The Los Angeles Clippers are way ahead of schedule, sitting atop the NBA’s ruthless Western Conference long before Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant show up to take on LeBron James and the Lakers.
The star-less Clips’ rise to prominence, in a season when LeBron has dominated the headlines in Los Angeles, is one of the NBA’s unexpected stories.
No one expected the defending West champion Rockets to be only a .500 team as the second quarter of the season begins.
No one expected the Golden State Warriors to have major internal issues featuring Kevin Durant, putting his future in the Bay Area in doubt.
No one expected Memphis, a long way from the grit-and-grind days, to be on a pace to make the playoffs.
No one expected Denver, among the league’s worst defensive teams in recent seasons, to be a top-five defensive club and share first place with the Clippers.
No one expected Oklahoma City in the post-Durant Era to challenge for the top of the West.
No one expected Sacramento to be challenging for a post-season spot, while the Spurs face missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Here’s what was expected: Despite major roster flaws and the usual trouble for the guy who gets to coach LeBron, the Lakers are on pace to win 50 games and make the playoffs.
The Warriors’ troubles can be traced directly to Stephen Curry’s 11-game absence due to injury. They were 5-6, bringing their record without Curry over the last few seasons to 26-24.
Coach Steve Kerr also missed the harmony of recent seasons, as Durant and resident hot-head Draymond Green battled openly, a first for the Warriors during their unprecedented run of success. It’s difficult to imagine the incident will lead Durant to leave for Los Angeles or New York when he turns free in July. I mean, the Warriors are still the prohibitive favorites to win their third straight title, something the NBA hasn’t seen since Shaq and Kobe three-peated in the early 2000s. Durant can’t ever be No. 1 when Curry is playing, but he’s proven he can still be the MVP of the Finals. Winning a third title, with a chance for more gold, and getting north of $200 million from the Dubs might trump offers from the Lakers, Clippers or Knicks. Between Curry’s injury and the soap opera enveloping his team, Kerr admitted, “we’ve lived a charmed existence. We haven’t been in the real NBA the last few years. We’ve been in this dream. Now we’re facing real adversity.’’
The proof: The Warriors lost their ninth game of the season in Curry’s first action in weeks on Dec. 1. In the past four seasons, here are the dates when they suffered their ninth loss: Feb. 6, April 5, Feb. 13 and Jan. 10.
Still, they’ve got a shot to finish first in the West. It’s not a requirement for them to win the title, as we all should know by now. They’ve won life-and-death road games over the last four seasons to avoid elimination in the playoffs, win playoff series and capture the Finals. So we’ll list them as one of the four teams with a chance to win the West. The others: Houston, which lost a game even as their starting backcourt amassed 90 points against Washington and moved on from Car; Oklahoma City, facing no major distractions for the first time since before Durant left town and even with a lack of perimeter shooting, and the Lakers. Yes, the Lakers, even if team president Magic Johnson doesn’t want LeBron dominating the ball (what’s that again?) and Luke Walton’s job status hangs over the team.
The other L.A. team? I’d rank the Clippers as long shots. Doc Rivers is doing his best coaching job, maybe since he had a similar team of blue-collar players, many also on the last years of their deals, way back when he coached in Orlando. The Clips believe a playoff berth this season will help entice Leonard and maybe even Durant to accept a max-salary free-agent deal. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski told SiriusXM NBA Radio over the weekend that the Clippers think they can sell them on joining a team of unselfish, grinder-type, role players who just need a mega-star, or two, to get to the next level.
Who knows if it can ever happen. It never has. And just remember: Until proven otherwise, they still are the Clippers.
Listen to Mitch Lawrence on SiriusXM NBA Radio on The Starting Lineup, Above The Rim, NBA Today and NBA Weekend. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Lawrence.
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