Have the Clippers met your expectations?
Sabreena: For a brief stretch after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George took the floor together for the first time, the Clippers wholly looked the part of a championship contender. They flew around on defense, hit ridiculous shots, and had composure for late-game comebacks. Back-to-back wins against Boston and Houston made it seem like L.A. was just scratching the surface of its potential.
The Clippers have met my expectations for how good they can be, and the fact that they haven't achieved that on a regular basis doesn't diminish the highs they have reached. That they've won 28 games in spite of their inconsistency is even further proof of how talented this team is.
Garrett: Save for a few head-scratching losses, I think the Clippers are right about where I expected them to be at this point. They're currently on pace to win 56 games this season, which would be an excellent figure to reach and should guarantee them at least a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
Surpassing 56 wins is certainly doable, too. The Clippers have fewer back-to-backs during the second half of the season compared to the first, and according to Tankathon, they have the seventh-easiest remaining schedule in the league.
There are some issues that this team still needs to work out, but the Clippers weren't supposed to be perfect before the All-Star break. If things don't change after that though, I would begin to worry about meeting expectations.
Where do you project the team to finish in the Western Conference standings?
Sabreena: I don't expect the Clippers to challenge for the 1-seed given the injuries the team has suffered and the fact that the Lakers appear to be gunning for homecourt advantage. However, the second seed is very much in play, and I predict that the Clippers will end the season with 56 wins and finish in second in the Western Conference. Doc Rivers has made it very clear that seeding doesn't matter as much as health, but the Clippers are simply too good, even at less than full strength, to fall much lower in the West.
Garrett: Given their lighter schedule during the second half of the season, I think the Clippers' win total should be right around the mid-50s. The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, two contenders that currently have a higher seed than the Clippers, both rank in top-10 for remaining schedule strength, so I think there's a real chance that L.A. jumps both of them and finishes behind the Los Angeles Lakers with the second seed.
It would be great if the Clippers could lock up the top seed, but it isn't completely necessary that they do. Finishing in second place would grant them home-court advantage over every other team in the West besides the Lakers, who they share a building with. And besides — the Clippers are already up two games to none in the season series.
What was your favorite moment of the first half?
Sabreena: I made a list of a few important ones, but my favorite is probably the run the Clippers made to beat Houston in George and Leonard's second game together. There's nothing quite like a furious comeback, especially in front of a home crowd, and the defense the team played on James Harden down the stretch was special. Something about playing against Houston creates some drama for the Clippers, and it's always entertaining.
Garrett: Seeing the Clippers take down the Los Angeles Lakers on opening night was pretty special. The Christmas Day matchup was a close second. The only reason I favor the former over the latter is because of Paul George — the star forward missed the all-important game, but the Clippers still managed to win without him.
Who has been the Clippers' MVP so far?
Sabreena: This was a much more interesting question last year, but it's absolutely Kawhi Leonard. For awhile, Leonard was in discussion for MVP of the league, and even if he has fallen off of that pace, he is assuredly the most valuable Clipper. He leads the team in points, rebounds, and steals per game and also what-just-happened moments.
Even though it's obvious that Leonard is the team's MVP, I'm not sure even Clipper fans expected Leonard to be this good. Yes, he had a dominant playoff run a few months ago, but to produce at this level on a night-to-night basis is still remarkable to witness. He has a command of the game and makes everyone play at his pace. He knows exactly what he wants to do on the court and doesn't waste movements. He can also just decide to blow up opposing offensive actions and take the ball away with his enormous hands.
Leonard seems to find a new way of demonstrating his greatness almost every night. But the real reason Kawhi Leonard is the MVP of the Clippers is because his presence is enough to make the team a championship contender.
Garrett: I mean, it has to be Kawhi Leonard, right?
Even before he went off for a season-high 43 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Leonard had looked the part of a legitimate MVP candidate. Injury management has kept him fresh, and he's been able to have some stellar performances because of it.
Tuesday marked the 11th time this season that Leonard scored at least 30 points in a game and the second time that he scored at least 40. So far this season, he's averaging 26.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and a career-high 5.0 assists per game. As usual, he's been excellent on the defensive side of the floor as well.
What's been most impressive about Leonard's season thus far is his development as a playmaker. Often cited as a weakness of his, Leonard has vastly improved upon his ability to move and share the ball and set up his teammates for easy looks.
His partnership with Ivica Zubac has been particularly effective. When the two are on the floor together, the Clippers are outscoring their opponents by roughly eight points per 100 possessions.
What does the team need to improve?
Sabreena: Consistency seems like the obvious answer, but purely from an enjoyment perspective, I'd like the Clippers to add more movement to their offense. The team has so much talent that they don't need to run too many actions that don't involve their best players. Leonard, George, and Lou Williams can create their own offense essentially whenever they want, and Montrezl Harrell is becoming more proficient in isolation.
The problem is that the Clippers' offense doesn't involve a ton of counters beyond their stars. They have to work so hard to generate offense beyond their core four scorers. I'd like to see more weakside actions; that means Landry Shamet has to be better, and the coaching staff has to find better ways of utilizing Shamet after he was such an integral piece of their offense a year ago.
Garrett: I'm with Sabreena here. The Clippers have been noticeably stagnant on countless possessions this season, and they usually lead to a forced attempt late in the shot clock. It seems like there are always opportunities for L.A. to get a better shot, but an overall lack of movement has made it difficult to get them.
If the Clippers aren't able to get Shamet going, L.A. could look to add a playmaking point guard before the trade deadline.
Preferred playoff opponents?
Sabreena: A Rockets-Clippers series intrigues me because of all the bad blood between the two teams, and I think L.A.'s two star perimeter players are substantially better than Houston's. The Clippers also match up well against Dallas and Oklahoma City — even though the Thunder did defeat L.A. in their last meeting, Leonard wasn't playing, and the OKC three-guard lineup is untenable against the wing size of Leonard and George.
In general, I trust the Clippers more to shut down a high-powered offense than break through a tough defense. As a result, I'd prefer L.A. to avoid Utah and Denver.
Garrett: The top half of the Western Conference is looking very tough, and it's impossible to point out any "easy" matchups that the Clippers could win up having in the first round. The eighth seed is essentially up for grabs at this point, with the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers all vying for position. L.A. could probably sweep any of those three, but getting the top seed doesn't seem likely.
Things get more difficult from there. The Oklahoma City Thunder currently occupy the seventh seed, and while they lack the talent that other playoff teams have, there's a lot of history between the players. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari were all members of the L.A. Clippers at some point in their careers, and they would surely have more motivation to knock off a top team that they're already familiar with.
As for the remaining for, I would rank them by preference as follows:
1.) Houston Rockets
2.) Denver Nuggets
3.) Dallas Mavericks
4.) Utah Jazz
Houston, Denver and Dallas would all struggle to defend Leonard and George, and in the playoffs, that's where a majority of L.A.'s offense is going to begin. They each have their own weapons and duos, but none are as strong as the Clippers'.
Utah has the best chance at stopping Leonard and George, and they tend to be a tough out regardless. This is not a team that the Clippers will want to play in the first round.