The days of being "The Other L.A. Team" are over as the Pacific Division-leading 6-2 Clippers are better than up-and-coming; now in the range of arrived and ready to contend for a championship.
Led by arguably the best point guard in the NBA and the power forward just about everyone would re-draft first across the league, their complimentary pieces' weakness are well-hidden because extraordinary things are not demanded of them. Instead, the strengths of those pieces are magnified.
Looking throughout the Clippers rotation, there isn't a "don't worry about him" guy without a "worry about him" guy catching an alley-oop over someone's head or draining a three nearby:
- Chris Paul, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate, who can score from anywhere, makes plays out of nothing and attack passing lanes as well as anyone (27.4 PER, 17.0 PPG, 10.3 APG, .522 eFG%, .400 3P%, .913 FT%,).
- Blake Griffin, maybe the most athletic post player in the NBA and a crafty rebounder, is having a slow'ish start and still producing at a high level (18.9 PER, 16.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG, .495 FG%, .268 DRB%).
- Jamal Crawford, their leading per game scorer this season is coming off the bench, is getting little more volume than ever, but is more efficient than he's ever been (24.1 PER, 20.5 PPG, .605 eFG%).
- DeAndre Jordan in the middle is one of the most aggressive seven-foot athletic freaks in the league. Always a lob threat in and out of the pick n' roll, good rebounder when he has to be, and excellent shot blocker (19.6 PER, .714eFG%, 6.1 BLK%).
- Eric Bledsoe, more guard depth off the bench playing putting up go-to guy production (22.2 PER, 21.1 PP36, .561 TS%).
- Caron Butler shooting like a god and finally in a place where he isn't leaned upon to play above himself (.583 eFG%, .500 3P%).
- Matt Barnes playing such great defense and always with these scorers around him doesn't produce a liability when he comes in for Butler.
- Willie Green, asked to nothing in his 19.1 MPG than hit threes (.409 3P%).
- Lamar Odom is still a shell of himself, but Griffin's stamina with Butler, Barnes, and Crawford all being capable forwards doesn't produce a need for Odom.
- Ronny Turiaf is pretty much not making too many mistakes as the 12.6 MPG backup center for Jordon (20.0% DRB%)
The Clippers are the second-best shooting team in the league (.541 eFG%) and 6th-best defensive efficiency (100.5 DRtg), despite allowing opponents to shoot an about average .486 eFG%, because they're the most turnover producers (17.0% TOV%).
It's a great reflection of how this team is generally managed. There isn't a 25 PPG, buckets guy, but a lot of guys who can score for a team that scores from everywhere. There isn't a tandem of shut down wing players or bigs on defense, but they force turnovers and block shots with aggressiveness and athleticism.
There isn't really a formula to beating the Clippers. Isolation deters them from being rewarded for attacking passing lanes, screens set them in motion to take energy away from their offense, closing out on shooters can force shooters to freeze, and help can force the dribble-too-much guys into bad shot selection. The Bulls aren't a very good isolation team, but they do well at everything else.
What's frustrating is that all of this can go right for the 5-3 Bulls and they can still walk out of the Staples Center at 5-4 because it's more of a game that the Clippers need to mess up than for the Bulls to outplay their opponents. Those mistakes can be forced on both ends, but it'll take the 48-minute effort on which Coach Tom Thibodeau fixates, usually not needed so much against mediocre teams and bums.
Bad things need to happen for the Clippers for the Bulls to beat this stacked roster, despite Chauncey Billups and Grant HIll being out with injury. With Crawford creating his own shot all night and the Clippers executing under Vinny Del Negro, it should therefore surprise no one if the Bulls win on Saturday night.
It'd be an upset, but not a shocker.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.