Before this little three-game whirlwind started I had the chance to sit down with Steve Perrin of ClipsNation to talk a little Clippers and Trail Blazers. Steve has long been one of the best basketball bloggers out there but the relative anonymity of the Clippers compared to their in-town rivals kept his profile lower than it should be. When you read his answers you'll wonder why we haven't been talking to him forever. Consider that oversight banished. Here are five questions I asked him. You can head over to ClipsNation to see the six he asked me and my responses.
Blazersedge: Blake Griffin...how good is he really? Cut away the shine of the highlight reel and let's start comparing him to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant. Even if you argue that Griffin is arguably the best power forward in the league how good is the best power forward compared to the best players overall right now?
Steve Perrin: Blake Griffin is starting for the Western Conference in the All Star Game in a little over a week, and they might as well engrave his name on the ballot because that ain't changing any time soon. But there's a difference between popularity and basketball value. Griffin's no Stevie Francis mind you, but his legend may long outstrip his real worth, if only because he's just so damn exciting.
Griffin has a lot to learn on the basketball court. Of course, that's a good news bad news thing. He's got plenty of holes in his game right now... but that just means he's got a fair amount of headroom, and he's already pretty damn good.
Griffin has an unfair combination of freakish athleticism and a high level skill set for a guy his size, but his technique is very poor. Now, sometimes people get confused with the distinction I'm making between skills and technique. He has skills -- he can dribble much better than any other power forward in the league, he's a good passer, and he's not a bad shooter, notwithstanding the fact that he needs to get better. But he doesn't have great footwork in the post, he doesn't have particularly polished post moves, and he doesn't have a go to move.
Griffin's points come almost entirely from his athleticism at this point. He outruns and outjumps people in transition of course, but even in the post, he mostly just 'athletes' the ball into the basket -- he jumps a little higher than his defender, is strong enough to take a hit, has uncanny body control, and has enough hand eye coordination to guide the ball into the hoop. But he doesn't even really possess a jump hook as such. He's added some upfakes into his repertoire and has even made a competent up and under move more than once this season (which he finishes with a one handed flush, something Kevin McHale never did). Those things are where he'll continue to improve. Bear in mind, the guy has only played 109 NBA games to this point.
He clearly doesn't impact the game the way Bryant, James and Durant do, but part of that is the reality of position. Perimeter players will have the ball, and can get the ball, at the end of a game. Blake is currently a relatively minor factor in crunch time, particularly when you consider his free throw shooting. Dwight Howard is probably the better comparison, and Dwight has similar limitations at the end of the game -- but of course Howard has much more defensive impact than Blake ever will.
Bottom line -- Griffin's really good now, but he has a lot of room for improvement. Which is pretty frightening for the rest of the league, when you think about it.
BE: Can a team playing as many point guards as the Clippers do, keeping in mind that the top two have injury histories, really contend...as in title hopes? Is the L.A. fan base that far along yet, that high in their aspirations? And if so, what do you really think the chances are of getting through multiple seven-game series intact and relatively unexploited?
SP: It's difficult to gauge where the fan base is regarding expectations. This is all so new. But the Clippers are either second or third in the Western Conference in every single power ranking this week, and that's with a team that was completely remade this summer and so is still learning to play together, with a stretch of five or six games where Chris Paul was out or hampered by a hamstring injury, and with a season ending injury to Chauncey Billups. So really, it wouldn't be unreasonable to have title hopes in that situation, would it? I mean, other than Oklahoma City, Miami and Chicago, what NBA team has more claim to legitimate title hopes as of today than the Clippers? If there's room for a fourth team in the discussion, I hereby nominate the Clippers.
You know better than anyone that injuries are always a possibility. The Clippers already lost Billups, which happens to be an injury they can withstand. An injury to Paul or Griffin would be crushing of course, and even Butler or Jordan would be a much more serious loss than Billups, simply because of depth issues at those positions. So I'm just going to assume the Clippers stay relatively healthy the rest of the way, since that's all I can do.
As it happens, the Clippers are actively trying to address the issue of size on the wing. If they are able to add J.R. Smith, then that pretty much shores up the biggest remaining weakness of the team. Even if they don't get Smith, they'll add someone -- but of course the question is how good might that someone be. It's hard to know at this point, but the Clippers will make a move before the trade deadline, you can count on it.
Let's assume that they aren't able to add anyone particularly impactful and return to your question of whether they can win a seven game series relying on their small guards. I think the short answer is yes, why not -- but it will also depend on the matchup. As I watch other teams play this season, I see many of the top teams playing small in crunch time -- OKC loves to sit Perkins down and slide Durant to the four, Denver loves to play Lawson and Miller together, Dallas will always have Kidd and Terry on the floor, etc. etc. I've been quite concerned about this very issue during the regular season, but I've been surprised at how frequently it's been easy to have Paul and Williams on the floor together down the stretch.
One big exception to that in the West is the Lakers. When they play Metta World Peace at the three, they can really punish small lineups. The one saving grace there is that MWP has been so terrible this season that you can probably guard him with a point guard and not get hurt too badly. Then of course there's Miami, but is there really any solution against those guys?
BE: Has Chris Paul been everything you've dreamed? This is like a voyeur question for all my readers at Blazersedge and everybody else who spent all summer going, "Here's the trade that will get us Chris Paul!" What's it really like?
SP: I ain't gonna lie man. It's nice. Really nice.
But you're talking to a Clippers fan remember. With the exception of one season of Sam Cassell, the Clippers have pretty much NEVER had an above average point guard, let alone the best point guard in the league. Former Blazer Rick Brunson started 39 games for the Clippers a scant seven years ago, and that team actually had playoff aspirations!
The other thing the Clippers have never had (again, with the possible exception of Cassell) is a closer. Even when Elton Brand was second team All NBA, he was never a guy that could get you a bucket on a crucial possession. Now suddenly the Clippers have both a great floor leader, and a great closer. It's like I was dating Melissa McCarthy and Kate Upton called and asked if I was busy Valentine's Day.
BE: What do the Clippers need to do in order to steal the hearts of L.A. fans from that other team? I imagine it's already happening in some ways but how will you know you're really there? Or will you ever be really there?
SP: First and foremost, make no mistake -- this is a still Lakers town. Walk into any store and there are dozens, maybe hundreds of Lakers items for sale -- caps, jerseys, T-shirts, pennants, posters, coffee mugs, key chains, baby blankets, picture frames -- all kind of crazy stuff. But it's unusual if there is one Clippers item. That's just how it is, and it will be that way for awhile. Angelinos love their Lakers, and for any Lakers fan the Clippers are still the other team.
Having said that, I've long known that one Clipper fan archetype was the die hard NBA fan who disliked the Lakers for whatever reason. Maybe they grew up somewhere else and learned to hate the Lakers there, maybe they got disillusioned during the Kobe-Shaq era -- the Clippers have long cultivated these fans and survived in LA simply being the not-Lakers. This season I'm running into another sub-type of Clipper fan -- those who dislike the Lakers but still want to root for a winner. It turns out, there are a lot of them. When you take into consideration the exciting brand of basketball the Clippers are playing, and the fact that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are two of the most telegenic and personable players in the league, you realize that for any resident of LA that has a passing interest in the NBA and no pre-determined allegiance to the Lakers, the Clippers will be their team. And of course, we're just scratching the surface -- when the playoffs roll around, Clipper fever will really take off.
I'm not sure if the Clippers will ever approach the level of support the Lakers have in Los Angeles though. And I'm OK with that. There is an analog though. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the Angels were to the Dodgers as the Clippers are to the Lakers. The Dodgers had won five World Series and four more National League pennants in LA, not to mention their proud Brooklyn history, while the Angels had no history and had never even won a playoff series. The Dodgers were always front page news, while the Angels barely warranted a beat reporter from the LA Times -- which all mirrors the Clippers of two seasons ago. Then, the Angels won it all in 2002, and they've sustained a level of play exceeding the Dodgers ever since, and now this area is split about 55% Dodgers, 45% Angels. So there's hope.
The Clippers will be there when there is more Clippers merchandise in the store than Lakers merchandise. Or when the front page of the LAT sports section has the Clippers game story, while the Lakers game is an AP wire story on page 7.
BE: How do you guys feel about Vinny del Negro? Making the most of things? Holes in the system? Also I'm calling it here: Summer of 2013, Vinny let go, Nate McMillan becomes Clippers next head coach. Reaction?
On the Nate in for Vinny, thing, yes please. More on that later.
I have a laugh line when people ask me about Del Negro's coaching. It works better on radio interviews, but I'll try it in writing. You ready? "Chris Paul makes everyone better. He makes Vinny a better coach. Hell, Chris Paul makes me a better blogger." Doesn't work as well in pixels. Oh well.
Vinny has no offensive system to speak of -- but with Chris Paul running pick and roll, you don't really need a whole lot more. So I'm far from sold on Del Negro as a coach, but the current assemblage of personnel has a certain immunity to bad coaching. Roll the ball out to Chris Paul and four talented players and good things will happen.
The defensive schemes aren't Chicago or Dallas or Philadelphia good, but they're not terrible. The Clippers don't have a lot of plus defenders on the floor at any one time, but at times this season they've looked pretty cohesive. Dean Demopolous, a former top assistant of Nate's, is the defensive coordinator, so in theory that's a good thing.
In fact, that's been the Clippers strategy to some extent -- to surround Vinny with competent assistants that can help with the Xs and Os. Marc Iavaroni is ostensibly the offense guy, having been an assistant for Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix before getting a shot as the head guy in Memphis. Demopolous is the defense guy. Vinny is the motivator. That's the plan anyway.
Vinny does seem to relate to the players well, particularly young players. And there's some evidence that he is indeed a good motivator. In two seasons in Chicago, you could say that his Bulls teams underachieved based on the improvements there under Tom Thibodeau, but what they didn't do was quit on him. Both years he was in Chicago, it appeared that the Bulls were out of the playoffs, and they went on a run at the end of the season to sneak into the playoffs. There's something to that.
Nate on the other hand has always seemed like one of the top coaches in the league to me, at least in terms of results. I'm sure that I see it differently from the outside, because the grass is always greener when the shoemaker's children are half empty, but both in Seattle and in Portland I've felt like Nate's teams have overachieved. The mere fact that Portland has remained competitive -- and have continued to give maximum effort -- through such a devastating series of injuries over the last few years speaks volumes. So from your mouth to the Flying Spaghetti Monster's ears on that whole 2013 prediction. Could we move it up to 2012?
Thanks to Steve for taking the time with us. Remember to head on over to ClipsNation to (nicely) say hello and check out the rest of the conversation!