Technically, every one of the 30 teams in the NBA is a “contender” for a title by virtue of existing. No team has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet (though Cleveland should be, really), so there’s still a chance for them all.
But let’s be real. In the NBA, more so than any other of the “big four” American pro sports, the best team tends to wind up winning it all. You have your teams like the 2012 Ravens winning Super Bowls and the 2007 Rockies making it to the World Series, and the L.A. Kings winning the Stanley Cup as a No. 8 seed, but in the NBA, the champion is usually fairly predictable.
Save for the ’04 Pistons and ’11 Mavericks, it’s tough to say any NBA champion in recent memory was a real surprise. The L.A. Clippers currently have the sixth-best record in the NBA, but do they have what it takes to truly win a championship this year?
Obviously, the favorite has to still be Miami. They’ve made three Finals appearances in a row, of which they’ve won the last two, and as long as LeBron James is there doing LeBron James things, you can’t really bet against them. The supporting cast there this season, with additions like Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, is probably as strong as it’s ever been. As long as Dwyane Wade’s balky knees can hold up enough to sustain a high level of play throughout the postseason, the Heat will be there until the end.
While the rest of the East has improved as the season has gone on, Indiana is really the only other team with legitimate championship aspirations. Teams like Brooklyn, Toronto and Washington have put together nice stretches, but the Pacers are a defense-first team built for success in the playoffs. Paul George’s emergence as a superstar and Lance Stephenson suddenly becoming an All-Star caliber player have helped to make them a scary bunch. Adding supporting bench pieces like Luis Scola and Danny Granger, neither of whom were around last year, only makes them stronger.
The Clippers, though, obviously don’t really have to worry about either of those teams. Getting through the Western Conference is the real chore. The Clips are currently clinging to the No. 4 seed behind OKC, San Antonio and Portland, and tied with Houston.
Oklahoma City has been playing lights-out of late, even without Russell Westbrook in the lineup. Kevin Durant is playing at an ungodly level, of course, but Serge Ibaka has also picked up his play. Ibaka is averaging career-highs in points and rebounds, and is also shooting a respectable 35% from beyond-the-arc. I’m still unsure of OKC’s depth being strong enough to carry them through the finish line, but there isn’t a team out there that can match the potency of the healthy Durant-Westbrook duo.
The Spurs have been riddled with injuries all season long, yet they continue to chug along and do Spurs-y things. They’re keeping Tim Duncan’s minutes down during the regular season to make sure he’s fresh enough to contribute during the playoffs, as they should. As long as they’re able to get Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all healthy in time, they’ll be right there, as always.
The Clippers have obvious shortcomings of their own, most notably their own lack of depth in the frontcourt behind DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. While Jordan has improved tremendously as a rebounder and as a one-on-one post defender, he’s still struggling to grasp his role in rotations and switches.
Hedo Turkoglu was a nice idea given his size and shooting ability, but he’s clearly not fully in game shape yet, and who knows if he will be at all this season. He can potentially give the team some versatility on both ends of the floor, and would be a very nice fit if he’s ever able to get back to full strength. But he still plays like a guard despite being 6’10″, so it’s not like he can come in and D-up the LaMarcus Aldridges and Dwight Howards of the world for the Clippers off-the-bench. Ryan Hollins is still the No. 1 reserve big man, and he makes Jordan look like Bill Russell in terms of basketball IQ. It’s not pretty.
If they’re somehow able to fortify the frontcourt reserve situation, the Clippers should be viewed as a real contender. Chris Paul was an MVP candidate prior to going down with the shoulder injury, and Blake Griffin has turned himself into one in the meantime. Jamal Crawford has been phenomenal of late, and J.J. Redick is a massive weapon whenever he’s on the floor. Jared Dudley has been a massive disappointment, and he’s rumored to be on the trade block, though who knows what kind of value he holds at this point.
The Clippers’ offense has become an absolute machine this season, and one would imagine it can only improve upon Paul’s return in a few days. They don’t have the polish of a team like Miami, nor the defensive presence of Indiana, nor the experience of San Antonio. But if everything breaks right and the injury bug doesn’t bite, then why not the Clippers in 2014?
About the Author
Written by Taylor Smith
Taylor Smith is a writer for the Los Angeles Clippers.