NBA coaches -- even in defeat -- are often complimentary of opponents, but it wasn't lost on anyone when Scott Brooks called the Los Angeles Clippers, "the best team we've faced all season."
Brooks' Oklahoma City Thunder squad came into Staples Center as the West's sole superpower. In a conference loaded with a lot of good teams still appraising their assets, the Thunder know they're a group that's been constructed with great care. They're young but have accrued a ton of experience -- both the gallant loss to the Lakers in the first round of the 2010 postseason and last season's run to the conference finals. There's a professional air that travels with them, as if they were an offshoot of the Spurs. In a league in which so many teams are in flux, Oklahoma City is going to be very, very good for a long time.
Yet on Monday night, the Thunder never had a chance against the Clippers, who maintained an average lead of 13 over the course of the night. The Clippers, who have been doubted by some as more novel than elite, produced their share of spectacles -- Blake Griffin's soaring on Kendrick Perkins the most dramatic -- but they also dominated the Thunder in the more substantive realms of the game. The Clippers generated the shots they wanted for the players most capable of making them. The defense wasn't perfect, but it moved quickly to cover its mistakes and refrained from fouling, which is how so many defenses get into trouble against Oklahoma City.
We must allow for the fact that the game was played in Los Angeles, but when matched up side to side with the Thunder, the Clippers looked slightly more commanding -- like a team that could truly thrive in a mentally grueling, physical seven-game series under a national spotlight. The previous evening in Denver, the Clippers took out the team with the second-best record in the West with a less polished but still impressive effort. The Nuggets held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and led by five with less than four minutes remaining.
Signature victories in January usually become afterthoughts by the All-Star break, but for a team trying to gauge its potential during the regular season, matchups against the teams with the most wins offer the best measure. The outcome of those games and the general quirkiness of the season suggest the Clippers might have a reasonable claim as a contender because there simply aren't that many teams -- and possibly none in the West -- that can be definitively regarded as better.
The Clippers have deficiencies, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. They're not blessed with a gifted one-on-one perimeter stopper. You can see DeAndre Jordan growing as a defender -- it really is starting to come together -- but he might need another couple of seasons to consolidate his skills and athleticism. Griffin is improving as well, contesting more and fouling less. What the perimeter guys lack in athleticism they make up for in smarts, but overall the team ranks 25th in defensive efficiency, something that would all but disqualify it from championship aspirations.
But if we peel away the numbers and look at the component parts, there's a great deal of encouragement. The Clippers' starting unit of Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Griffin and Jordan scores 114.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. That's better than any other NBA team's most common lineup (Chicago's starters with a healthy Luol Deng score nearly 116 points per 100 possessions). Defensively, the Clippers' starting five is more than adequate. They give up 97 points per possessions, which is dramatically better than the team's average and situates it in the middle of the pack among the league's more recognizable lineups. Much of the Clippers' hemorrhaging over the first month of the season came at the hands of units we may never see again (though the Paul-Mo Williams backcourt combination, while prolific offensively, surrenders a ton of points).
Overall, the starting unit with a healthy Paul boasts a point differential of 17 per 100 that tops any other team's most common lineup with only a couple of others anywhere close. Prorated to a 48-minute game of average pace, the Clippers' current starters decimate opponents by a score of 108-91. The Clippers have played few cupcakes while Paul has been on the court (Paul has suited up against only two teams with losing records), and when he's guiding the team's best combination, it is devastating even the stiffest competition.
All this has occurred before Paul and Griffin have fully explored the breadth of their potential as a tandem. Both have impeccable timing -- Paul with his pace and dribble, Griffin with his feet and agility. We see flashes of how that telepathy, once fully established, will play itself out on the court as a two-man game. Take the Griffin dunk over Perkins on Monday night as an example. Those fireworks weren't the result of a lob in transition; the play was the product of Paul's vision, a pass in the half-court with less than five seconds left on the shot clock by the league's most intuitive technician.
The Clippers don't have much margin for error. They demonstrated themselves to be a decidedly average team when Paul wears street clothes. We can assume the same would be true if Griffin was sidelined. There's little depth outside the backcourt with very little stretch up front. But every team has deficiencies, born out of injury or composition. The Clippers' shortcomings seem very manageable with a roster tweak here or there. Second-year point guard Eric Bledsoe has been activated, which will buy even more minutes for the guards. With one more body up front -- a true "first big off the bench" -- they won't have to gasp every time the whistle blows with Griffin or Jordan in close proximity. The Clippers' defensive stats can't be explained away simply as bad behavior by a few rotten lineups, but the team's primary unit has proven itself to be capable, with Jordan and Griffin improving weekly. The offense won't win any choreographic awards, but Paul has his teammates convinced that, with his help, they can find a quality shot against any defense.
The recent surge doesn't erase these flaws, but they've definitely been mitigated by Paul's return from a strained hamstring a week ago. He has the Clippers playing with a healthy arrogance that doesn't compromise their professionalism. It's evident when the veteran perimeter guys counsel Jordan and Griffin during a dead ball. Paul inspires a unique calm and selflessness when possessions matter most. These aren't just intangible qualities when matched with skill. They were on display during the Clippers' mad dash to the half on Monday night ,when they scored 12 points in 50 seconds off two turnovers and a rebound, and they might be enough to have the team playing into June for the first time in franchise history.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the editor of the TrueHoop Network.