There have been several surprises through the first few weeks of the season—DeMar DeRozan is unstoppable, the Hawks look great, the Bulls are better than expected—but none have been more impressive than the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin have all been excellent and brutally efficient, and with additions like Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights, the bench is chipping in as well. Before a loss to Memphis on Wednesday, the Clippers were outpacing last year's Warriors. How did this happen? What does it mean? We decided to exchange e-mails and discuss it.
1. Dear Rohan: The Clippers are 10-2, tied for the best record in the league. Through 12 games we've seen them blow out the Jazz and Spurs, continue their longstanding ownership of Damian Lillard and the Blazers, and basically blitz the whole league. Last night you told me, "They are SLIGHTLY giving me a 2015-16 Thunder vibe." Honestly, I had no idea what that meant. Please explain.
Rohan Nadkarni: OK, so last year, the top-heavy, star-driven Thunder entered the season somewhat slept on because they faltered due to injuries the year before. That’s basically the Clippers this season. Like last year’s Thunder, the Clips rely heavily on the precision of their stars, score at will, and start an absolute non-factor on the perimeter. What L.A. lacks in the pure talent of Russ and KD, they make up for in cohesion and (shockingly) depth.
The Clippers have always had an outstanding offense, and their defense has been suffocating this year, largely helped by an above D-League-caliber bench. I'm saying that the familiarity the Clips have with one another means something, and we sometimes underestimate their top-end talent. L.A. has three of the top 20 players in the NBA, two of the top 10, and you could argue Paul is better than Westbrook—as our colleagues did. Ultimately, I find the Clippers to be every bit as dangerous as last year’s Thunder.
2. Looking at the rest of the year and the playoffs... Do you think there's another level Blake can take his game to, or is this the best possible version of him?
Andrew Sharp: I don't think there's another level for Blake, but only because he's already firing on every cylinder possible. He's an MVP-level player who can do basically everything on offense. Were he in a situation like Westbrook or Harden, he could put up triple double-type numbers that are just as outrageous as those guys. With CP3 and DeAndre, they're blowing guys off the court playing 30 minutes a game.
That said, there are two big questions for me. First, Can he stay healthy? He's had as many injuries as any superstar in the league, so I was worried about it coming into the year. But he looks fantastic so far, so hopefully we're good there.
Then it's just the second question: Can he do this consistently in the playoffs? In the Spurs series two years ago, he looked like the best player alive outside of LeBron. But during the Rockets series a week later, he had some real questionable moments. Maybe it was fatigue, but there were times when it looked like he just didn't want the ball, and there were similar no-shows against the Thunder the year before. I don't want to go all Captain Take here, but it'll be interesting to see what happens in May this year. And I'm rooting for him. If Blake can be this good throughout the playoffs, it makes the West twice as interesting.
3. Forget Blake, though. How much credit does Speights deserve for what's happening in L.A.? 100%? 95%?
Nadkarni: Mo Buckets is a solid 98% responsible for the Clippers’ hot start. Who else can give you such a perfect combination of mean mugs and line-drive threes off the bench? Unrelated: why does Speights wear a shooting sleeve on his off arm?
Seriously, I have no clue why Golden State let Speights walk, especially considering he signed for the minimum. Can we get Mo Speights a better agent? How about the guy who got $5 million for Roy Hibbert?
4. I have two questions: What does it say about washed Clippers benches of the past that additions like Raymond Felton have stabilized the second unit? Is it fair to say Austin Rivers has become a serviceable NBA backup? I personally no longer laugh every time he steps on the court.
Sharp: This is crazy, but Austin Rivers has been quietly terrific for them. He's streaky as hell and he'll still have those moments where he looks totally out of control—the Austin Rivers we know and love—but that's fine this year. When the Clips actually have real scoring options off the bench, Austin's primary job is just to throw himself all over the court and annoy people. And Austin Rivers is great at annoying people. Slashing to the rim, hassling bigger wings, blitzing teams in transition, being Austin Rivers... I think he's disappointing if you're leaning on him to carry the second unit, but as an 8th or 9th man who's there to harass teams that are already exhausted after chasing J.J. Redick and Chris Paul, Austin Rivers can work.
That said, I had no idea Rivers was making $11 million this year. That's amazing. And no, I'm not sure he's worth eight figures on almost any other team, but this is a good segue to part one of your question.
This bench had a very low bar to clear. There were years when this team relied heavily on decomposing Hedo Turkoglu and even-bigger Big Baby Davis in crucial playoff games. Cole Aldrich is generally fine, but there were several weeks last year where Cole Aldrich was a legit revelation off the bench for this team. Maybe we didn't give the Clips enough credit for winning with that handicap. Anyway, given the history, I would not think twice about paying Austin Rivers $11 million to be a spark off the bench. No matter what happens, he's not a 45-year-old Hedo.
5. Big picture, I think one of the reasons this team can surprise people is that each of their four best players goes overlooked to some extent. DeAndre is crazy productive despite his flaws, CP3 is historically dominant, Blake is an all-around terror, and Redick is shockingly consistent. So who's the most underrated player here: Blake, CP3, DeAndre, or J.J. Redick?
Nadkarni: I'm going to go with CP3. Chris gets nowhere near the love of a guy like Russ, and he’s never the recipient of a basketball Twitter meltdown like Curry. Paul’s game isn’t flashy, but it’s damn good. He reminds me a little bit of MVP era Steve Nash in that he’s a master of picking the right moments to become a scorer, only Paul’s defense is much, much better.
Russ is getting lots of hype right now, and rightfully so, but if I need one win, I think I’m taking CP3. He’s a better shooter, more sound defender, and he’s much more committed to involving his teammates while also taking care of the ball. There’s a lot of point guard hype in the NBA, but CP3 gets almost none of it, which makes him my most underrated.
6. Do you see this team staying together after this year? They are obviously playing well, but Blake is a free agent, and CP3 isn’t getting any younger. How do you see Doc Rivers handling the future of the team?
Sharp: No idea! That's what makes this start so fascinating, and it's why they'll be interesting all year long. They look so good right now, and they've got the depth to keep this going. In the playoffs, they have more talent to throw at the Warriors than anyone. They should stay together, especially since it seems like the chemistry between the superstars is in a better place than it was in years past. But you mentioned the Thunder parallel at the start, and it applies here, too. Blake's a free agent, CP3 is old enough to get impatient, and Doc hasn't been running this team like someone who plans to stick around for another rebuild. If this ends badly in May, anything can happen.
7. Where do you stand on their whining to officials? I've never seen anything like this. On almost every possession, even made baskets on offense, they will complain about something. Does it affect your ability to enjoy them?
Nadkarni: There's a certain comfort in knowing that no matter what just happened on the court, no less than three Clippers will throw their hands up in disbelief. At the same time, it’s ridiculous. It’s a vicious cycle.
I bet referees actually do make more calls against the Clippers because they are so damn annoying. It’s human nature. The Clippers can be leading by 20 in the fourth quarter, but DeAndre will still be complaining about a foul six possessions earlier. Do they even care about the reputation anymore? I like this Clippers team. I want to love them, but I can't when every player spends the entire game making the Tim Duncan Bug Eyed face.
8. How valuable do you think Jamal Crawford is to this team? Would you trade him for a small forward that could actually start in the NBA? (Sorry Luc Richard Mbah A Moute).
Sharp: Never trade Jamal Crawford. First, because he's more valuable to L.A. than he would be anywhere else, so it's not like you're getting decent value for him. The Rockets aren't giving up Trevor Ariza for Crawford, for example. Also, Doc Rivers has stubbornly refused to trade Jamal Crawford for so long, I think it would be bad karma to deal him now. Don't upset the universe: If the Clippers are going to break through and win a title, they have to do it with Jamal Crawford hitting 30-foot moon shots. These are the rules.
They could definitely use a serviceable small forward, though. On the Zach Lowe podcast this week, David Thorpe threw out Omri Casspi as a potential low-cost, high-upside solution. I love that idea. FREE CASSPI.
9. Alright, we can end with the obvious question: Can this team hang with the Warriors?
Nadkarni: I really think they can. As long as the Warriors don’t fully commit to defense—maybe that changes in the playoffs—I think L.A. can score enough to keep it close. Golden State’s iffy bench also helps the Clippers in the margins. The Warriors clearly have more firepower, but if my Thunder theory holds up, I think the Clips can give the Dubs a series.
10. Hold up: Are we sure the Clippers are better than the Spurs?
Sharp: I want to say yes, because if the Clips are a real threat to Golden State, a potential conference finals showdown would be like basketball heroin. Plus, the Clippers won that series two years ago. Since then, they've gotten better and deeper while the Spurs have lost Duncan and still depend a little bit too much on Tony Parker.
Then I realized: Kawhi is so much better than he was in that 2014 series. The Spurs lost Duncan, but they replaced him with LaMarcus and Pau, the perfect big men to pull DeAndre away from the basket and make him uncomfortable. Patty Mills is ready to takeover if Tony Parker slows down, and... yeah, the lesson of the first three weeks is that we shouldn't sleep on the Clippers. But you're right, we shouldn't forget opening night either. Never sleep on the Spurs.