Sea Change

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1992 was an interesting year. Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States, Grunge music was all the rage, the city of Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors both made the NBA playoffs.

The Clippers and Warriors have appeared sporadically in the post-season since 91-92—the heady days of Danny Manning and Ron Harper, Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway—but not together in the same season. In-fact, this is the first NBA season where the Clippers and Warriors, long time residents of the Pacific Division, have been 1st and 2nd in that division at the New Year stage. The tradition of futility and mediocrity surrounding these two franchises is legendary, but as Bob Dylan once said, the times they are a-changing.

For as long as anyone can remember the Los Angeles Lakers have been an NBA juggernaut—winners of 16 championships, second only to the Celtics—and it goes without saying that they’ve also dominated their division. More recently, the Phoenix Suns, lead by Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, were the other elite team in the Pacific—reaching 3 Western Conference Finals during the first decade of the 21st century. But this season there appears to be a changing of the guard. Phoenix, now rebuilding after the loss of Nash, will be contending for a lottery pick only, while enough ink has been spilled on the Lakers’ issues this year to write a 10-volume epic on those underachievers in purple and gold.

On Wednesday night the two best teams in the Pacific (Yep, you read that correctly) and according to the standings, the 3rd and 5th best teams in the conference respectively, met at the Oracle Arena. It feels strange just typing the above sentence, but the Clippers and the Warriors are for real. They’ve been every bit as good as their combined total of 47 wins would suggest, and they’ve reinvigorated the Western Conference with their exciting brands of basketball. For the majority of my life spent watching the NBA, a Clippers-Warriors game, starting at 10:30pm, would be about as appealing as watching Shaq mumble through another segment on TNT; but this match-up has become must-see television—a battle between two of the West’s best teams.

Last night ended up being a blow out, of course, as the Dubs shot the lights out to trounce L.A. 115-94, but the lop-sidedness of the result does nothing to change the fact that the Pacific Division is going through a re-shaping process. The Clippers and Warriors are now, according to the standings at least, two of the top-5 teams in the West. But will they be contenders come late spring? That’s another question entirely. Let start with the Warriors.

Big Time Basketball Back in the Bay Area
 
 

I stated in a previous article that, as things stand, Mark Jackson should win Coach of the Year. The transformation of this team during the time he’s been in charge—not even a season and a half—has been incredible. Last year was a write-off for Jackson, as far as being able to implement his vision and stamp his authority on the team. The lockout and congested schedule wasn’t conducive to any kind of re-shaping of the Dub’s identity. This year, however, Jackson’s hard work is paying off royally.

The biggest change in Golden State, and a massive amount of credit goes to Jackson for this, has been the team’s willingness to play hard on the defensive end. The Warriors have always seemed to be blessed with offensive talent—even last year they were a fun team to watch at that end of the floor—but they’ve coupled their offensive talents with hard work on the less glamorous aspects of the game. The Dubs are currently 18th place in the league in points allowed per game, which doesn’t sound too special in a vacuum, but it’s a massive improvement from last season when they were 28th in that category. Equally impressive has been their improvement on the boards. Last year they were a dismal 28th in the league in rebounds per game, and this year they’re an incredible 3rd best in the NBA.

At the beginning of the season it was hoped that Andrew Bogut would provide the spark on defense and on the glass, but the cursed Australian big-man has barely played. Instead the Dubs have rebounded exceptionally well as a team, but have also had some standout performances from David Lee in the frontcourt. Lee, along with point-guard Steph Curry, deserves to be an all-star this year. He’s the only player in the NBA currently averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. He’s also developed into a fantastic passer, and unlike in previous seasons where his stats have been somewhat empty—looking good on paper, but without much tangible impact—this year his fantastic play has translated into wins for his team.

With Lee playing like one of best power forwards in the game, and the Curry-Klay Thompson backcourt torching teams from downtown, the Warriors look like comfortably making the playoffs. But things can go downhill fast for this team, and their fans know it. An injury to the oft-injured Curry would derail their hopes very quickly, and this team isn’t quite deep enough to cope with injuries to their main guys. What’s more, the Warriors are a player short right now of being a contender. Rookie Harrison Barnes looks promising, and if they can keep their young core together for the years to come, they should contend further down the road. But not right now.

The Best Team in Los Angeles
 
 

The Clippers on the other hand are ready to challenge for the Larry O’Brien trophy this summer. Despite the loss on Wednesday, and the defeat to the Nuggets the night before, the Clippers have been one of the best teams in the NBA so far this season. You don’t win 17 straight games without being a serious title contender. Unlike the Warriors, of course, the Clippers were an above average team last season, and have moved the next level this year.

The play and leadership of Chris Paul has been the biggest reason why the Clippers have moved out of the imposing shadow of their big-brother Lakers over the past two seasons. After LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Paul has to be leading the second echelon of guys contending for the MVP trophy. His impact on the team has been enormous, and there are very few players in the league that you’d rather have in the last 5 minutes of a close game than CP3.

His composure in the biggest moments is something to behold. Whether it’s making the right pass, getting to the line, or draining a crucial jumper, he always seems to make the right decisions on the court. His unselfish style of basketball has rubbed off on his teammates too. The Clippers are currently 3rd in the NBA in assists per game, a jump from 13th last year, and Paul has expressed his desire for the team to play a free-flowing style like the San Antonio Spurs, where everyone gets involved on offense.

There have been noticeable improvements in the frontcourt too, particularly in the play of DeAndre Jordan, who has developed some post moves to complement his non-nonsense dunking style. And Blake Griffin, although his numbers have dipped, seems willing to take the mid-range jumper with more frequency, even though he still has one of the slowest releases in the NBA. But the biggest reason the Clippers have jumped from playoff team to title contenders this year has been the play of their bench.

Before the season began it was thought that the Clippers just had too many guys. Del Negro, not exactly a coach that inspires the most confidence, would have too hard a time managing minutes and rotations, and the team would be affected by internal grumblings because of that. But it turns out that the Clippers have depth—real depth. Currently they have the highest scoring bench in the NBA, largely thanks to 6th Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, but also because the likes of Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe are playing out of their skins. Last year the offense went stagnant if Paul or Griffin were struggling, but this season the bench has consistently provided that spark when the starters have faltered.

The free-throw shooting does remain a worry for L.A.—thanks mainly to Griffin and Jordan, they are one of the worst teams in the league from the charity stripe—but if they can improve slightly in that aspect of the game, they’ll be a serious threat to come out of the Western Conference and maybe win it all.

The revival of the Clippers and Warriors has been long overdue, and boy do their long-suffering fan-bases deserve to revel in their current successes. Don’t expect the Dubs to win a championship anytime soon, and the Clippers may still have trouble getting past OKC or Miami in the playoffs, but just being among the elite teams in the league is an immense change of fortune for these two franchises. The juggernaut Lakers will be back, but they now play in a division to be reckoned with.

And to fans of the Raptors ,Wizards, Kings, and every other perennially crap team in the Association; don’t give up hope. Fortunes can change. It just may take another 20 years.

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