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The Extra Pass: How the Clippers Grew Up

Jan 17, 2013, 9:58 AM EDT

Los Angeles Clippers' Paul puts his arm around teammate Griffin during NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Los Angeles Reuters

The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the maturation of the Los Angeles Clippers.

For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers were a failure on a systemic level. The on-court talent was faced with the permanent uphill battle of overcoming the ineptness of the franchise’s negligent caretaker and owner, Donald Sterling.

Very rarely did the whole overcoming thing actually happen. It happened so infrequently, actually, that calling the Clippers the worst franchise in professional sports wasn’t mud slinging, but rather an accurate moniker.

When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last year, he understood the gravity of his decision to adopt the abused franchise as his own. Being great on the court simply wouldn’t be enough — he would have to be the new caretaker, the franchise’s new parent. After all, Sterling sure as hell wasn’t doing it, and for as great as Blake Griffin was, he was still just a kid trying to figure out his own game. The responsibility was squarely on Paul’s shoulders.

Like most new parents, Paul accepted that responsibility with a type of fervor that could be considered, at times, a little overbearing. The Clippers were now an extension of Paul, so everything was watched and controlled with an overly careful eye that only a great point guard can possess.

During their inaugural season together, the Clippers would often stumble through three quarters to teams with less talent, only to hope, or know, that Paul would bail them out in the last few minutes. And more often than not, Paul would play the role of both hero and enabler and come through.

The Clippers had managed to become a very good team throughout that process, but all their hopes stayed completely dependent on Paul’s performance. The rest of the team was generally incapable of any real success without Paul holding their hand, and in some ways, Paul was at least partially responsible for allowing the team to establish such a heavy dependence on his late game offensive heroics.

The playoff sweep at the hands of the Spurs was a reflection of this. With Paul banged up and limited by a defense hellbent on stopping him, the Clippers had little else to fall back on in terms of both experience and scheme. While they had ultimately changed for the better with Paul as a parent during that first season, the Clippers as a whole still had yet to mature.

With the guidance of Paul, the Clippers went into the offseason looking to speed up that maturation process. Their youngest substantial free agent signing was 32-year-old Jamal Crawford. They brought in traveled players like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, and secured Chauncey Billups as the first act of business.

Those signings obviously matured the team on paper, but it was Paul who did the actual advancing. Instead of conserving energy for when his heroics would be needed in the fourth quarter like the prior season, Paul changed his approach this year by using his energy right away so the team wouldn’t need him at all — a real “teach a man to fish” move.

Behind Paul’s inspired first quarter play, the Clippers have had a much improved defense (18th in defensive efficiency last year to 4th this season), thanks to the example he’s established. If you flip to a telecast of a Clippers game in the fourth quarter this year, there’s a decent chance Paul will be seated on the bench, watching a suffocating second unit put the bow on another blowout win because Paul did his damage so early.

Playing that hard defensively early on accomplished a few different things for the Clippers. It made them the league’s most dominant defense against opposing point guards, something they can really hang their hat on. It sent the message that he trusted the depth behind him. It emphasized the importance of no player taking possessions off. The Clippers aren’t accomplishing what they are defensively with a scheme like Chicago’s or Boston’s — it’s almost all driven by effort.

A test for the Clippers’ progress defensively came about rather recently when they traveled to Memphis for another game in a long line of slugfests. This time, however, they’d be without their biggest puncher in Paul, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

How did they respond? Well, the Clippers held the Grizzlies to 30 percent shooting and destroyed them in their own house, 99-73. True to form, the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

On the very next night, the Clippers headed to Houston. All the excuses were readily available — they were on a back-to-back, on the road, without Chris Paul, against the league’s fastest team. But they won big again, going up by as much as 20 early in the fourth quarter before cruising the rest of the way.

An interesting narrative popped up after the impressive victories. How could Chris Paul be considered a real MVP candidate if his team was great — maybe even better — without him in the lineup for a few games? It’s a direct hit to the “valuable” part of the equation, isn’t it?

When considering that, I can’t help but be reminded of the conclusion of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” The “little brother” of Los Angeles is reaching for that ring, and while Paul is still responsible for the Clippers, he’s mature enough to know that his teammates won’t learn anything if he does everything himself. He’s mature enough to know that repeatedly gearing up and saving them in the moment last year didn’t actually save the Clippers from anything at all.

It’s true, the Clippers don’t need Chris Paul in every waking moment anymore. It’s clear that they’ve grown out of that.

And if that’s not a reflection on Paul’s value, I don’t know what it is.

  1. mat9844 - Jan 17, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    Great article. I hope CP3 is a leading candidate for MVP this year; if not, he should be.

  2. kanemoney - Jan 17, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    How many combined allstar / playoff / finals appearances does their bench have? Very impressive veteran depth.

  3. unxpexted1 - Jan 17, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    And this, my friends, is why i dont want to hear about “PBT needs to post more articles about the Clippers”. Only two comments at this point on a pretty decent article…..yet a article about Kobe telling lebron if he wants a cookie has 50. Sorry Clippers fans, nobody cares.

    Lakers Fan

    • mazblast - Jan 17, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      Oh, we care. We’re just having so much fun right now ragging on your overpaid, over-hyped, overage, overrated Lakers that we haven’t gotten around to spending a lot of time on teams that are actually, you know, GOOD.

      • loungefly74 - Jan 17, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        oh boy…every dog has its day (season). please, the clippers are FINALLY having a decent season. lets not go overboard. you cant erase decades of crappyness just like that. Lakers may suck and the clipshow is going great but please remember that LaLaLand is Laker territory.

        anyway…good the Paul and the Clippers.I’ll be rooting for them.

      • dannymac17 - Jan 17, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        Not only are they having a “decent season”, they are having a season to remember in Los Angeles. I haven’t seen this kind of dominance since the early 00’s. Manhandling opponents with ease on the road. If you want to claim staples as LaLaLand then you need to consider who the real owners of the building are, the Kings, whom they built the place for and are reigning champions of their respective league. If the Clippers do in fact win the title this year (and im not suggesting they will) then the Lakers would actually be considered 3rd wheel heading into 2014. Lakers fans can clamor to their 16 championships. It’s just hard for them to comprehend becoming second fiddle in basketball for a few months, so much, their heads are spinning off their necks. It feels good, and the Lakers fans tears are so delicious.

  4. zerole00 - Jan 17, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Great article, it’s truly unfortunate this team is owned by Sterling. In the back of my head I’ve just got this bad feeling Sterling’s going to find a way to ruin such a great thing.

  5. zxrated - Jan 17, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    “Little brother” Underhanded jab at the Kobe lead Lakers.

  6. wwttww - Jan 17, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    Bledsoe for jsmooov?

    • paleihe - Jan 17, 2013 at 4:19 PM

      Josh Smith? Their contracts don’t come close to matching up.

  7. jerdogthompson - Jan 17, 2013 at 7:11 PM

    Well thought out and written article. Every win by the Clippers is constantly ridiculed by haters in the form of Sterling is a racist, horrible owner, cheapskate, etc……reminds me of the same writers/haters that contended early on that Vinny would be the demise of the team now he’s up there for COTY. It’s as if people are unable to change ever. Being a Clipper fan since the SD days and a STH for 12 years I would always defend my situation by simply stating that at some point Sterling would open his wallet and build a team that would contend.

    Now that he has done such and the Clippers are better than even what the most optimistic fan would have guessed the haters have moved on from Vinny and focused exclusively on Sterling. I’m not a fan of Sterling per se, however, I’m capable of recognizing what he has done lately and look to the future and not just focus on the past.

    Although I know that can never truly happen as 90% of the Sterling haters are Laker fans that in their ultimate wisdom fail to recognize that without Sterling the Lakers could not have been bought by the buss family. That’s right look it up. Not to mention, asking Laker fans to focus on the present and not the past would require them accepting their dynasty years are truly over not to return for some time. It would also require them to quit using “we got 16” what does your team have comeback. Just in case you Laker fans were not aware, the first 5 were won while in Minnesota and (correct me if I’m wrong) there was a whopping 12 teams in the league at that time. A one in twelve chance, hmmmmmmm. An 8% chance of a chip just for showing up to play. Compared to a roughly 3% chance today. Basically you were three times more likely to win back then versus now. So by virtue of that “math reality” being a team that got its start well ahead of so many others gave you a major leg up.

    Clippers & OKC will be contending for the WCF for the next 7-8 years. Get used to it.

    Clippers 106-Minnesota 92 final for the game tonight. 3rd road win in a row without CP3. This should have every team in the league on notice, oh by the way our starting 2 guard comes back the beginning of February. Bring on the finals.

  8. newyorkfootballjets - Jan 17, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    A real article !! 2 thumbs up !!

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