The Oklahoma City Thunder have a huge matchup tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers in L.A. Many are predicting these two teams to be at the top of the standings by the end of the season, so tonight's game is an exceptional early contest to see where each team is beginning their respective journeys.
Naturally this means that we have to get some insight from the cat who knows the Clippers better than anyone. We turn to Steve Perrin, managing editor of Clips Nation to address what we will be watching tonight, as the Clips have added some radically new components to their make-up. There is an old saying that comes from the City of Angels - when you interview Steve Perrin, that means you're interviewing Steve Perrin. Enjoy.
1) The Clippers won a franchise record 56 games last season but similar to the Thunder, had their season cut short in part due to injury (Blake Griffin). How did last year's playoff experience sit with you, and what do you think was the team's mindset to not have that happen again?
Well, thank you for acknowledging the injury. The narrative became, "The Grizzlies swept the soft as tissue Clippers" when to me it seemed like, "The series was tied 2-2 when the Clippers all star was injured." But regardless, the tendency is to put WAY too much significance on a single series. Yes, the playoffs are what matter, but no, the Grizzlies win over the Clippers didn't invalidate their season -- anymore than the Clippers win over the Grizzlies invalidated Memphis season the year before, or the Grizzlies win over the Spurs in 2010 marked the death knell of San Antonio. Remember that one? Remember how definitively that proved that the Spurs window was completely closed?
Having said all that, the Clippers wings were DREADFUL in the playoffs, and were clearly the weak link all season. Chauncey Billups, due partly to injury and partly to bad fit, never worked out as the starting two, and Caron Butler was never more than adequate. So upgrading the wing, with an emphasis on spreading the floor, was the priority, and the Clippers accomplished that by acquiring J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
In the bigger picture, the conventional wisdom is that you have to take some lumps in the playoffs before you break through, and there may be some truth to that. Blake Griffin is 24, DeAndre Jordan is 25. These guys are still learning how to win. (Obviously growth and improvement from guys in their mid-20s is a big part of the plan in OKC as well.) And oh yeah, there was this feeling that maybe the Clippers didn't have the absolutely best coach before, and that maybe they needed an upgrade there as well.
2) The Clips added some key players (and a coach!) in the offseason. If you could, please explain why you think the Clips made those signings, and also if possible equate each acquisition to popular songs from the 1980's.
80's songs is too broad and "popular" is too plebeian. Clippers fans tend to be an angsty lot, so I'm using the classic angst-pop 80's band, The Smiths.
Doc Rivers -- How soon is now? -- The Clippers gave up a first round draft pick and a lot of money to pry Rivers, one of four active NBA coaches to have won an NBA championship, away from the Celtics. The very fact that Donald Sterling employs the highest paid coach in the NBA -- remember, there are no mins or maxes or CBAs concerning coaches so it's up to owners to decide what they want to pay -- is a mind-blowing thing. Rivers isn't in LA to build a long term winner or to take baby steps -- he's here to win and to win now.
JJ Redick -- Handsome devil -- I mean, just look at the guy. But it's his game that is most beautiful to me. He fits next to Chris Paul incredibly well. (Maybe Hand in Glove is the better Smiths song here?) He works tirelessly off the ball, he stretches the floor, his BBall IQ is off the charts. Although he's never been a regular starter in the NBA, he's in an ideal situation with the Clippers and represents as a massive improvement over the collection of twos (mostly ones masquerading as twos in fact) they've had since sending Eric Gordon to New Orleans in the CP3 trade.
Jared Dudley -- Sweet and tender hooligan -- Dudley had a run in with Blake Griffin in a Clippers-Suns game a few years back and most Clipper fans didn't like him much after that. But now that he's out guy, he's good to have around. It seems to me that Dudley is a classic example of a guy who is really good on a good team, and pretty bad on a bad team. This Clippers team is good, and Dudley just needs to play his role -- hit open threes, play good defense, do the little things.
Darren Collison -- You've got everything now -- After Redick and Dudley were in place, the Clippers used most of their mid level exception to bring back Matt Barnes who had been a key player on last season's team. But with Eric Bledsoe's departure, it left a hole at backup point guard that the Clippers had very little money left to fill. When they were able to get Collison for a mere $1.9M (the rest of their MLE) it seemed like everything was falling into place.
Byron Mullens -- Stretch out and wait or Some girls are bigger than others -- Once Rivers was in place, every signing he made was about adding shooting. He really, really wanted a stretch big to put next to Griffin at times. It's a good goal, but former Thunderhead Mullens may not be the best choice.
Antawn Jamison -- Heaven knows I'm miserable now -- Yeah, so I'm not a big fan of this signing. This was the final signing of the summer, marking the point at which we realized that there wasn't a single big man on the Clippers bench capable of playing even passable NBA defense. It looked like a problem at the time of the signing -- it looks like an even bigger problem now. Supposedly Rivers is saving Jamison for the playoffs. I think he's saving him from the embarrassment of being scored on more than your sister (actually, does Sherman even have a sister?)
So there you have it. The offseason in Smiths tunes. Now I feel like Please, please, please let me get what I want this time. But These things take time, and it might be that You just haven't earned it yet baby.
3) The Clips now look amazing on paper, and I am one of the ones that predicted that they would win the #1 seed. What has happened so far, and what do you think it portends to things to come?
There have been some really, really good signs -- and a couple of bad ones so far.
Everyone expected the Clippers offense to be good, and at times it has looked through the roof awesome. Not all the time of course, but considering that they've got two new starters, half the roster is new and the offense is completely revamped, the fact that they're at this level two weeks into the season bodes well. This team can score, and will almost certainly be near the top of the league in offensive efficiency all season.
As good as the offense has been, the defense has been that bad -- but it is getting a little better. They held Houston to 39 points in the second half on Saturday and turned that game around. Rivers has installed a completely new set of defensive schemes, and the team has been a bit lost at times, but assuming they begin to figure it out, there should be major improvement to come. The starters have actually been pretty good on defense -- but the reserves have been a different story.
And that's where the gaping hole is for this team. Collison has yet to get going and Barnes has been hurt -- when those guys are clicking, the second unit will be much better than it has been. But the bigs off the bench are truly dreadful, and that problem isn't going away until the Clippers make a move of some sort. The third big off the bench in the playoffs has clearly not played for the Clippers yet this season -- and I'm not talking about Jamison. But I don't expect a move until January at the earliest, so it's a couple more months of this group.
4) The early word on the street is that the Clippers' defense is their biggest potential Achilles Heel. What do you think of this notion, how well founded is it, and where does the team need to get to defensively if they are going to be able to compete deep into the playoffs?
The word on the street. Who are you? Huggy Bear? BTW, of the 70s cop show pimps, I always preferred Rooster from Baretta. For me, he felt more real, you know?
Defense is a concern, no doubt. But it may not be a fatal flaw. As I mentioned above, there have been some signs of improvement. Also, the starters have actually been pretty good defensively; the reserves have just been beyond terrible. Part of that is personnel. Byron Mullens is currently the first big off the bench -- 'nuff said. Jamal Crawford is a poor individual defender, Collison gambles a lot, Barnes has been out. Actually, if the second unit starts playing a little better just in general, it will help -- no one but Crawford can make a shot so far, and it's always easier to defend if you're making the other team take the ball out of the net.
Three things will help the Clippers defense: (1) Time. Rivers' schemes are very different than what they did under Vinny Del Negro, and it takes time to really assimilate the approach. Neither Redick nor Dudley are exactly perimeter stoppers, but they are both extremely smart players, and they'll be good fits in Rivers' cerebral schemes. (2) Better play from the second unit. Barnes is the best defender off the bench, and in fact the best perimeter defender on the team. He's been hurt in the early part of the season and really had his first decent game on Monday. (3) A defensive minded big off the bench. Until and unless they sign someone, they'll have issues defending when either Griffin or Jordan goes to the bench. They can go small against some teams and play Dudley or Barnes at the four (you'll see a lot of that when KD is at the four) -- but they need some roster help too.
5) How do you see the Clips matching up against the Thunder, both Wednesday night as well as the rest of the season? Last year, the Thunder took the series, 3-0, and the year before, the Clips took it, 3-1. Could the head-to-head matchup be a determinant factor in which team grabs home court advantage throughout the playoffs?
One of the reasons Kevin Durant is one of the two best players in the NBA is because he presents terrible matchup problems for every team. The Clippers have never had anyone who could guard him well (although your boy Ryan Gomes surprisingly shut him down in one game... which might have been more about Durant having an off-night than about Gomes come to think of it). I have no idea how Dudley has done on him in the past -- we know that Dudley is smart and will work hard, but he's giving away both quickness and length. Barnes will take long turns on Durant as well.
Slumping players have tended to burst out of their slumps against the Clippers this season -- Nikola Pekovic was shooting 40% through seven games and then made 11-15 last night. Westbrook is a tough cover for Paul -- who has great hands and incredible instincts for steals, but can have difficulty staying in front of semi-human quick point guards, let alone the freak that is RW -- and if Russell starts making shots it could be trouble. The good news for the Clippers is that Westbrook has tended to struggle against them, especially in LA.
In the big picture, I like the Clippers' chances against the Thunder, because I'm putting some faith in Rivers to game plan ways to stop the two stars with team defense. OKC-escapee Kevin Martin scored 30 for Minny against the Clippers last night, and the simple fact is that there is no longer a third player on the OKC roster you have to game plan for. We'll see.
And yes, head-to-head could certainly end up being a factor -- and playoff seeding is going to be massive this season. You saw how good that Timberwolves team is earlier this year. Assuming Memphis figures things out, there appear to be seven really, really talented teams in the Western Conference -- meaning that all but the top seed will face daunting opponents from the first round of the postseason.
Many thanks to Steve for sharing his insights. Be sure to visit Clips Nation in anticipation for tonight's huge game.
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