams bet on their strengths, and most nights the members "A Tribe Called Bench" are going home winners.

How the Clippers are doing it with defense

January, 4, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Harry How/NBAE/Getty Images
The Clippers' once-mediocre defense now ranks among the NBA's best. What happened?

Defense is the NBA’s dark art, the great unknown, a phenomenon whose essence we can’t fully quantify with a simple measuring stick. We think we know good defense when we see it, and we can factor how many points a team surrenders per possession to confirm the eye test. But analyzing defense is still an exercise fraught with assumptions about coverage schemes, who was supposed to do what, and whether the process produced the intended results.

On the results side, we know one thing about the Los Angeles Clippers through 33 games -- only two defenses in the NBA have been better statistically, something not even those most optimistic about the Clippers’ prospects three months ago would’ve put good money on.

Those less bullish on the Clippers prior to the season often cited defense as the most obvious shortcoming. No matter how potent its offense, a team with a league-average defense usually doesn’t finish much higher than third or fourth in a deep conference, and there weren’t a lot of reasons to believe the Clippers’ defense would be much better than that. The Clippers finished 2011-12 with the league’s 18th most efficient defense, and didn’t add anyone to the roster in the offseason who could fairly be characterized as a stopper, 40-year-old Grant Hill the possible exception.

Acquiring solid defenders is probably the surest way to fortify a defense, but there are other means -- the implementation of a smart system and/or significant individual improvement from key players. This isn’t easy because systems need time before they’re perfected, just as younger guys with only a few NBA seasons under their belts need time to refine their instincts. For the Clippers to make a leap, they’d have to craft a more systematic defense that could be mastered quickly, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan made significant progress.

By and large, most of those variables have fallen in the Clippers’ favor. Much like their productive offense, the Clippers’ defense isn’t anything fancy. It doesn’t employ any defensive aces who can make life difficult for a decent-sized wing scorer. Griffin has improved a good deal, but can still get into a little trouble when he’s extended beyond the foul line. Same goes for Jordan, who is more disciplined in his movements and precise in his timing, but still hasn’t grasped every nuance.

So how have the Clippers taken a mediocre defense, swapped Randy Foye, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans for Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf and climbed 15 spots in the defensive rankings?


The second unit
The Clippers’ starting lineup has been adequate defensively, but much of the statistical improvement has been accumulated while the team’s second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes, Turiaf and Odom has been on the floor. In 230 minutes on the floor together, these five give up only 87.2 points per 100 possessions -- that’s tops among the 60 most used lineups in the NBA.

Pressure has been a bedrock principle of the defense this season, and when this unit is in the game, it looks positively Grizzly. Bledsoe is a relentless ball hawk. Consider this for a second: The Clippers' two point guards combine for eight steals per 48 minutes, with Bledsoe and Paul ranking one and two in the NBA in that category. The entire unit has license to trap the ball just about anywhere on the floor. Barnes and Odom make particularly smart reads defensively and know just when to release that pressure to relieve the back side of the defense.

For opposing reserves, it has been a nightmare. Every fifth possession ends in a turnover (the third-best rate among those 60 units that have logged the most minutes in the league), and if a shot does materialize it’s generally contested. All this despite the fact that Bledsoe roves a bit too freely and Crawford has been known to die on a screen away from the ball. Meanwhile, Turiaf is undersized, Barnes a bit foul-prone and Odom still off his fighting weight.


Let the big men use their speed
Neither Griffin nor Jordan has the experience of Kevin Garnett, the instincts of Joakim Noah or the presence of Tyson Chandler. But they’re faster than all those guys, and this season Griffin and Jordan have been empowered to unleash that speed more aggressively.

Last season Griffin and Jordan spent much of their time on defense trying to hold their ground in a flat scheme. This year, Vinny Del Negro and assistant coach Bob Ociepka are asking more of Griffin and Jordan -- and they’re getting more. Griffin and Jordan are blitzing selectively (e.g. step-up screens, last third of the shot clock) and are frequently showing high on ball screens to force the ball as far away from the paint as possible. Because they’re finding themselves higher up in the half court than last season, they have farther to travel when it’s time to recover. But that’s OK because both Griffin and Jordan can fly, so long as they know where they’re going, they're more than capable of getting back.

In short, the Clippers have decided this season to double down on their athleticism, even if it means absorbing a few mistakes here and there. Are Griffin and Jordan fluent yet? No, but they’re increasingly proficient and that footspeed affords them a little more time than most big men. They have a coaching staff who trusts them to take aggressive measures to defend, then use that speed to mitigate any potential mistakes.


Talk, Talk
Elite teams often characterize the seamlessness of their defense as being “on a string.” A movement by one defender instantaneously triggers another defender to rotate into his place, and so on. The fibers that make up the Clippers’ string are getting stronger, but the cord isn’t completely taut, at least not yet.

In the meantime, the Clippers maintain order by communicating. You can hear Jordan and Griffin confidently calling out screens so that Chris Paul doesn’t plow into an opposing big man. On high ball screens, Jordan has gotten especially good at letting Paul know when he’s dropping back into the paint, so Paul can push the ball handler down the sideline. That’s crucial because Paul can’t let a guy get low unless there’s a plan to cut off the ball.

When Barnes wants to join Bledsoe in pinning a guard along the sideline, he’ll call out to Odom to take momentary responsibility for the man left open. And when Paul finds himself away from the ball on the weakside, he’s constantly barking directions to teammates to close the back door or cut off an obvious pass to the middle.


We knew the Clippers would be an efficient offensive unit -- Paul virtually guarantees that. We knew they'd be deep, and would have the flexibility as a team to bang with the brawlers, run with the gazelles, protect the basketball, scramble defenses with Paul's probing, exploit double-teams with Griffin on the block, and wreak havoc with a second unit that can pressure opponents and move the ball.

Yet we had no inkling the Clippers would post these kinds of defensive numbers this deep into the season. We're beyond the point (40 percent of the regular season in the books) at which we can talk about the sustainability of that success. That's not to say there won't be retrograde, early 2012-ish defensive outings like Wednesday night in Oakland when the Warriors shredded the Clippers on the perimeter, in transition, on pick-and-pops for David Lee. We'll learn a lot more about the Clippers on Saturday night when they get another crack at Golden State and make their adjustments.

But if the Clippers have figured out the defensive piece, if they've truly accomplished what elite defenses do -- maximize their individual strengths and mitigate those weaknesses -- and if they continue to post overall offensive and defensive ratings that rank in the NBA's top five overall, it's mathematically impossible to dismiss them as legitimate competition to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and anyone else in the West who stakes a claim.

The cult of Eric Bledsoe

December, 11, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Eric Bledsoe: Out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Watching Eric Bledsoe warm up on the Staples Center floor an hour before tipoff is an underwhelming experience. Bledsoe isn’t phoning it in or disengaged as he’s fed pass after pass to launch shot after shot from midrange. It’s just that the exercise is so repetitive and orderly, he might as well be icing a hundred cupcakes.

The full effect of Bledsoe can be experienced only when the clock’s running, because Bledsoe is fueled by live basketball -- the super-animated stuff we see in the NBA. Most players expend energy when they’re asked to chase people around and sprint the floor and collide with enormous bodies and leap every five seconds for one reason or another and occasionally land awkwardly on thick wood or men holding large cameras, but not Bledsoe. He actually gets stronger, faster and more lethal as he chews up the court at warp speed.

As a result of this peculiar immunity, Bledsoe has become the NBA’s newest cult hero, the kind of player who causes viewers to talk at their LCDs and to insist that non-fans in the house come into the room to witness this pure testimony to basketball.

Bledsoe didn’t come into the league with much fanfare. He was the other guard on Kentucky’s young, talented 2009-10 squad led by John Wall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, and faced a familiar rap -- not pointy enough to succeed at the 1, but without the shot or size to play the 2. Off the floor, Bledsoe had little of Wall’s charisma and what’s called “makeup” in draftspeak.

On draft night, Bledsoe was plucked at No. 18, just behind Luke Babbitt and Kevin Seraphin. Clippers management, preparing for life after Baron Davis, ranked Bledsoe in their top 10, and dealt a protected future first-round pick to Oklahoma City for Bledsoe’s rights. That pick was conveyed to Boston last June and became Fab Melo at No. 22.

Bledsoe was raw during his first season, and injured for a good portion of his second. When he saw floor time, Bledsoe was a frenetic blur and his ball hawking showed up in the Clippers’ numbers, where a below-average defensive team was 8.5 points stingier per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the court.

For many, the introduction to Bledsoe came during the Clippers’ first-round playoff series with Memphis last spring. Stuff like this is routine for Bledsoe now, but the Memphis series was the first time most NBA fans saw a 6-foot-1 guard block a 6-foot-10 big man at the rim. Bledsoe also tortured Mike Conley, who posted a plus-48 with Bledsoe on the bench, but a minus-34 when Bledsoe was on the court over the seven games.

There are few better ways to obtain cult status than to be denied rightful playing time. The #Free hashtag begins to surface before a player’s name, as it did in that series for Bledsoe, who played seven and six minutes respectively in the Clippers’ Game 2 and Game 5 losses. With Randy Foye struggling on both ends and Bledsoe’s influence obvious, what started out as a clarion call became a full-fledged campaign for Bledsoe among fans as well as management, which fed the coaching staff the numbers.

Seven months later, Bledsoe has a devoted, even fanatical following. He’s the rare NBA player who is a darling to both statheads who value data and basketball mystics who live for the improbable. The overlap between “daredevilish” and “efficient” in the NBA Venn Diagram is a small space, but Bledsoe resides there -- and his niche appeal is becoming something much larger.

Teammates nicknamed Bledsoe "Mini LeBron" and Chris Paul’s father calls him "Little Hercules," though the best prototype for Bledsoe might be Dwyane Wade, a relentless, slashing attacker who leverages his strength to exploit his quickness, and vice versa.

Like Wade, Bledsoe takes a ton of chances on both ends of the floor, but has both the instincts and athleticism to offset that risk. Gamble in the passing lane, but come up empty? No worries, because Bledsoe can recover, even if it means absorbing a bump or three in traffic as he races to catch up with his man at the rack. If Bledsoe’s bet is successful -- and nobody in the NBA has had more success this season -- then it pays out.

Fans love risk-takers because risk produces uncertainty, and uncertainty produces suspense and suspense is why we tune in to games, follow a good drama series and tolerate electoral politics.

But NBA coaches aren’t fans. They’re men who want to know what they’re going to get from a ballplayer, and they’re slow to trust someone whose game precipitates unpredictability. If a coach has conventional sensibilities about the NBA game, then he probably wants his perimeter players to be able to stretch the floor with the threat of a long-range shot.

Bledsoe offers Vinny Del Negro -- or any coach he plays for -- none of that comfort. As part of a backcourt already populated by Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Chauncey Billups (when healthy) and Willie Green (when Billups isn’t), Bledsoe is averaging only 18.6 minutes per game, despite excelling in whatever metric you want to look at -- basic per minutes stats, Player Efficiency Rating (PER), plus-minus, offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions, win shares per 48 minutes, etc.

Del Negro has a lot of mouths to feed on the league’s deepest roster, and it’s not as if the current rotation isn’t working. The Clippers enter Tuesday night’s game at Chicago at 14-6, and rarely field a lineup that's given up more points than it has allowed this season. Increasingly over the past week, the starters have played as an intact unit, as have the reserves, including Bledsoe. There’s a certain symmetry to the substitution patterns, which is probably helpful in a locker room where individual expectations with regard to minutes have to be tempered.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and a .700 winning percentage tends to solidify patterns, not upend them. The Clippers are going to win a lot of games this season whether Bledsoe plays 14, 18, 24 or 30 minutes. Del Negro isn’t looking for excuses to take minutes away from a veteran and hand them to Bledsoe. But if Del Negro wants a reason, sliding some of Green’s minutes to Bledsoe would undoubtedly improve the Clippers’ woeful rebounding numbers. Bledsoe ranks second to only Kyle Lowry in rebounding rate among point guards (and would actually place in the top 5 among regulars at the shooting guard position, where you can find Green in the bottom quarter).

Maybe one day, an uncertain situation will call for an unknown quantity. In the meantime, Bledsoe presides as the NBA’s most exciting novelty act. The scarcity of his court time lends even more appeal to his pursuit of thievery, mid-air suspension, driving jams and the chaos that invariably triggers those outbursts of spontaneity -- moments more conducive to risk than control.

The Clippers restore order

December, 2, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- It didn’t matter that the Los Angeles Clippers’ 116-81 blowout victory came against a Sacramento Kings team a whose rotation is a head-scratcher, whose best passer is 6-foot-6 backup center, and whose energy and resolve were left on the team bus.

“We needed a win like that,” Blake Griffin said. “To be what I thought was pretty good from start to finish, it’s good for our confidence.”

After running out to an 8-2 start that included wins over Miami, San Antonio (home and away), Memphis and the Lakers, the Clippers have staggered over the past 10 days. They dropped four straight games before recovering on Wednesday night with a sloppy win over Minnesota at Staples Center.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/GettyBlake Griffin: Flying high.

On Saturday night, the Clippers found their footing. There were no transcendent individual exploits or a continuation of last season’s juicy crosstalk between Griffin and Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins. This was merely the Clippers performing surgery on a weak patient.

“[The Clippers] were getting anything they wanted on the offensive end,” Kings forward Jason Thompson said. “They had a good lead in the first quarter. We got it to within five, and then the next thing you know they got it back up to double-digits and we could never really come back after that.”

The Clippers shot 54.7 percent, including a 12-for-24 night from beyond the 3-point arc, but what was particularly heartening were the improvements made in areas where the team had been lagging:

Sleepwalking against lousy teams
The Clippers' only hiccups over their first 10 games came in home losses to Cleveland and Golden State (in retrospect, not such a black eye) at Staples Center. After dropping the final three games of their road trip during Thanksgiving week, the Clippers had a get-well game scheduled against the New Orleans Hornets, but were shellacked by the Southwest Division’s cellar dwellers. The Kings are a unique brand of bad, though, a team ranked in the bottom third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, rebounding percentage, assist rate and true shooting percentage. The Clippers wouldn’t be caught off-guard on this night.

Protecting the Ball
Coming into Saturday, the Clippers ranked 28th out of 30 teams in turnover rate, far and away the oddest development of their young season. They finished 3rd in the league last season, and Chris Paul teams almost always reside among the league leaders. On Saturday, the Clippers coughed up only five possessions, their lowest total of the season. “I thought we did a good job of not turning the ball over a lot,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.

Foul Machine
The Clippers have been scrapping hard on defense and refining their rotations, but they’ve still had trouble containing penetration. The result has been a steady procession to the foul line for their opponents. Only the Kings have fielded a worse opponent free throw rate (that’s free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted). On Saturday, the Clippers racked up a relatively modest 15 personal fouls, resulting in only 18 free throw attempts for Sacramento.

The bench revitalized
It remains to be seen if The Tribe Called Bench handle will stick for the Clippers’ reserves, but after teetering during the Clippers’ recent bumpy road, the second unit fueled the Clippers on Saturday. All six bench players finished 50 percent or better from the field for a collective shooting percentage of 57.1 percent. Jamal Crawford led the Clippers with 17 points, while Eric Bledsoe added 14, and Matt Barnes 12.

The Clippers had moderate success on the glass in the win, another sore point for a team that finished seventh in the league in rebounding rate in 2011-12, but is sitting a hair below league average through 16 games this season.

DeAndre Jordan, who Chris Paul insists is the team’s bellwether, was also active offensively, scoring 13 points.

“D.J. is a problem in the post if he catches the ball deep in the lane,” Paul said. “There are only a few guys in the league who can catch the ball in the lane, jump straight up in the air and turn and dunk on you.”

The Clippers also entertained their sellout crowd with the usual sequence of acrobatics. The most impressive physical feat of the night actually came on an attempted -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- dunk in the first quarter when Bledsoe fed Griffin a lob on a break. Griffin was fouled by Aaron Brooks while soaring for the one-handed throwdown from the left side of the rim. The foul call came late, and the intervening silence between contact and whistle almost sent Griffin into anaphylactic shock.

“It would’ve been a real nice make,” Paul said. “The craziest part was that it almost wasn’t [called] a foul. Thank goodness [game official] Eric [Lewis] called it right there. You can’t blame the official over there, Scott [Twardoski] because I think he got caught looking, like, ‘Woooow!’ [Brooks] took Blake’s arm off and he forgot to call the foul.

“It happens.”

How the Clippers changed their mood

November, 21, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhatever the Clippers call it this season, it's a lot more fun than Lob City.

Blake Griffin didn’t shoot, and Chris Paul was ticked off.

Paul is in the business of finding open shots for teammates. It’s a vocation he loves and performs better in than anyone alive, and he even delivered a manifesto on the subject on Saturday after the Clippers’ win over Chicago.

“My job as a point guard is to make the other team think I’m trying to score,” Paul said. “I’m not bad at that. That’s my main objective. I can get two people on me, and then I’m able to throw it back to Blake, and once that continues, we become that [much] more dangerous.”

Early in the third quarter, Paul got a step on Kirk Hinrich going left. Joakim Noah was attending to Griffin on the right side of the floor, but when Noah saw Paul attack, he moved toward the paint and away from Griffin, who was now left alone about 18 feet from the basket.

Paul's main objective was achieved, as the entire Bulls defense thought he was trying to score. Leveraging that attention, Paul slung a pass across his body to Griffin, now wide open.

But instead of catching and shooting, Griffin cradled the ball for a second, almost inviting Noah back into his airspace. Noah closed on Griffin and now it was too late for Griffin to launch that face-up jumper he’s been working on tirelessly. Griffin’s only recourse was to shuttle the ball back to Paul, who was barking and gesticulating at Griffin like someone in a hurry behind a blue-hair in the left-turn lane.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Shoot it!’” Paul said. “He can do it and we need him to do it because once he develops that, which he’s already done and keeps gaining more and more confidence, he becomes unguardable.”

Griffin flashed a smile when those comments were relayed to him a few minutes later.

“I had to hit a couple so he’d get off my back,” Griffin said, tailing off with a chuckle.

Teammates don’t reveal moments like these with such ease without an established trust. When Paul arrived in December 2011, he and Griffin knew each other only by reputation. Today, as the 8-2 Clippers head into a showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul and Griffin know each other as people.

After each home game, the pair strides into the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room, which is set up with a playoff-style podium. Paul is usually the first to arrive. He’ll take questions for about four minutes before Griffin slips into the room, sits down, cracks open a can of Red Bull that’s sitting before him, but which his lips will never touch. The two will share the podium for a couple of minutes before Paul exits, leaving Griffin to finish.

The two-man show is both a stylistic and substantive departure from last season. Last winter, Griffin would glower in the corner of the locker room after games and grunt platitudes to a swell of reporters. Across the way, Paul would perform his we're-not-satisfied shtick, win or lose. He was never expressly surly, but he was definitely guarded.

Maybe it’s the roomier and more orderly digs of the new setup, or maybe it’s the fact that the Clippers are beating the holy hell out of teams like San Antonio, Miami, Chicago and the Lakers, or maybe it's just the passage of time, but Paul and Griffin are far more accessible and revealing than last season -- both on and off the court.

That wry, playful persona you see from Griffin when he’s tooling around in a KIA with his red track suit? He’s brought it to the arena and the practice facility. He doesn't punt basketballs across the practice court and storm off when he loses a free throw contest to DeAndre Jordan. Paul and Chauncey Billups don’t have to tell him to chill when he seethes after a miscue in a scrimmage.

Paul has also softened. When he rides guys in practice, he’s less likely than last season to elicit a defensive response, according to teammates. When the moment invites it, they might even give him a little crap, a gentle acknowledgment that Paul’s perfectionism is a little pathological but greatly appreciated. It’s a group that knows Paul well, and that familiarity has spawned an environment that’s one part frat house, one part creative firm.

And now Clipperland feels like a fun workplace where you imagine a very successful team to reside -- and that's playing out on the court, where the Clippers are plowing through their schedule.

Coming into the season, this evolution wasn't a foregone conclusion. The 2011-12 Clippers were a divisive force in the NBA. Lob City should've made the Clippers darlings of the league, but the team became inordinately unlikable to a legion of NBA fans. The Clippers hadn't earned a thing, but carried themselves as scowling, whining, flopping prima donnas. Over the course of the season, their popularity dropped through the floor.

Four weeks into the new season and the Clippers have undergone a quiet, sneaky rebranding. The optics surrounding the team are entirely different. They've become the likable, up-tempo team we imagined they'd be. For a team infamous in 2011-12 for its tactlessness, the Clippers refashioned themselves without people talking about it, which makes the feat even cooler.

Paul’s inside-out dribble still propels the offense, but the ball pops around the court. Clippers games have pace, and there's a discernible rhythm on both ends of the floor.

Flanked by his vets and a few young guys who defer to his savvy, Paul has relaxed. He’ll never be a jokester, but his leadership is now more peppy than austere, and it has infused the Clippers’ on-court product with some whimsy.

Griffin’s antics have been shelved for the most part, but not the exuberance. He’s out there to perfect that midrange jumper, to wall off the paint from a speedy point guard, to play an honest-to-goodness brand of defense and, yes, to catch hanging lobs from his guards at unreasonable heights. This season, Griffin isn't about humiliating opponents, but rather elevating himself -- and he’s done it without losing style points.

Jordan, the Clippers’ wide-grinned center who’s carrying a hefty contract, has found his game. He’s still a top-three dunk machine, but the game is rounding out, and when he’s playing well, there isn't a more infectious guy on the team. When Jordan subs out for Ryan Hollins these days at Staples Center, he’s leaving the floor to a standing O.

Fun teams feature cult heroes. Jamal Crawford has been hosting that party for a decade and has brought his wares to Los Angeles. He’s leading the Clippers in scoring and the Staples Center court is littered with tibias, fibulas and whatever else gets fractured by Crawford’s crossover dribble.

Then there’s Eric Bledsoe, a 6-foot mass of bedlam who checks in for Paul nightly and proceeds to drop a lighted match on the hardwood. On a recent night at Staples Center, you could overhear the official scorer, an all-business professional whose job consists of enumerating the game’s basic data points -- “Foul 32,” “Miss 11,” “Steal 12,” “Turnover 15” -- break character to utter in an equally matter-of-fact tone, “Bledsoe is a freak.” NBA assistant coaches, social media platforms and Bledsoe’s teammates unanimously agree.

We know that basketball games are won because talent and certain empirical truths prevail. But can intangibles such as optics, camaraderie and fun translate into wins? When you have players who understand expectations and enjoy their work environment, can those conditions enable a team to achieve the upper range of its potential?

Right now, the Clippers are a case study. We know they’re talented, and Paul’s command of the game makes them an efficient team that will win far more games than they’ll lose. They've gone from unwatchable to captivating, the League Pass special that fans signed up for last season.

Ankle breakage, inside-out dribbles, alley-oops, brimming confidence, a new-found jumper, freaky lilliputians who block shots and strip balls with impunity -- all of it is inspiring. Now we’ll find out if it’s sustainable.