Yes, you read the title correctly. The Los Angeles Clippers, with a 4-2 record through the first week and a bit of the 2012-2013 NBA Season are contenders to win the West. Blake Griffin made them interesting, Chris Paul made them a force to be reckoned with in the West. Now Jamal Crawford seems to be another piece completing a puzzle that might see the team go further than ever before.
What does being a contender mean? A team you can see reach the Western conference finals. Last season, when the Clippers met with the Spurs in the conference semifinal last season, no one really gave them a chance. Not good enough on defense, not smart and versatile enough on offense. While six games of basketball isn’t enough to declare a team eligible to win a title or not, the Clippers seem to have the right kind of depth and obvious talent to make it far in the postseason.
And if a game changer off the bench was a big part of whatever was missing for the Clippers to be more than just a team that goes as far as Chris Paul takes them, Jamal Crawford is exactly that guy. At 32, Crawford is still one of the most explosive guys you can pick up from the bench and throw in the game in any situation. He’s leading the Clippers in scoring early on with 21.8 points per game, already notching up wins against Memphis, the Lakers, San Antonio and now the Blazers on their first trip outside the Staples center this season.
Don’t get me wrong – this team will still go as far as Chris Paul takes them. The best point guard in the NBA scored 21 points and finished with “only” six assists, as DeAndre Jordan continues to look unstoppable in more than just fast breaks and alley-oops situations.
One of the most surprising figures in the game was Blake Griffin, who struggled with his shooting (3-9) from the field, but he actually dished out 4 assists. There’s been plenty of talk about how Griffin needs to improve and add to his game; to rely less on his athleticism and actually add a mid-range jumper and some post moves. He’s still not fully there, but he is on his way, with his court vision improving.
A smarter team, that’s for sure. There still those ups and downs, like allowing the Blazers, mostly through Nicolas Batum, to come back from a 25 point deficit at half time. There’s still not enough movement on the Clippers’ offense at times, when it seems everyone just stands, spreading the floor, waiting for Paul to make something happen. They tend to fall asleep on defense after wasting bursts of intensity that can completely shut down teams like they did against the San Antonio Spurs.
The most important thing is that the West is wide open. The Lakers aren’t as good as advertised and while they’ll be better than their 1-4 record suggests, there’s plenty of vulnerability radiating from the Clippers’ big sister. Oklahoma City traded James Harden, and while they saved themselves cap space, they took a hit professionally. The Spurs? The Clippers, the improved Clippers that showed up for 66% of their games this season – a mature team that’s great defensively as it is in acting like lob city, can handle them. Probably anyone else too.