The moment that Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers will be forever etched in NBA history. It featured a giddy DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, chest-bumping and giggling at the formation of "Lob City." It was facilitated by a commissioner who took an unprecedented step that nobody else in his place would have taken.
But even at that moment, the real joy was in the unknown. The Clippers were so interesting because the Clippers could not be comprehended. Would they unleash holy terror on the rest of the NBA? Would they be a horrible experiment gone wrong thanks to the stench of Clippers ghosts past? Would they settle somewhere in between? The tantalizing unknown drives sports coverage, and it drove our curiosity of the Clippers.
We're now nearly halfway through the season, and few of those questions haven't been resolved. There are times when the Clippers look the part of a contender. There are times when they don't. On a fundamental level, this is to be expected given how quickly the players on the roster came together. But the Clippers take this confusion a step further, because when you break it down, they're a walking contradiction in a lot of ways. They have so many core elements that a title contender needs, and yet, those core elements have so many glaring shortcomings that are supposed to doom teams in the playoffs.
So, I'll ask again: are the Clippers contenders? It depends on whether you're in the mood for good news or bad news.
GOOD NEWS: CHRIS PAUL IS GREAT -- Not that anyone doubted this, but there was a sense in some people's minds that his best days were behind him after his last two uneven years (by his standards) in New Orleans. Paul has answered those worries pretty emphatically so far, posting his highest PER and true shooting percentage since 2009 and his lowest turnover percentage ever. As his quickness has dropped off just a tad, Paul has adapted his game. He's shooting a career-high 48 percent from 16-23 feet and a fairly absurd 43.5 percent from three-point range. If this is the "new" Chris Paul, it's pretty close to the old one that lifted an entire city on his shoulders.
BETTER NEWS: CHRIS PAUL IS GREAT DOWN THE STRETCH -- The Clippers are 8-3 in games decided by six points or less, and those eight wins include ones over the Blazers, Heat, Mavericks, Nuggets, Jazz, Magic and 76ers. Part of the reason is that Paul is a wizard in crunch time. Those who watched him in New Orleans knew he could execute late with the best of them, but the difference now is that Paul is scoring a a lot more and a lot more efficiently.
Last year, Paul took 111 shots total in the fourth quarter with the scoring margin less than five points. He had an effective field goal percentage (incorporating three-pointers) of just 47.3 percent on those shots. That's not terrible all things considering -- Kobe Bryant, for example, was at 46.1 percent in those spots -- but it's not elite. This year, though, Paul has already taken 48 shots in those situations and has an effective field goal percentage of 56.2. That's insane, especially considering so many of those shots come on the same kind of isolation plays that usually lead to low-percentage looks.
Let there be no doubt that Paul is the king of crunch time in the NBA this season.
BAD NEWS: THE CLIPPERS CAN'T SHOOT FREE THROWS -- The most important quality for teams that win close games is effective free throw shooting. That's why it's so strange that the Clippers are winning despite shooting just 67.6 percent from the line as a team. Only the Orlando Magic are worse, and that's because they have Dwight Howard on the team.
The biggest culprits are Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who are way down at 52 and 49 percent, respectively. The Clippers can get away with benching Jordan in the final two minutes, so his low percentage can be masked. They can't do the same with Griffin. Considering how often Griffin probably should be getting the ball late in games, that's a problem.
WORSE NEWS: THE CLIPPERS' POINT DIFFERENTIAL IS BAD -- Winning a lot of close games also means you're playing a lot of close games, and playing a lot of close games means you're letting teams stay even with you on a nightly basis. The Clippers are outscoring their opponents by an average of just two points a game this year, which is 14th in the league and eighth in the Western Conference. Point differential is often the best predictor of future success, and that doesn't bode well for the Clippers' hopes of getting a high seed.
GOOD NEWS: THEY'VE TAKEN ON CHRIS PAUL'S PERSONALITY -- Paul is a tough, toeing the line between hard-nosed and dirty. (This was the same player that punched Julius Hodge below the belt in college). He has brought a level of toughness to the rest of the roster, especially Griffin, who backs down from nobody on the court. Fans of opposing teams call this quality "whining." The Clippers, though, know better. They know that it gives them an edge and forces inferior teams to back down from them when faced with lots of pressure.
BAD NEWS: THEY RELY TOO MUCH ON INTIMIDATION -- What happens when they play tough teams in the playoffs and the referees swallow their whistles? Can Griffin in particular be as effective?
GOOD NEWS: BLAKE GRIFFIN, STILL GREAT -- Twenty-one points and 11 rebounds per game is still pretty awesome, and so is Griffin's improved post game. Last year, he didn't really have much of a drop step. This year, he's shown it off and been much more effective in one-on-one isolations on the block.
BAD NEWS: BLAKE GRIFFIN CAN'T SHOOT -- Did you know that Griffin is shooting 33 percent from 16-23 feet this season? Did you know that he takes over four of those shots a game? Did you know he's doing that because there literally aren't any defenders within five feet of him contesting a lot of those shots?
To put this in perspective, here's a slideshow of missed wide open Griffin jump shots this year.
If you can't make teams pay when they don't cover you, when can you make them pay?
GOOD NEWS: DEANDRE JORDAN IS EMERGING -- We figured Paul would be great for the young center, and he has been. Jordan's efficiency numbers are all up, his turnovers are way down and he's getting far more easy looks at the rim. Paul is lifting Jordan's game the same way he lifted Tyson Chandler's game when they were in New Orleans together.
BAD NEWS: DEANDRE JORDAN GOES FOR LOTS OF BLOCKS -- Jordan is averaging a career-high 3.2 blocks per game, but he's shown a nasty habit of trying to get highlight blocks, leaving his man wide open for a putback. The Clippers are defending way better with Jordan on the court than off despite this, but that's mostly because Jordan has no decent backup. If the Clippers are to win in the playoffs, Jordan must be more disciplined.
GOOD NEWS: THE PERIMETER SHOOTING IS AWESOME -- When you have a great point guard and two athletic pick and roll partners, you need your wing players to be shooters. That's exactly what the Clippers have. In particular, Caron Butler's transformation into a spot-up guy has been realized. Butler was once a player who held the ball and took contested jumpers, but with the Clippers, he's evolved into a weakside shooter that makes defenses pay for devoting too much attention to Paul, Griffin and Jordan.
BAD NEWS: THE PERIMETER DEFENSE IS TERRIBLE -- Problem is, you also need your wings to be able to defend, and that's a huge problem for the Clippers. Butler, who was never a great defender to begin with, has lost a step, and Randy Foye and Mo Williams are too small and slow to provide much resistance to the top wings in the Western Conference. There's a reason the Clippers are 24th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
GOOD NEWS: MO WILLIAMS IS STARRING AS A SIXTH MAN -- No, he's not in that elusive 50/40/90 club, but how many guards are shooting 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line while using more than 20 percent of his team's possessions this season? Not that many.
BAD NEWS: MO WILLIAMS ISN'T HAPPY AS A SIXTH MAN -- Yup.
GOOD NEWS: VINNY DEL NEGRO IS PLAYING HIS BEST PLAYERS -- Maybe our favorite overmatched coach isn't so overmatched after all. Many other coaches would stubbornly play lineups that don't produce, but Del Negro sticks with his best five-man combinations far more often than not. Look at all the green in this lineup data. That may seem like a fundamental thing, but never underestimate a coach's devotion to playing favorites.
BAD NEWS: VINNY DEL NEGRO IS STILL VINNY DEL NEGRO -- This is still the same overmatched coach that bungles late-game situations, fails to figure out a way to mask Griffin's jump-shooting deficiencies and pulls his players too early when they pick up fouls. During the playoffs, that will cost them. It cost Del Negro's Bulls in a tight seven-game series against the Boston Celtics in 2009, and it will cost them in a tight series against a team like the Spurs, Thunder or Mavericks if it ever comes to that.
All this is to say: the Clippers are still as much of a mystery as they were to start the year. Clearly, they're a good team, but we don't have a good handle on just how good they will be come April.
I guess that leaves us no choice but to sit back and enjoy the Lob City journey.