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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.

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