There's a future NBA champion being built piece-by-piece at the Staples Center this year. It has a point guard destined for the Hall of Fame, a dominant power forward, a young, outrageously athletic 7-foot center and a shooting guard with no fear, no conscience and no hesitation.
I'm talking, of course, about the Los Angeles Clippers.
While the L.A. Lakers choke under the weight of their fans' ridiculous expectations and matching media overkill, the Clippers have flown under the radar while quietly putting together one of the best and deepest teams in the league.
It was all on display in Friday night's 105-95 deconstruction of the big-brother Lakers. The Clippers were faster up and down the court, more aggressive on the boards and displayed a deeper, more productive bench. And their leaders played true to form: Chris Paul racked up 18 points, 15 assists and only one turnover while confounding the Lakers all night with his ball-on-a-string handle. Kobe Bryant was the game-high scorer with 40 points on 23 shots that left only table scraps for Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and the rest of his supporting cast.
The victory got the Clippers off to a 2-0 start and sent the over-hyped Lakers spiraling downward to 0-3 -- their worst start in 34 years.
After Friday night the secret is out: The Clippers will shock the world this season. And they don't have to win an NBA title to do it. A trip to the NBA finals or even a trip to the Western Conference Finals would provide an electric jolt to LA and the entire NBA. It would represent the best finish in team history and validate the growing legions of Clippers fans -- Billy Crystal, Penny Marshall and Bill Simmons among them -- that have been salivating for the start of this season. Suddenly it's hip to be a Clippers fan.
Here are five reasons the Clippers will shock the world and have a better season than the Lakers:
CHRIS PAUL: The best point guard in the NBA. Forget about the dazzling Rajon Rondo, the solid Deron Williams, the aging-and-injured Steve Nash and the injured-and-probably-out-for-the-season Derrick Rose. The 27-year-old Paul is the most complete, most competitive and most charismatic point guard in a league where point guard has become the most important position. No one is better at creating shots for his teammates and, if the situation demands it, for himself. He's a five-time All-Star who has also been named to the All-Defensive team several times. On the best teams, everyone knows who the leader is -- without it having to be proclaimed like Kobe did last month with the Lakers.
From the moment he first put on a Clippers uniform a year ago Paul has been the undisputed Clippers leader. He's such a natural leader I would vote for him for president over Barack Obama or Mitt Romney without knowing or caring about his political philosophy. All I need to know is that he's a born problem-solver who leads by example and always does what's best for the team. Bonus: he has the hip nickname of CP3.
BLAKE GRIFFIN: The most significant moment in Clippers history wasn't when they drafted Blake Griffin back in 2009. That was pure luck of the lottery, made possible by what they did best: losing a lot of games. No, the biggest moment in Clippers history was last summer when Griffin signed a 5-year, $95 million contract extension.
Unlike previous top Clipper draft picks (and they've had a lot, thanks to constant losing) Griffin did not flee L.A. at the first opportunity. He chose to stay and fight because Clippers management did enough right things to convince him they were serious about building a championship contender, that they were no longer going to act like the Cheap Clippers more concerned with saving a few dollars than earning a few more wins.
Griffin is thisclose to being a top-5 player in the NBA. Everyone knows about his dunking ability. Less well known are his excellent ball-handling and passing skills for a player his size -- 6-foot-10, 250 pounds. All he has to do now is develop an 18-foot jump shot that will open up the court for himself and his teammates. His extraordinary leaping ability, intense physicality and great work ethic have quickly made him a top-15 player in the league. He worked hard all summer to develop that missing outside shot, and once he establishes it so defenders can't lay off him and wait for the drive, then the sky is the limit. He has LeBron James-type upside potential.
DEPTH: This team is more loaded than Charlie Sheen on a Saturday night. And it's mainly due to four ex-Lakers. Former All-Star Caron Butler is the starting small forward, while reality-show-refugee Lamar Odom, Rasta man board banger Ronny Turiaf and sullen, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Barnes are the core of the deepest bench in the league. All four once played significant roles for the Lakers, all four left for various reasons (Butler in the worst trade in Laker history, for Kwame Brown), and all four would be welcome additions to the current unproductive and unproven Lakers bench.
But the Clipper's depth goes beyond those four: Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill provide veteran leadership and late-game clutch shooting, while young Eric Bledsoe is already the best backup point guard in the league -- so quick and powerful that some team just might make the Clippers an offer they can't refuse. And that shooting guard who never met a shot he didn't think he could make? His name is Jamal Crawford, he's been a hired gun floating around the league for the last decade, and he's about to become a household name in L.A.
CHEMISTRY: The Miami Heat struggled for almost two full seasons before winning the title last season because it was torn between its old leader, Dwayne Wade, and the new leader, LeBron James. When Wade started laboring with a knee injury late last year James finally assumed the Alpha Dog role, Wade took on the wingman role and the Heat found its championship Zen.
The Clippers are skipping all that internal drama because Griffin made it clear from the day Paul arrived that he is more than happy to accept the wingman role. That assured that everyone else would accept and understand his own role -- especially center DeAndre Jordan, a mobile, athletic giant who is almost as gifted as Dwight Howard and is most effective playing the rebounder/defender role. Like Griffin, Jordan is working hard to expand his offensive game and develop a reliable jump shot and foul shot. When that happens, the Clippers will be true title contenders because they've already learned the secret to winning hoops: having talented players is important, but it's more important that the talent fit together, follow their natural leader and stick to their roles.
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OWNERSHIP, MANAGEMENT AND COACHING: For more than 20 years Donald Sterling was widely reviled as the worst owner in pro sports, a cheapskate meddler who ran a third-rate operation that looked even worse when compared to the flagship franchise run by Jerry Buss and the Lakers. But about a decade ago Sterling, now 79, began to have a late-in-life makeover that included opening his wallet to pay market rate for not-quite-superstars like Elton Brand and Baron Davis. The front office stabilized, Sterling built a $50 million state-of-the-art team headquarters in Playa Vista and the new Clippers culture began to shed the Clippers Curse. Once Griffin signed his extension, Paul began to give every indication that he too intends to re-up next summer when he is free to make a move.
All this is happening because Sterling has finally stopped meddling and let his basketball people make the basketball decisions. The old Sterling would have fired Coach Vinny Del Negro when everyone was calling for his ouster in the middle of a slump last season. The new Sterling never flinched, and Del Negro coached them into the second round of the playoffs with a rousing upset of Memphis in an epic 7-game series. Similarly, Del Negro has been smart enough to let Paul function as a coach on the court and not try to micro-manage him or the team.
BOTTOM LINE: The Clippers will shock the world this year by making it to the Western Conference Finals and maybe even the NBA Finals. Then if Sterling continues his hands-off policy, if Griffin and Jordan continue to expand their offensive games, and if Paul re-signs next summer, look for the Clippers to win an NBA championship in the next few years.
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