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Clippers Midseason Report

Aaron Fischman |
March 3, 2012 | 2:17 p.m. PST

Associate Sports Editor

Since the Los Angeles Clippers overhauled their roster and acquired Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, among others, team expectations rose to never-before-seen heights in Clipperland. 

The improvement from last year is apparent. Last season’s squad began the season losing an astonishing 13 of its first 14 games. This year’s team won nine of its first 14 (as opposed to just one) and went on to begin the lockout-shortened season with a record of 17-8 through 25 games. 

The Clippers' thrilling brand of basketball has attracted the highest road attendance in the league (Vernon Hadnot/Creative Commons).
The Clippers' thrilling brand of basketball has attracted the highest road attendance in the league (Vernon Hadnot/Creative Commons).
Lob City

Largely due to the addition of precision-passing point guard Paul and the return of high-flying big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have been billed around the league as one of the most exciting teams to watch. For that very reason, Los Angeles boasts the highest road attendance in the league, averaging 19,139 fans per road game. The Lakers rank second, just ahead of the Heat. The exciting young Thunder rank sixth in average road attendance.   

Although Griffin coined the “Lob City” moniker when he was captured on a cell phone video celebrating the acquisition of Paul, the players including Griffin are not too fond of the nickname. Led by veteran point guard Paul, the players have repeatedly said that while it is great to entertain home and road fans, alike, their ultimate goal is to win. And they’ve done that. Last season’s Clippers won just nine of 41 road games for a road winning percentage of less than 22 percent. This year’s squad has won slightly over half of its first 17 road games.

Although the Clippers have lost four of their last six, the team needed 34 games before it lost its 13th game. Last season, it needed only 14 games. Through 34 games, the 21-13 Clippers would be 11 games ahead of last year’s Clippers, who were 10-24.

Point God

Chris Paul provides veteran leadership in his first season with the team (Creative Commons/Who'sTheBet).
Chris Paul provides veteran leadership in his first season with the team (Creative Commons/Who'sTheBet).
Much of the credit for the Clippers’ improvement should go to Paul, who is not just a tremendous passer, a sneaky defender and a secure ball-handler. Most importantly, he is also the team’s floor general, who seemingly always (except that one cosly error against San Antonio, which will be discussed later) makes the smartest decision possible and handles the clock with ease. Although he’s just 27 years old, Paul’s basketball wisdom makes it appear as if he’s been in the league for 15 years. He’s the primary reason why the Clippers currently boast the third best record in the Western Conference.  

One of Paul’s main contributions reveals itself in this very telling statistic: For each of the previous two seasons, the Clippers committed the third-most turnovers in the league. This season, the Clippers have nearly gone from worst to best in that department. So far, they have committed 12.9 turnovers per game, good for second-least in the league.  

Missing Chauncey

Despite Billups’ propensity to take ill-advised shots (his shooting percentage was a lowly 36.4 this season), his defensive presence and scoring punch are sorely missed. Since he went down with the season-ending Achilles injury, the Clippers have won a very average six of their last 12. 

The Clippers have desperately missed Billups since his season-ending injury (Creative Commons/Mike594).
The Clippers have desperately missed Billups since his season-ending injury (Creative Commons/Mike594).

To help fill the void left by Billups’ departure, Foye was injected into the starting lineup, where he has struggled mightily. In his 12 starts since Billups’ injury, Foye has made only 35 percent of his shots (47 for 134) and less than 30 percent from long-range. That’s not very good, but some may say, ‘So? Billups only made 36 percent.’  Well, first of all, Billups still made a healthy percentage from three-point range (38 percent). In addition, Billups’ penetration to the basket effectively spaced the floor, opening up more opportunities not only for slam dunks and lobs, but also for open three-pointers. Foye does not go to the basket nearly as often. In fact, he has attempted 16 free throws in these last 12 starts (1.33per game), whereas Billups attempted 4.8 free throws per game.

Fellow guard Mo Williams has also struggled since Billups’ injury. The streaky shooter has been in a serious funk, shooting 53 for 152 (34.9 percent) in the last 12 games. He’s been better from beyond-the-arc, making more than 36 percent of his attempts over that stretch, but before his two March performances in which he made 7 of 11, he shot around 31 percent from three in the 10 games since Billups went down. Like Foye, Williams does not go to the basket nearly as much as Billups did. Williams has gone to the line more than once in just two of the last 12 games. To add to insult to injury (in more ways than one), small forward Caron Butler is also seriously struggling with his shot.  

There was some talk of the Clippers going after J.R. Smith, who was returning from China, but the 27-year-old guard chose to sign with the Knicks instead. Along with the rest of the country (and some of the world), it appears as though Smith also got a case of Linsanity. 

Closing Time

Griffin is an unbelievably exciting, young player who can do much more than dunk. He's incredibly difficult to guard, especially close to the basket. Admittedly, his free throw shooting has been subpar this season, but even that area has vastly improved since he began bouncing the ball three times before each attempt. Since he adopted that strategy, the power forward has made more than 70 percent of his free throws. 

Even considering all the strengths to Griffin’s game, he has not yet developed an ability to close games. Whether it’s fatigue, additional double-teams, an aversion to having to go to the charity stripe with the game hanging in the balance or a combination of all three, Griffin’s fourth quarter production has not been great. Instead, Paul has been the Clippers’ closer all season. In the fourth quarter, Paul is shooting an impressive 53 percent this season, and he has made nearly half of his three-point attempts in the quarter. Last season, Eric Gordon played that role. 

Trouble in Paradise

This season, Coach Vinny Del Negro has seen far too many leads slip away (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
This season, Coach Vinny Del Negro has seen far too many leads slip away (Keith Allison/Creative Commons).
Even though Paul has won many games for the Clippers by turning in remarkable fourth quarter performances, the Clippers have also let many games slip away this season. On Saturday, Feb. 18, LA was on the cusp of breaking the Spurs’ nine-game winning streak. With 9.5 seconds remaining in regulation, the Clippers had the ball and a three-point lead until Paul made this boneheaded play, which was extremely uncharacteristic of a smart player like him. After the game, Paul said, “Man, that was probably the worst play I’ve been a part of since I’ve been in the NBA.” The Spurs would ultimately win in overtime.

Most recently, on Friday night against the Suns, the Clippers failed to take advantage of the Suns’ miserable first-half shooting and ultimately lost a low-scoring affair, 81-78. Midway through the second quarter, the Clippers had led by as many as 11 points. Throughout the season, the Clippers’ inability to finish teams off early has led to a number of frustrating losses. 

In the Clippers’ 12-point loss to the Timberwolves Tuesday, the home Clippers squandered a nine-point lead after one quarter of play. In fact, Griffin scored 18 points in the first quarter, but was held in check for just 12 more points the rest of the way. Despite leading virtually all of the first three quarters, the Clippers laid a fourth-quarter egg, as Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley caught fire, while the Clippers’ shooting turned ice cold.  

In fact, the Clippers have lost at home to the Timberwolves twice this season. Although the Timberwolves are much improved with the emergence of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Williams, both games were ones in which the Clippers led nearly the entire time. In LA’s first home meeting with Minnesota in January, with the exception of a 2-0 Timberwolves lead, the Wolves’ first lead did not come until late in the fourth quarter. 

Although the Clippers are enjoying the third-best record in the West, they have won a mediocre six of their last 12 games and are struggling to maintain leads. With expectations as high as they are and the Clippers’ inability to adequately replace Billups, some are beginning to panic in Clipperland – yes, even though the Clippers are 21-13. Weird, I know.

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