Two dry-erase boards hang in the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room. One lists the standings in the Western Conference and the other the Eastern Conference.
The Clippers have had the boards hanging in the room for years. It was usually a cruel reminder of their place in the NBA. Some players even wondered what purpose it served.
This season, however, it has been a source of motivation and a daily reminder of how far the Clippers have come.
At the halfway point of the season, the Clippers were tied for the best record in the NBA and in the hunt for the top seed in the West.
It’s a remarkable spot for a franchise that has made the playoffs only five times in Los Angeles and has never won more than 47 games in a season since 1977.
But are the Clippers really championship contenders or simply an exciting basketball team that will fizzle out in the postseason as they did last season?
I talked to three former coaches who have watched the Clippers this season to get their take on the Clippers’ playoff chances: Mike Dunleavy, who coached the Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers over 20 years and is currently the co-host of SiriusXM’s “Off The Dribble”; Dr. Jack Ramsay, who coached the Philadelphia 76ers, Buffalo Braves, Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers over 20 years and is currently an ESPN analyst; and Mike Fratello, who coached the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies over 20 years and is currently a TNT analyst.
Though some have questioned whether the Clippers’ style will translate to the more deliberate pace of playoff basketball, each of the coaches I spoke to said he felt the Clippers’ regular-season success is sustainable in the postseason.
“It’s sustainable because of Chris Paul,” Dunleavy said. “You have a guy that is a great floor general and a guy that is a great closer. You go back a couple of years when he was in New Orleans, and he nearly took the Lakers to Game 7 in their playoff series virtually by himself. There were some other players, of course, but for the most part, it was all Chris Paul. Based off what he’s able to do off pick-and-rolls and creating opportunity baskets where people have to double-team him, he’s able to create easy opportunities for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. He also has the ability to get to the rim and create open shots for guys that have the ability to knock shots down like Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler.”
Ramsay also emphasized the value of having Paul at the helm.
“Chris Paul has a huge impact on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize what a very good defender he is on the ball and as a help defender. They have good basket defense, and Paul can get shots for himself and his teammates almost at will. Nobody seems to have an answer for his skills on the offensive end.”
For all the highlights of “Lob City,” Paul, along with veterans like Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, has helped younger players on the team, such as Griffin and Jordan, recognize how to play and stay focused on the team’s ultimate goal -- winning a championship.
“[Paul] gets his teammates to buy into what he’s saying,” Fratello said. “I think he’s probably responsible for the maturity of his power forward and center. They’re two young guys who maybe get it a little bit more now and understand it a little bit better now because of Chris, Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill who might say, ‘No, no, no, this is where our heads are today’ or ‘Cut that out. That’s not going to help us win tonight.’ Those are the little things that veteran guys give you.”
Still, the team will be hard-pressed to duplicate its frenetic pace against the defensive pressure of playoff basketball. While Fratello doesn’t see any glaring weaknesses in the Clippers’ attack, Dunleavy and Ramsay both wonder how they’ll respond when teams tighten up defensively.
“The nights that teams do a great job transition-wise and don’t let them get numbers, it’s hard for them to win,” Dunleavy said. “They also don’t have that one big guy in the low post. Blake is really an above-the-rim guy. He’s getting better all the time playing in the low post, but you’d like to have that one guy when things go a little cold you can throw the ball into the low post and have a great opportunity of coming out with a score. You can say Blake is getting to be that guy, but there are still some hiccups there between him and DeAndre with their free throw shooting late in games.”
Not only did Ramsay think the Clippers’ free throw shooting was an issue, but he also wasn’t sure if Crawford and Matt Barnes could give the Clippers the same kind of punch off the bench in the postseason as they have been able to provide during the regular season.
“They’re getting good performances from a lot of people who have not had a history of that in their careers,” Ramsay said. “They’re going to have to perform at a high level in the playoffs when the games are very closely contested. Can they keep coming up with big plays like they have pretty consistently in the regular season? They seem to think so.”
Each coach complimented the job Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has done, but there’s no question he is as inexperienced as most of his players are when it comes to winning in the postseason. He is 8-15 in the playoffs as a coach and has never made it out of the second round.
Fratello is convinced this season will be different for Del Negro and the Clippers.
“They are deep, and they have the ability of playing big and playing small,” he said. “They have inside presence, outside presence, shot-blocking ability. … They have all the pieces that are necessary. This is a well-put-together roster. It’s a good mixture of veteran guys for leadership and experience and the young and athletic guys that make it a fun and exciting game to watch. It’s a really good group.”