Clippers Surge Towards Playoffs: D.J. Foster Q&A
When the Clippers won the 2009 NBA Draft Lottery, drafting star big man Blake Griffin out of the University of Oklahoma was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, during the final preseason game, the team's most promising player incurred a stress fracture in his left knee forcing him to miss the entire season.
Griffin’s rookie season would have to wait until 2010-11, but the 6-foot-10 power forward quickly proved he was worth the wait. Griffin won Rookie of the Year honors, but the Clippers finished an uninspiring 32-50.
However, the reigning Rookie of the Year was rewarded with considerable help when the Clippers acquired Chris Paul after the Lakers’ trade for the five-time All-Star was vetoed four days earlier.
Although veteran guard Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending Achilles tear on February 6, the Clippers presently find themselves in possession of the Western Conference's fourth seed with five games to go. As the playoffs approach, LA has won 12 of its last 14 games, including two victories over the talented Thunder in that stretch.
Aaron Fischman: Second-year coach Vinny Del Negro has received a great deal of criticism from analysts and fans, alike. Do you think the criticism is warranted?
D.J. Foster: I think the criticism regarding Del Negro as a game manager is warranted. Del Negro doesn't have a mastery of the X's and O's, and his attitude towards letting talent win instead of maximizing his talent with creative schemes is troubling. That said, his teams always play hard for him -- which is a big part of the battle in the NBA. Good motivator, lackluster tactician.
AF: If you had to estimate, how many fewer wins would the Clippers have if Chris Paul weren’t on the team?
Foster: You never really know for sure, but I'd guess it would be about 12 or 13 games at this point. Paul regularly is among league leaders in the "Win Shares" stat, an advanced metric that awards shares of a win based on a player's individual performance. I definitely don't think the Clippers are a playoff team without him.
AF: Where does Paul belong in the league’s Most Valuable Player discussion?
Foster: He's in the top 3 with LeBron and Durant. I think you can make the argument for Paul over Durant, especially since Paul taking the Clippers to a top 4 seed is a better story, but it's tough to argue against LeBron. He's having one of the best statistical seasons EVER. That should be enough to win him the MVP.
AF: How would you rate Blake Griffin’s all-around game at this point, less than two full playing seasons into his career?
Foster: He's on the cusp of greatness, but he won't get there until he dedicates himself to becoming a good defensive player. Most nights Griffin is a disaster on that end, and unless he wants to become Amare 2.0, lazy defensive play won't launch him into the pantheon of great power forwards like Duncan and Garnett. The expectations are high, but with great talent comes great responsibility.
AF: Griffin is despised by many players and fans around the league. I know hate is a strong word, but what makes Griffin so easy to hate?
Foster: It's been said before, but he's the WWE heel. He plays it up. Can't you imagine Griffin not getting a 3-count, then yelling at the ref because he thought he had the pin and the win? Griffin does that every time down the court. He stares, he whines, he manipulates. Is it all just an act? Who knows, but it's certainly wearing thin on a lot of fans.
AF: Initially after Chauncey Billups went down for the season, the Clippers struggled. More recently, how has the team responded/adjusted to his injury?
Foster: The Clippers lost their sniper in Billups, but now they have a firing squad. Out of Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Nick Young, you have to figure one of those guys will hit their intended target, even if the others are missing from point blank. If the Clippers didn't have Paul when Billups went down, you could easily see things spiraling out of control. Credit to all hands on deck for overcoming that big blow.
AF: Discuss the team’s abundance of guards. Is that a good problem to have?
Foster: Depth is always a plus so long as it isn't accompanied by inflated egos. I'm hard on Randy Foye for his sometimes infuriating decision making, but the guy is a professional who has gone from very few minutes to a starter's load multiple times in the span of just a few days. Most NBA players can't handle that.
AF: As the Clippers gear up for the postseason, what are their biggest strengths? Their biggest deficiencies?
Foster: Biggest strength is that no one man can stop Chris Paul. Defenses are going to have to overcompensate with multiple defenders, which should make life easy for the Clippers spot up shooters. Crunch-time offense is another huge strength. As for weaknesses, it's all on the defensive end. Can the Clippers keep up with slashing wings? Will opposing power forwards continue to exploit Griffin? The Clippers have been better in those two areas, but how they continue to improve should tell the story of how deep their playoff run will be.
AF: Has the Clippers’ team defense improved to the point where it needs to be in order to achieve postseason success?
Foster: They're the 6th stingiest defense in the month of April (hat tip: Tom Haberstroh), so if they can somehow keep that up and not revert back to their early season ranking of 23rd in defensive efficiency, the Clippers can definitely achieve postseason success in a Western Conference full of flawed contenders.
AF: The Western Conference playoffs will likely be filled with eight fully capable teams, but is there a particular match-up that would be ideal for the Clippers?
Foster: Bring on the Nuggets. It might be unlikely, but a first round meeting with Denver would play right into the hands of the Clippers. The Nuggets aren't particularly skilled at defending the pick and roll, and their perimeter shooting isn't spectacular. The Clippers will most likely draw the Grizzlies, however, who represent a tough matchup with their perimeter defense. A Clips-Grizz series would be a dogfight.
AF: The Clippers have beaten the Thunder three times, as well as the Spurs and Heat. Are the Clippers an elite team?
Foster: If your definition of elite is a Top-8 team, sure, the Clippers are elite. Most people seem to think an elite team is one of the two or three very best teams though, and right now the Clippers at the very least still trail the Heat, Bulls, Spurs and Thunder. Give Neil Olshey another offseason to add pieces and a full summer for Paul and Griffin to work on their pick-and-roll chemistry, and there will be no qualms about the Clippers being called an elite team going forward.
Thanks for all your help, D.J. If you enjoyed Foster's insight, you can also follow him on Twitter.