Fridays With Fenrich is a weekly feature here at Hickory-High, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah.
Ian – As of Monday evening the Los Angeles Clippers have won 17 games in a row. Over that span they’ve scored at the league’s second-most efficient pace, 111.0 points per 100 possessions. They’ve also had the league’s second-stingiest defense, allowing just 95.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s a Net Rating of +15.8, roughly equal to that of the Knicks and Spurs, combined. The Clippers will certainly lose again this season, possibly even this week when they see the Nuggets, Lakers and Warriors (twice) but this win streak would certainly seem to cement their place among the league’s elite. Can you think of three good reasons why they can’t win the title this year?
Kris – Of course, the night I received your email, the Clips promptly lost to a Nuggets team that was without their starting point guard. But to your question … three good reasons why they won’t win the title.
- Coaching: As a rule, I don’t get into coaching criticisms too much unless things are just blatantly offensive like Mike Brown’s lack of creativity or Mike D’Antoni’s inability to adjust or P.J. Carlesimo’s obvious ineptitude, but Vinny Del Negro’s coaching leaves a lot to be desired. In a seven-game series where he’s got to make adjustments against the likes of Gregg Popovich, Scotty Brooks or even Lionel Hollins, we’ll get a good idea of where he’s at as a coach.
- Attitudes: I’m just throwing this one out there for the sake of discussion, but there are some questionable attitudes on this roster. Let’s start with their unshakable leader, a man I consider the Ric Flair of the NBA: Chris Paul. The statute of limitations has passed on his groin punch to Julius Hodge back in the ACC, but this is still a guy who wants to win so bad I could see him gouging an eye in order to get a leg up on the competition. Up next is Blake Griffin. He’s consistently one of the league leaders in techs and while he seems to be either posturing or possessed of extreme self-control (he’s only been ejected once in his career), it’s not a good thing when two of your top role players (Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan) are joining you on the list of technical foul leaders. There’s a petulant manner to this team; something that’s ingrained in the culture that could be a determining factor in the playoffs when the margins are reduced and mistakes amplified.
- Free throw shooting: A nod to my buddy Hamilton this one. Two of the Clips top four leaders in free throws attempted are Griffin and Jordan who’ve combined to shoot 54.4% from the line this season. OK, so you bench Jordan (43% from the line) in crunch time, but that reduces the impact of your defense (not a problem when you’re winning by 15, but in close games it’s another story) and leaves you with someone like Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins or Lamar Odom—none of whom are strong FT shooters. Again, this isn’t a huge red flag in the regular season, but as we get into April and May, these FT woes are going to look a lot uglier than they do today.
Ian - Well, the Clippers are now 0-2 since we started this week’s conversation, congratulations on a successful reverse jinx.
Full disclosure, I asked for three reasons and fully expected the answers to be LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Vinny Del Negro. Free throw shooting is an issue, and you’re right that their petulance index is off the charts. But to me the most concerning thing is Del Negro. On the surface it seems like he has done an impressive job of juggling minutes and roles for a wealth of talented veterans. But when you look at their lineups you find a heaping bowl of vanilla. The Clippers three most used lineups this season have played nearly half of their total minutes. Those three lineups are the starters, their five-man bench unit, and the starters with Jamal Crawford in place of Willie Green. The lack of complexity has worked in part because of an easy schedule – that 17 game win streak came against teams with a combined win percentage of 0.418.
The bottom line is that we can come up with a list of championship factors for the Clippers, on both sides of the ledger. If we’re both thinking the Clippers might still be a notch below the other championship contenders the question becomes – have the Clippers peaked? Can they play better basketball than they have the past few weeks?
Kris - With the exception of OKC, I don’t think there’s a team in the league with a higher ceiling than LAC. Admittedly, ceiling and “peaking” are not the same thing, but I’m confident my ceiling will raise this illusory peak you mention. And I don’t think this recent stretch fairly represents the Clips or should be used as any sort of definitive indicator for this team. As you wisely pointed out; their win streak was against a who’s who of middle-to-lower class teams and they chewed up the competition in almost cannibalistic fashion.
On an individual level, their second best player (Griffin) hasn’t unlocked the secrets to harnessing his own bionic abilities, but rather continues to ferociously flirt around the edges of potential (with Del Negro nervously pacing at his side like an unconfident, possibly overprotective, insecure parent). And sardonic words will be said about aging role players like Billups, Grant Hill and Odom, but even limited contributions from these sages will push that ceiling up just a bit more (picture Hill and Billups tracing the paths of the Celtics-era P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell). Lastly … it’s a fair assumption that Eric Bledsoe and Jordan will continue to improve—both in terms of skill and chemistry (specifically speaking of Jordan on the latter point). So no, I don’t believe this team has achieved some sort of imaginary Clipperopolis summit … but it’s wholly possible they won’t reach it until Sherpa Vinny has been replaced.