The Maturation Of The Clippers
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The Los Angeles Clippers are not going to beat the Memphis Grizzlies--or the Oklahoma City Thunder next round, for that matter--without the help of playoff veterans Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom.
That said, this team's present and future definitely revolves around the evolution of the three young men who created Lob City: 27-year-old Chris Paul, along with 24-year-olds Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. And for what it is worth, it has been fun witnessing the continued development of three Young Hollywood headliners.
Chris Paul told me in January 2012: "Three months from now, hopefully we're making strides in the right direction. Three years from now, we should be the best team in the West. That's what we're shooting for."
It's Year 2 in CP3's master plan and his Clippers are right on stride, improving on their 2011-12 winning percentage (.606) significantly in this 2012-13 campaign (.683), and they are two wins away from advancing in the 2013 NBA Playoffs first round, just like the team did last year.
Here are the improvements the Lob City councilmen have made in their quest to be best in the West by 2014.
CHRIS PAUL: Paul has maintained his undisputed status as the NBA's best point guard over the last half-a-dozen years, facing off challenges from all corners (Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, to name a few). But in Los Angeles, CP3 has kept up his All-Pro quarterbacking skills while adding the arsenal of a high-quality scorer to his game. His true shooting percentage has improved from .574 to .598 in the last two seasons, increasing his scoring average from 15.9 to 16.9 points per game, despite playing 2.6 fewer minutes per game. Paul has become more in less time--thus saving his legs for the playoffs--because he has improved his shooting in every zone inside the three-point line: 62 to 70 percent at the line; 46 to 54 percent in the 3-to-9-foot range; 42 to 52 percent in the 10-to-15-foot range; 45 to 51 percent in the 16-to-23-foot range. All of these improvements have made Paul the best clutch offensive player in 2012-13, when you tabulate scoring mixed with passing mixed with efficiency. Need further proof? Just check out the ending of Monday's Clippers-Grizzlies Game 2 playoff game.
BLAKE GRIFFIN: What I like most about Griffin is that he is not a stat-seeking glory hound. Most 24-year-old All-Stars would be wanting big minutes so that they could put up big numbers to impress the impressionable out there. Not Griffin. He falls in line with Paul, who has cut back his own minutes: 1. to save himself for the stretch playoff months; 2. to allow L.A.'s mighty A Tribe Called Bench squad of subs to grow together. Griffin's sacrifice helped Odom find his game again. Griffin might not be putting up the 24 & 12 numbers he did as a rookie two years ago in 38 minutes per game. But his 18 & 9 in 33 minutes per game is actually more efficient (21.7 Player Efficiency Rating then; 23.1 PER now), which is a big reason why the Clippers have a 110.6 offensive rating when he is on the floor (102.0 when he is off).
DeANDRE JORDAN: D.J. was mentored in his early Clipper years by Marcus Camby and it shows in the contributions Jordan makes on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. He rarely takes a shot beyond 10 feet, which is okay when he posts a .638 field goal percentage on 5.9 close-range shots per game. Jordan has cut down big time on his turnovers, bringing his TO ratio down from 18.79 percent two years ago to 14.33 percent in 2012-13. He has yet to make his passing an asset right now, but at least it is no longer a negative. Jordan's D has always been an asset (+3.5 defensive RAPM a year ago, +2.7 in 2010-11), so it seems he has taken care of the things that can keep him off the court, with one exception: free throws, where he shot an abysmal 41 percent. That is going to keep him out of the game at crunch time, but if his +9.9 net rating numbers hold up when he plays with Paul and Griffin, that is more than enough offense to keep him in the game for three-and-a-half quarters (the trio has a 113.4 offensive rating in 1554 minutes together).