We're only three weeks into the season, but already our view of the Western Conference power structure has changed substantially.
Heading into the season we thought there was a pretty clear hierarchy. The defending champion Thunder, even without James Harden, were the team to beat. The Lakers, with their armada of four superstars, were an obvious threat to regain the conference title they'd won three straight times from 2007-08 through 2009-10. The Spurs, owners of the conference's best record the previous two seasons, were lurking.
And everybody else was playing for pride, essentially; not that there weren't several good teams among the other dozen in the West, but nobody realistically saw any of them facing off with Miami in June.
Now? The picture looks quite different. Memphis hammered a series of strong teams last week, culminating in Friday's beat down of the Knicks, and an early-season win in Milwaukee is also looking more impressive over time. Minnesota is 5-4 without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, which inevitably leads one to wonder just how good the Wolves might be when those two get back.
And then we have the Clippers. As L.A.'s "other" team prepares to face off with San Antonio for a second time -- having already blown away the Spurs in their first meeting -- we must increasingly account for the possibility that the best team in Staples Center isn't wearing blue and gold.
Meanwhile the old guard hasn't exactly cemented its position. The Lakers, of course, stumbled out of the gate 1-4, and while they've recovered of late, they've also benefited from an incredibly generous stretch of schedule featuring home games against overmatched opponents.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio have been better, but it has been a more wobbly affair than it appears just by looking at wins and losses. The Thunder have taken care of business against a soft early schedule but, minus Harden, the offense still looks disjointed compared to last season's dominance. Meanwhile, San Antonio stands at 8-2 despite juggling the rotation on what seems to be a nightly basis while they look for a comfortable long-term frontcourt pairing, and Manu Ginobili is off to a rough start.
But let's get back to the Clippers, who conveniently play both the Spurs and Thunder this week. Because of that, the next three days could mark one of those landmark moments -- to the extent you can have one in the regular season -- that establishes them as a genuine contender rather than just a refreshing source of highlight dunks and Kia commercials.
Already they've defeated the Grizzlies, Spurs, Lakers and Bulls and are leading the Western Conference in point differential. (They've also lost at home to Cleveland and Golden State, but let's not dwell on that for the moment.) They've done this despite the fact that they're still burning 15 minutes a game attempting to salvage a beyond-repair Lamar Odom, and that Chauncey Billups has yet to play a minute for them.
As for the reasons, several crop up, but let me focus on the two big ones. First, Jamal Crawford. Holy moly. After a lost year in Portland, he has come to L.A. and been a thunderbolt for the second unit, ranking ninth in the NBA in PER while averaging 29.4 points per 40 minutes. Other highlights include a 44 percent mark on 3s, a heretofore unseen free throw rate, and an almost complete absence of turnovers.
Obviously these numbers will cool off some -- it's unlikely he shoots 50 percent on 2s away from the rim all season, and his 3-point and free throw rates and percentages all would blow away his career bests. Also, you'd like to see Crawford distribute more -- he can be a good passer when he wants but has only 10 dimes in nine games.
But in the big picture, the fit has been far better than expected. On a second unit with little scoring -- Ryan Hollins, Matt Barnes, and Eric Bledsoe are the other primary subs -- giving it to Crawford and getting out of the way makes considerable sense; he worked this ploy to perfection in winning the Sixth Man Award in Atlanta. Historically the problems have come when the long 2s off the dribble stop finding the net, but so far he's generating enough 3s, layups and free throws that he's still a high-percentage proposition.
Yet any discussion of Crawford, or Blake Griffin and Chris Paul for that matter, ends up obscuring the lead story in L.A.: The fact the Clippers are actually guarding people. The Clips won as an offensive team a year ago, ranking fourth in offense and 18th in defense, and during the playoffs were absolutely shredded by San Antonio's precision attack.
Fast forward to this season, however, and unbelievably the Clippers are No. 3, even with Crawford and Vinny Del Negro both involved prominently. Vinny will engender a massive rethink of his status in the league's coaching hierarchy if his charges can keep this up, especially because they've done it against some fairly strong offenses.
Moreover, they're not doing it how you might think. Despite the imposing frontcourt of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have actually been vulnerable on the glass, ranking only 25th in defensive rebound rate. They've just been very good at everything else.
Most notably, the Clips are second in forcing turnovers and third in field goal defense. For the former, you can thank Bledsoe and his absurdly high steal rate (nearly one every 10 minutes), as well as the fast hands of annual steals title contender CP3. Between those two alone L.A. gets nearly four thefts a game.
Behind them, Jordan and Griffin have improved -- especially Jordan, who often looked lost defensively a year ago but has refined his game to the point that he's a valuable rim protector. Nonetheless, the real impact again comes when the Clippers go to their energetic bench. Statistically, all of the Clippers' best defensive units have been bench grouping, with L.A. going up another level in particular when Bledsoe or Matt Barnes replaces Caron Butler.
Since L.A. usually plays its bench as a unit, this is fairly easy to see statistically. The Barnes-Bledsoe-Crawford perimeter trio has been particularly nasty together, regardless of whether its Hollins, Odom or Ronny Turiaf joining them, with an 89.5 defensive efficiency mark in 115 minutes together according to NBA.com.
Thus, all appears well for the Clippers. We know they can score, with Paul and Griffin around, and that's especially true if Crawford is lighting it up off the bench. We know they have boundless energy off the bench, with the electric Bledsoe and other assorted scrappers such as Barnes and Hollins. And we know there's more waiting in reserve, as Billups and Grant Hill haven't played a game yet.
Nonetheless, there's one other lingering question that I haven't yet referenced: How will this travel? As with the Lakers above, the Clips have benefited from an unusually generous stretch of schedule. Eight of their nine games have been at Staples Center, with the lone exception a quick trip up the coast to Portland.
Now they hit the rough stuff -- a four-game itinerary through San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Atlanta. It's extremely likely that the home games were skewing the Clippers' data somewhat, and we're about to learn how much.
With all that said, it's an incredibly encouraging start for the Clippers. They aren't just squeaking by either -- they hammered the Spurs and Bulls, for instance, and as noted above, lead the West in point differential. While a successful trip would quickly legitimize their entry into the contender pantheon, we're going to need to keep a closer eye on this team regardless -- especially if the defense keeps up. For the first time in, well, ever, the Clippers are a franchise worth taking seriously.