Ever since Chris Paul landed with the Los Angeles Clippers before the start of the 2011-12 season, they have been the NBA’s version of a time bomb. The season always progressed like clockwork. And ended with an explosion.
A middling start to the season. A finish somewhere between the third and fifth-best record in the Western Conference. And once the playoffs arrived, the Clippers would blow up from their own actions or internal issues. They gave up leads in games and series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014 and the Houston Rockets in 2015. Injuries sabotaged them in 2013 (Blake Griffin) and 2016 (Paul and Griffin).
Tick. Tick. Tick. Boom.
This year, though, something seems different about these Clippers. Instead of their usual uneven start — the Clippers started 8-5 four straight seasons before going 7-8 to start last season — they are now an NBA-best 13-2 after beating the Toronto Raptors at home Monday. The combination of the league’s second-best offense (111.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com) and second-best defense (97.7 points per 100) has the Clippers with an astronomical 13.4 net rating — nearly two points per 100 possessions better than what the 73-win Golden State Warriors and 67-win San Antonio Spurs put up a year ago.
“This,” Raptors Coach Dwane Casey told reporters after Monday’s game, “is the best team in the league.”
So what’s changed?
“The sense of urgency,” Paul said after the Clippers beat the Kings in Sacramento Friday night. “[Coach] Doc [Rivers] really harped on that the first day of camp, about getting off to a good start. I think with me, Blake [Griffin] and [DeAndre Jordan] being here as long as we’ve been here, and knowing the 5-5 starts we’ve started off with and stuff like that, knowing we need to get off to a good start [is important].”
This is likely the final chance to dispel the recurring story line that has defined the Clippers’ recent seasons and their current cast. While the league has grown familiar with the faces leading this franchise — Paul, Griffin, Jordan and J.J. Redick — the future is murky for all of them. Paul and Griffin both have early termination options in their contracts allowing them to become free agents this summer, options they’re both certain to exercise barring serious injury. Redick’s contract expires this summer, while Jordan can be a free agent after next season.
Another mid-50 win season followed by another first- or second-round exit would likely prompt a lot of soul searching from everyone involved — both for the players, who could decide it’s time to try something else, and for team president and coach Doc Rivers, who could decide a new mix is necessary to finally achieve a playoff breakthrough.
Such uncertainty has been known to pull teams apart, as players look to secure their own futures rather than the success of the group. But it’s seemed to have the opposite effect on the Clippers, who have had a laserlike focus early in the season.
Friday, bouncing back from their second loss of the season Wednesday on a last-second three-pointer by Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, the Clippers played what they universally said was their best half of the season — scoring 73 points and taking a 19-point halftime lead over the Kings.
But then came the second half, in which they were sloppy and allowed the Kings to close to within single-digits in the game’s final minutes before eventually emerging with a 121-115 win. Instead of being satisfied with the victory — something everyone gave lip service to — the locker room had the kind of feeling usually reserved for a loss.
Simply winning wasn’t good enough — only winning the right way was. That’s because the Clippers have seen their early season woes come back to haunt them every season, as they’ve always fallen a few wins short of grabbing one of the top two seeds in the West, and ensuring home-court advantage until at least the conference finals.
“Yeah, it’s part of it,” Paul said. “And I think that’s why we are so frustrated with our last loss against Memphis. Those types of wins are the type that get you to 55, 60 wins. It happened, we have to learn from it, and our motto is every day. Every day we have to bring the same intensity.”
In their pursuit of that consistent effort level, the Clippers have benefited greatly from the annual Clippers Layaway Plan — otherwise known as Rivers’s annual search for free agents who will agree to play in Los Angeles on a veteran’s minimum contract to showcase themselves on a big stage and subsequently get paid the following summer. Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights are the prime candidates to do so this year, and both have been key pieces of a second unit for the Clippers that has easily been the best in the NBA thus far. The perfect example of their impact came Saturday night, when Speights nearly single-handedly brought the Clippers back in the fourth quarter against the Bulls, scoring 16 points in the second half and playing over Jordan down the stretch because of his hot shooting.
But while the bench has been great, it’s been far more important to have Griffin return to health and form after a rocky 2015-16. Last season was a lost one for the five-time all-star, who spent most of the season sidelined because of a torn quad before he broke his hand in late January in a fight with the team’s assistant equipment manager, Matias Testi.
The combination of the resulting suspension, his recovery and then subsequent reinjuring of his quad against the Trail Blazers saw Griffin’s stock take a serious hit — especially as the Clippers went on a huge midseason run without him on the court.
This year, though, he’s looked as good as ever, averaging 21.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists while also appearing more committed defensively.
“I always want to put the time in the summer to be ready for the season,” Griffin said. “It’s great to be back playing and be back healthy.”
It’ll take more than a strong opening few weeks for the Clippers to make believers out of everyone, but the field is open for them in the West. The Warriors, currently a half-game behind the Clippers, are all but certain to be in the Western Conference finals, despite an opening month seemingly playing at about half-speed.
But it’s hard to find a team who should stop the Clippers from meeting them there. The Spurs will be good once again, but have aging players in Tony Parker and Pau Gasol at crucial positions that the Clippers should be able to exploit with Paul and Jordan. And there isn’t another team in the conference that realistically should be a threat to make the conference finals.
After years of falling short in virtually every way possible in the playoffs, the stars appear to finally be aligning for the continually crossed Clippers. With a veteran roster coming together at the right time and the field clearing for them, there are no more excuses. It’s conference finals or bust for this team — and busting could mean breaking up one of the most successful cores of this decade.
So far, they look ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
“This could be a real special year for them,” Kings Coach Dave Joerger said. “This is, I don’t want to say ‘it,’ but this is the [season] right here. This could be a real special year.”