At some point in the near future, you probably will encounter a graphic that will rank in descending order the NBA teams that have improved their winning percentage the most over the past two seasons. Barring a complete meltdown between now and late April, the Los Angeles Clippers are on track to sit atop that list.
Yet as the Clippers stumble home from a disastrous road trip with turmoil swirling around the team, none of it means a thing. The giddiness that surrounded the team in December and January has long disappeared, buried beneath some troubling realities. The warm glow of the Chris Paul acquisition has receded, and talk of lofty aspirations has devolved into a discussion of damage control.
Management cleverly scratched and clawed to acquire a megawatt talent such as Paul, but there's something fundamentally flawed about the on-court product:
This is a team that doesn't know what it is.
And there is little evidence that Vinny Del Negro, the person charged with forging the Clippers' identity, has the imagination and direction to cultivate one despite being furnished with an impressive collection of talent.
Try to chart the team's maturation since Christmas night, when it dispatched an inferior Golden State Warriors squad, and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with specifics. The offense still relies on the simple diet of high ball screens with Paul and Blake Griffin, isolations for Griffin, and, of course, Paul's magical improvisation with the ball when things get hairy. The Clippers rarely go to counters, secondary actions or misdirection. In-game adjustments are few and far between, and simply inserting Kenyon Martin to check a terror such as Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe on Sunday is regarded as monumental progress.
Opponents are now prepared for that pick-and-roll, and back-line defenders are ready to rotate to Griffin when there's even the hint of a dive or a spin to the hoop. After a confounding loss to the Phoenix Suns recently, Del Negro confessed that the team's fourth-quarter offense was predictable and disorganized. Players have confirmed as much.
The defense has yet to climb out of the bottom third of the league statistically and lacks bite. Rarely does a big man jump out aggressively on a ball handler and force the action to the sideline. Whether that's by design or by nature, opponents with refined offensive game plans are having their way with the Clippers' defense. Aware that the Clippers primarily use a "flat" coverage to guard pick-and-rolls, penetrators attack the team from the get-go, scrambling the Clippers' base defense and wreaking havoc with rotations. After that, it's a sampler platter of options that includes wide-open 3-pointers, baseline duck-ins and mismatches gone bad.
All of this, in turn, puts an unreasonable burden on Paul, who must unilaterally manufacture a game plan. Time and again, Paul cruises through the first three quarters of a ballgame well aware that, if he doesn't pace himself, the Clippers likely are doomed in the fourth. That's because the Clippers don't have a fourth-quarter offense so much as a single fourth-quarter offender: Christopher Emmanuel Paul.
Many of the Clippers' wins feel like found money -- games won spontaneously but not methodically. All teams need a little bit of timeliness -- whether it's an unconscious shooting performance such as Mo Williams' in San Antonio or the Chris Paul Show that has carried the Clippers home in most of their victories. But an outstanding team wins games through collective mastery, something the Clippers haven't accomplished for any sustained period of time this season.
Can a rudimentary offense and scattered defense be explained away as products of a team for which practice time and roster stability have been in short supply, as Del Negro has cited numerous times? Is it unfair to grade a team defensively that doesn't have a big like Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah who can stifle a pick-and-roll in his sleep, or a defensive ace on the perimeter like Andre Iguodala or LeBron James?
Del Negro has never claimed to be a strategist. He maintains that every team in the league runs the same basic stuff and feels that giving players the freedom and confidence to work their strengths is his primary responsibility as coach.
"I think it's important for guys to go out there and play off instinct instead of, 'Go here, go there,' or whatever," Del Negro said recently. "I like guys to play. I like guys to get a feel for what we're doing and how we're doing it and work off the instinct and play. I think guys enjoy the game that way a little bit better. Some guys you have to put into specific spots, whether it's because of a skill level or a strength or a weakness or whatever, but you want your guys mainly to just go out there and know what the game plan is and be able to execute it at both ends."
When the ball is in Paul's hands, this philosophy makes all the sense in the world. One of Del Negro's primary assets this year has been his willingness to hand the keys to the family wagon over to Paul and allow him to tear up the court. But Del Negro has players on the roster who aren't All-Stars, who require some help finding those specific spots. Crafting an offense to maximize less offensively creative players was a problem for Del Negro in Chicago (see Deng, Luol), and there are signs that shortcoming might stunt the Clippers' ambitions.
Rolling out the basketball might be well and good for Paul, but can "Go out there and play" serve as the governing principle for a contender? If that's your mantra as coach, what added value are you bringing to the table? Del Negro needs to find solutions on both ends of the floor -- and fast. If he can't, then the players, led by Paul, will need to take it upon themselves to do so, like a platoon without a commanding officer.
In some sense, Del Negro was never supposed to be in this spot. Nobody listed "win a conference title" or "contend for a championship" as a deliverable for Del Negro when he got the gig in the summer of 2010. He was brought in to be the happy warrior the Clippers desperately needed to restore morale in the organization. Making young guys feel good about being associated with a franchise, getting them to like where they work, as Del Negro did last season, is an admirable skill.
But not every team has the same objective, and there's a profound disparity between the goals of the Clippers pre- and post-Chris Paul. Getting a young team to the playoffs is no longer the job description for "Clippers coach," and expectations for the Clippers have accelerated at a pace too fast for Del Negro, whose coaching experience is still comparatively thin when you look around the league at teams that call themselves contenders.
Right now, the Clippers need someone with the confidence to say to Paul, "You want to make it past the conference semis one of these years? Well, I've got a plan. Follow me." They need someone who can coach up Griffin, make things easier for him on the court and teach him how to be one of those big men a point guard never wants to see when it's time to turn the corner. They need someone who can compose a symphony with his last 10 play calls of the game, someone who can devise sets that take into account a game's rhythms and themes.
Del Negro might work his tail off and have sound ambassadorial skills. There are teams in the league that might be able to use those gifts to shepherd a young club to respectability.
But the Clippers, as currently constituted, are no longer one of those teams.
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the editor of the TrueHoop Network.