Chris Paul‘s Clippers are likely the best team in NBA history that has never made it to the Conference Finals. They are currently 14-2 this season, and have won a staggering 67 percent of their games with Paul in the fold – the second best mark since 2011 only behind the Spurs.
There are a few comparable teams in recent NBA history who have fallen just short, most notably the Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash’s 7-seconds-or-less Suns, and LeBron James’ first stint with the Cavaliers from 2005-06 to 2009-10. However, each of those teams made it further into the playoffs than the Clippers, and all had peaks that lasted between five to seven years. The Clippers are now in year six and at some point within the next few seasons there will be a drastic fall off one way or another.
Paul, JJ Redick and Blake Griffin head into unrestricted free agency next July and who knows what may happen if the team has another playoff disappointment. Paul turns 32, and Redick 33 next summer. Griffin has had some injuries and the Clippers have no one in the rotation who is under 27 years old except Austin Rivers. Additionally, the Clippers are out their first-round draft pick in both the 2017 and 2019 drafts.
In the form of age, injuries or just the weird stuff that happens to NBA franchises every now and then, regression is coming at some point. There’s just no way Paul can continue being as good as he’s been over the past few seasons forever, and him falling off just slightly may be enough to push the Clips out of title contention.
Interestingly, the Western Conference is probably more open right now than it’s ever been before for the Clippers. For the first four years of Paul’s tenure, it basically took 50-wins to even make it into the playoffs, and every series was basically a seven-game coin toss. The last two seasons, the four best teams have been the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors and Clippers, and among those teams Clippers have generally been considered to be the least likely to win the championship.
Now one of those teams may be unbeatable with the addition of Durant, but the Thunder are now out of the picture and won’t be competing for the championship. Even the Spurs, who are still winning games at a high rate have some real question marks – their defense has been terrible with Pau Gasol and Tony Parker on the court, and LaMarcus Aldridge looks like he’s moving into a different phase of his career with a PER of 19.7, the lowest he’s been at since 2009-10.
Now the Warriors are an overwhelming favorite, but this season is probably the first time we can point to the Clippers likely being the second best team in the conference. And while the odds against the Warriors aren’t great, that’s still only one squad that’s better than them before the Finals, and the Clippers could be heavily favored in every series leading up to the Western Conference Finals.
The Clippers have a better chance than before to go deep in the postseason because of circumstances around them, but what’s interesting is that they’ve managed to be better over the first fifth of the 2016-17 NBA season than they’ve been at any point in the previous five years.
Amidst all the talk about Griffin being soft, Jordan’s free-throw shooting and Paul’s bad mistakes in key playoff moments is the fact that with their top guys on the court, the Clippers have always been incredible. In fact, the Jordan-Griffin-Paul-Redick on the court together with someone pretending to be a 3-and-D wing – a prestigious position currently occupied by Luc Mbah a Moute (among with legends Wesley Johnson and previously Matt Barnes) – has basically, without exception, been the best lineup year-to-year in the NBA. Perhaps only losing to the Warriors “Death” lineups over the past two seasons.
In the past four seasons, the Clippers have outscored opponents by 10.5, 16.1, 16.3 and 26.4 points per 100 possessions with their core four players on the court together. The team has ranked 10th, fifth, fourth, second (twice) and are currently first in Net Rating. In those years, the offense has always ranked Top 6.
Without a doubt, those are title contender numbers. But statistically, there have been two weaknesses until now: defense and bench play.
Interestingly, the defense was already in an upward swing last season when the Clippers ranked sixth in defensive rating, allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions. The offense took a bit of a step back with Griffin out for much of the season, but it would’ve been interesting to see what a healthy squad would have been able to do in the playoffs.
The most important numbers for the Clippers this season have been how they’ve managed to play without Paul on the court. With Paul, the Clippers are outscoring opponents by 21.6 points per 100 possessions, a ludicrous mark, and without him they’ve been outscored by 1.2 points.
Now an on/off-court margin of 22.8 points isn’t wonderful (basically the equivalent difference between the best and worst team in the NBA), but it’s also a tremendous improvement that the without-Paul-Clippers have basically played opponents to a tie. The last two seasons, the Clips have been outscored by an average of 6.1 points without him on the court.
The worst of the Clippers has improved, but what’s much crazier is that so has the best. Paul has a ridiculous 33.2 PER right now, which would be by far the best mark of any player over a full season in NBA history. For whatever reason, Redick just gets better everý season and is posting a career-best 64.9 True Shooting Percentage so far.
As a minor side note, Jordan’s athleticism looks like it could start declining some time soon, and as a troubling first sign he’s currently shooting 63.2 percent at the basket, down from around 72 percent during the last two seasons.
The Hidden Value of Playing Together
In an era where contracts are shorter and free agency has been made into a circus, the Clippers are proof there’s tremendous value to be gained just by playing together.
Griffin knows how to execute the scheme very well after all these years. Paul is still very good and is averaging a career-high 3.0 steals per game right now. Redick never misses a rotation and is definitely a plus in the team scheme.
For a long time, Jordan was clearly an overrated defender due to him just blocking a ton of shots. In many cases blocks tend to correlate only loosely with defensive ability and Jordan used to hunt blocks in favor of playing solid team defense. Until last season, Jordan was actually clearly the better offensive player due to his gravity on the roll, but that’s changed and he’s turned into a terrific defender under Rivers’ coaching. This season, Jordan ranks second among centers in Real Plus-Minus at +3.05.
Add to that mix Mbah a Moute making enough shots to stay on the court, and he’s actually a pretty wonderful defensive addition who is one of the best players in the NBA on closeouts against wing guys – which is important as the Clippers like to overload the strong side defensively. On the season, the Clippers are allowing only 98.2 points per 100 possessions, ranking second in the league.
Offensively, it’s easy to see on every possession how well the Clippers players know each other, and what to do in every single situation. In every half-court set, the Clippers know they can find an advantage somewhere, and they very rarely run out of clock without getting one of the shots they want from their actions.
Clippers action from sideline out of bounds
The Clippers always have proper spacing, and Paul keeps the pace of the offense at exactly the speed it needs to be. Every action triggers the next one quickly – a double-down screen turns into a post-up or dribble pitch. Teams forcing the pick-and-roll baseline triggers the re-screen and the angle is made perfectly.
The offense runs like clockwork and the Clippers are currently my pick for the team that best executes their offensive concept. At 111.7 points per 100 possessions, they are ranked second in offensive efficiency, and they would be the first in most years with that mark if one team didn’t have Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Redick used as decoy for Jordan lob
Rivers is known as a motivator-type coach who can get his team to play hard, but that severely underrates what a nice offense (and defense) he runs. Rivers is the master at implementing down screens into his offense, first with Ray Allen in Boston and now with Redick. There’s a real tactical reason why the Clippers run their first play for Redick. He makes that jump shot and it starts changing the defense. Redick can ruin the opponent’s strategy defensively just with his gravity. In the clip above, he is used as a decoy to make Nikola Jokic jump out to contest the pass. When Jokic starts playing the passing lane, Jordan knows he just needs to run to the rim and he’ll get the ball for an open alley-oop dunk.
Really the only annoying part in the Clipper offense is when the ball swings to the weakside corner where Mbah a Moute is standing, but he’s made 11-of-25 on three-pointers this year (44.0 percent), which is enough not to torpedo the beautiful action entirely.
Chris Paul’s Place in NBA History by the Numbers
Among stat nerds, Paul is probably appreciated even more than with the general public. In ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, Paul has ranked as the best point guard in the league in three out of the four seasons the stat has been publicly available, including last year when Curry was the unanimous MVP. This season, Paul leads point guards with a +9.63 RPM, miles ahead of the second best player (Westbrook) at +5.07.
One interesting career statistic that is just unmatched in NBA history is Paul’s turnover rate. Over his career with 9.9 assists per game, Paul only has a turnover percentage of 13.0. Only John Stockton and Magic Johnson have higher assist numbers, and both turned the ball over on an estimated 20 percent of their plays per Basketball-Reference.com. In fact, among players who have averaged seven or more assists in their careers, no one is even close to Paul.
Limiting turnovers isn’t something anyone really notices when they watch the games, but it’s incredibly important for teams. If you’re wondering how on earth the Hornets are doing so well (and have overachieved under Steve Clifford), one of the biggest statistical reasons is that they are on their way to committing the fewest turnovers in the NBA for the fourth season in a row.
Paul ranks eight in NBA history overall in career PER at 25.8 and has accumulated the 22nd most Win Shares (a cumulative box score derived statistic) already, and with at least a few more good years he’ll start sniffing Top 10. In fact, just a few weeks ago Paul passed Michael Jordan in Win Shares per 48 minutes for the No. 1 spot all-time. By Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus Minus statistic, Paul has seven of the 100 best seasons played in NBA history.
Paul’s success has yet to fully transfer to the playoffs, though his individual numbers are still great and mostly in line with his regular season stats. The Clippers weren’t healthy last year and that was devastating and the year before they choked away a 3-1 lead against the Rockets. In the 2013-14 playoffs Paul screwed up at the end of Game 5 in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Thunder and the Clippers lost the chance to be up 3-2. The years before those playoffs Griffin and Jordan probably weren’t good enough yet for the Clippers to actually really compete for the title.
It’s tough, and now Paul is by far the best player in NBA history never to reach the Conference Finals.
But this season that can change, and for the Clippers the key will be keeping the defense at a high level while staying healthy the entire year. Nagging injuries have started hitting Paul at the end of each season, and that’s something you’d hope he’ll be able to avoid this time. The Clippers have all the tools to make it far in the playoffs and even push the Warriors, now if ever is the time to start converting on that potential.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.