Jeremy Lin is closing in on Chris Paul for the starting spot of the Western Conference All-Stars. More on that later.
Let’s begin, though, with the Los Angeles Clippers and their recently snapped win-streak and what it says or doesn’t say about the squad’s place in the hierarchy of league contenders.
The 2012-2013 Clips – losers of two straight – recently won 17(!) games in a row. The streak began with a close 101-95 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Going into the game, the Clips were 9-6 and rumors of Vinny Del Negro’s firing were raging. The squad was reeling. The win over Minny didn’t seem to foreshadow anything, it was just a struggling squad’s struggle-win over an inferior team. CP had a “CP” kind of game: 23 points on 7-13 shooting, 11 assists to one turnover, 8-8 from the free throw line, including four straight to ice the game. The Clippers needed every bit of it to eek out a close win in the last half of the fourth quarter. But, of course, we know what that win began: a full-fledged, league-wide rampage.
The Clippers' next game was December 1st; another win, this one, though, a 35-point bludgeoning of the Kings. And, for the rest of December, the Clippers Timbo-stomped every squad in their path, save for a couple close wins in Utah and a close victory in Chicago. None of the blowouts came against the league’s elite. There were no double-digit wins against the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, Knicks, etc. You can front L.A.’s 102-83 home win against the Raptors, especially when Toronto bookended that loss with a 131-99 loss to Utah and a 92-74 loss in Portland. But when that Clippers win comes in the midst of a streak featuring an 18-point win against Phoenix, a 26-point drubbing of Milwaukee, a 29-point victory over Boston and several other double-digit wins; well, that’s saying something about a team’s collective diligence, focus and skill-level. If you can continuously outclass scrub-squads and mediocre teams for a full month, it is all the proof you need that, if nothing else, you are a team to be reckoned with.
When you look at the recent teams to reel off similar win streaks, though, it makes you wonder if this Clippers squad is more like the 2007-2008 Houston Rockets, or the legit Big Boys, like the 2008-2009 Celtics (slowed only by KG’s injury, that season). Dallas and Phoenix both reeled off 17-game win streaks in the 2006-2007 season. The Spurs eventually won the championship, but the Suns (at the apex of the Nash era) and Mavs (in the kind of psycho-mode that teams get into when they’re avenging championship losses) were right there as “elite of elite.” The 1999-2000 Lakers squad – first of a three-peat – set it on the league with a 16-game win streak and followed that up with a 19-game streak less than a month later. These Clippers might be good, legit contenders even; but they ain’t no Kobe-Shaq Lakers. It remains to be seen if they’re even a “class of the league” caliber squad like the ’06-’07 Suns/Mavs.
During the streak, Del Negro said, “we’re thinking bigger than the streak.” And Blake Griffin commented that, now, when teams come to L.A. to play the Clippers, they can’t go out partying the night before. So the confidence is growing, but it’s tempered with realism. Jamal Crawford, ever the humble dude (no, really, he’s almost impossibly down-to-earth) noted, “we’re honestly just trying to get better.”
It sounds like even the Clippers know that they’re good, but not chest-out dominant. The ’08-’09 Celtics squad were defending champs during their streak. The ’00 Lakers squad had a historically dominant force (Shaq) and Kobe coming into his own. The Suns squad – even if you thought the Amar’e/Marion 5/4 combo was paperweight and Nash stole Kobe’s MVP the previous year – was a bona fide juggernaut of several seasons during their streak. Dallas would have won the championship the previous season if Dwyane Wade would have played anything other than some of the very best basketball any player has ever played. These were squads on missions, with clear intentions – “We’re trying to raze the NBA.”
Meanwhile, Chris Paul has said that the Clippers are still trying to find their identity.
For all the strides they’ve taken, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are still mostly lob-machines that lapse defensively and don’t rebound as well as they should (both should average 12 boards per 36 minutes). Caron Butler is just the type of player that helps teams win championships, but he’s no longer the lockdown defender and shot-creator he was in his Wizards days. Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill are veteran godsends to a cat like CP, shouldered with the burden of teaching dudes like Blake and DeAndre how to play winning basketball – on the fly – but the old heads can’t stay healthy. The bench is recently vaunted, but Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes are still Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes, and Lamar Odom isn’t the player he was 3 years ago. Crawford could hit you for 22 one night and then, the next night, #DANCESOHARD you’d think his Moms was Debbie Allen (or Ellen Degeneres) and still go 2-12 (which actually happened during the streak).
The basic point is that this Clipper team is deep and talented, but flawed to a greater extent that the other legit contenders (and serious streak-holders before them).
Let Paul tell it (via ESPN):
"We're fortunate enough to be in a situation where when we go into a game every night it's not necessarily about the other team. It's about what we do. I've been on teams where you go into a game thinking you have to play almost a perfect game to beat a certain team. Fortunately, we have a pretty good team."
They have “a pretty good team.” A little modest, sure, because, more importantly, the Clippers “have a Chris Paul.”
CP’s numbers (16/9/4/3) aren’t gaudy like 2007-2009 CP numbers (21/11/5/3). What he continues to do better than anyone in the league, however, is run and lead a team. When he says the team is still trying to find its identity, he means that he’s still trying to teach the team how to be more like him. As athletic and fun as this squad may be, if you take CP off the roster (especially with Billups and Hill in suits), it becomes one of the lowest IQ’d, least-disciplined, most rudderless outfits in the league; a squad capable of 2011-2012 Washington Wizard-level shenanigans. Plus, there is not a player on that squad, other than CP, that can consistently create a shot for a teammate; and, other than CP and Crawford, no player on that team can consistently create a “GOOD” shot for themselves.
There is no – NO player – more valuable and essential to his team than Chris Paul. Somehow, something so conspicuous as CP’s value got lost in the 17-game win streak; lost amid stories of the NBA’s deepest bench and the NBA’s most talented squad. The difference between the 2008 Houston Rockets – the real difference – isn’t that the Clips, players 2 through 10, are more talented (although they are). The difference is that 2008 T-Mac (Player 1) ain’t 2013 CP. That’s what really matters.
So, with that said, back to this brewing All-Star voting fiasco. If Jeremy Lin happens to catch CP for the starting gig at the All-Star Game, Lin has a couple of options. He can go kick so many rocks that he bruises his big toe and has to sit the game out. But we wouldn’t want that. So he needs to start preemptively drafting a petition – right now – that pleads for the NBA to allow him to do a reverse 1992 Tim Hardaway and give up that spot and then publicly beg for all his voters to sign it and march in front the NBA’s Manhattan offices. It’s the least he could do.