Fraternizing with the Enemy: Spurs, Clippers, and Steve's

So, the Spurs are playing the Clippers again, but this time, the stakes appear higher. The winner of Saturday's game takes sole possession of second place in the Western Conference, within striking distance of the Thunder. Like the previous game, Clipsnation's Steve and I had a chat. So yes, it a conversation between the ClipperSteve and SpursFanSteve. (FYI, there aren't any Steves anymore. There are literally five dads that live within two blocks of me on my street named Steve, but neither of my kids goes to school with a single Steve. Actually, there is one, but everyone calls him Scotty. Whatever happened to Steve?)

Since I had the first go round last time, I let him take the lead this time. I hope you enjoy. If you're up for it and promise to play nice, you can go chat with the Clippers fans here.

ClipperSteve: Steve, first, let's start with the obvious question: How does Gregg Popovich do it? Every year, NBA pundits of all stripes decree that the Spurs are too old to compete. This year especially, after the first round playoff exit, the consensus seemed to be that the Spurs would be in decline. Then Ginobili got hurt, making it all but inevitable. And all the Spurs did was go 15-7 without Manu, and with Tim Duncan's numbers down across the board. So what's the deal?

SpursFanSteve: Well, Steve, to be honest, if I knew the real answer to that question, I would probably be coaching instead of blogging. It's like Jeff Van Gundy says "Those who can't play, coach. Those who can't coach, become analysts." I do think, though, that the surprise of the Spurs success has more to do with main steam media perception than, you know, reality. We had a first round playoff exit last year...but all the pundits forget that we also had the best record in the West prior to that. They also forget Manu Ginobili played that series with a broken arm. Nobody can say definitively if we would have beat Memphis were he healthy, but it certainly would have improved our chances...and last season we also won (or tied) season series against the other Western Conference contenders. So not to take away from Pop's genius, but the Spurs continued success really shouldn't be surprising anyone. When our big three are healthy, we are at worst 50/50 odds with any team in the conference in a 7 game series.

That being said, 15-7 without Manu was spectacular and so far above fan expectations it's ridiculous. Especially once you also consider that TJ Ford, the only real backup point guard on the roster, has also been out. Much in the way the Clippers are forced to use point guards as shooting guards, the Spurs have been forced to do the opposite- relying on Gary Neal and Danny Green to be primary shot creators for the second unit.

ClipperSteve: One thing the Spurs seem to be able to do consistently is to find productive players that others have missed on. Or maybe they just make players productive. Last season it was Gary Neal. This season it's Danny Green. How much of this is talent evaluation (spotting overlooked gems that just hadn't been given a chance elsewhere) and how much of it is system (players who buy in to Pop's system are just more productive than other players)?

SpursFanSteve: I think, in regards to the talent evaluation vs system debate, that the truth is close to 50/50. Danny Green, a guy who was having trouble staying on NBA rosters, was pointed out to us by Danny Ferry- who like Green while he was Cleveland's GM and after coming back to San Antonio brought him to our attention. He played some spot minutes with us near the end of last season, and displayed a lot of the character traits Pop says he craves in players- hustle, desire, and aggressiveness. If you put a guy like that in the Spurs system, Pop is a good enough coach to mold the aggression and then put the player in the best situations to succeed. That's the cliche about coaching, but it's truth.

ClipperSteve: How strange is it to be heading into a key conference road game at Staples Center ... against the Clippers? Oklahoma City has been leading the West all season, but the winner of this Spurs-Clippers meeting will be in second place in the conference. Which LA team would you fear more in the playoffs?

SpursFanSteve: I'm surprised the Clippers were able to gel so quickly after the roster overhaul, and my answer to this question will lead me in to the few I've got for you. It is weird to think that the Clippers may finally be surpassing the Lakers. Not to be insulting, but didn't we see this once before in the middle of last decade, only for the Lakers to land Pau Gasol and Donald Sterling to screw everything up? I'm hesitant to jump on the bandwagon so soon- but I'm getting there, and personally, I hope you cream the other LA every chance you get. Which team would I rather see in the playoffs? Well, looking at what happened to us last year, it took two decent post scorers and great team defense to knock the Spurs out. The Lakers can turn to either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol to get buckets down low, and have a roster, or at least a starting five, of more than capable defenders. While the Clippers are likely a better team at this point, I think the Lakers are still a tougher matchup for the Spurs.

ClipperSteve: Did we see the Clippers overtaking the Lakers once before? We sure did. It was right about the time I started blogging. The period lasted a little longer than most people realize (about three years from the time Shaq left LA more or less until Pau arrived), but it ended suddenly and resoundingly. Of course the Clippers won the only playoff series in their California existence in 2006, and the Lakers happened to lose in the first round that season. It was the only time in history that the Clippers were playing after the Lakers were done. So that's the obvious point at which the Clippers were poised to overtake the Lakers. But even the season before, the Clippers had won more games (though both teams missed the playoffs) and it was arguably the off-season following the 06-07 when the team's fortunes seemed most likely to change. If you'll recall, in May 2007 after another first round exit by the Lakers, Kobe Bryant was having a meltdown, demanding a trade and claiming that he'd play "on Pluto" before he played for the Lakers. The Clippers had just come off a disappointing 06-07 season where they missed the playoffs by a game, but still had a lot of young talent, and were looking like the team of the future in LA with Kobe holding the Lakers hostage. But it didn't happen. Mitch Kupchak held his ground and didn't trade Kobe, Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles a couple months after that, then Pau Gasol was delivered to the Lakers, and by June the Lakers were in the Finals and the Clippers were in the lottery, as it has always been forever and ever amen.

I will make the point however that it's difficult to lay that particular decline of the Clippers at Donald Sterling's feet. I don't like the guy and lament the fact that he's the worst owner in sports, but I'm hard pressed to list any specific mistakes he made in that situation. The big elements in that Clipper decline (Brand's injury, Shaun Livingston's injury, Brand's departure via free agency, etc.) weren't necessarily his fault. Sure, you could say that Brand would have stayed had Sterling been a better owner or a better human, but (a) we don't know that and (b) it's not as if Sterling low-balled the guy. The Clippers offered as much as Philly did, and really as much as they could while bringing in Baron Davis -- at Brand's request! And certainly you can't blame Sterling for the fact that Baron suddenly sucked when he left Oakland. So you can say it was some sort of karmic payback, the universe visiting misery upon Sterling's team for a lifetime of transgressions, but I'm not sure he actively screwed up, at least not that time.

Anyway, the real question is whether this time the Clippers have really overtaken the Lakers, at least for the foreseeable future. If they can keep Griffin and Paul together (and I see no reason they can't), then I think the answer is yes.

Sorry about the history tangent... on to more current issues.

SpursFanSteve: I legitimately enjoyed the history lesson, as my non-Spurs memory from that time frame is kind of fuzzy on specific time periods. But right now, it seems the Clippers biggest weakness is defense. They rank 23rd in defensive efficiency. Do you think you can win a title, or at least the Western Conference, without playing better defense? Which area do the Clippers most need to improve in defensively, and do you see them making that improvement this season or is it going to take more roster movement (or a coaching change) to make that happen?

ClipperSteve: Defense is certainly an issue, but it's already improving somewhat. A month ago, the Clippers were 29th in defensive efficiency. When you asked this question they were 23rd. Today, they're 19th. They'll finish the season as an above average defensive team -- they're not likely to be great the rest of the way, but they won't be terrible.

What's the difference? Well, a lot of it is schedule. The Clippers opened the season against Golden State, your Spurs, Chicago, Portland (twice), Houston, Miami and the Lakers - eight really good opponents in their first nine games. Opposition like that will tend to make your defensive numbers look suspect when compared to the rest of the league. Surprise surprise, the Clippers get to play some games against Charlotte and Washington and suddenly their defensive efficiency improves.

Consider also that the Clippers were facing those tough teams early in the season, before things had gelled. The Clippers added three starters in the shortened training camp, two of them after camp began. Defensive schemes and rotations are some of the hardest things to get straight as a team. So yeah, the Clippers looked horrible and lost against San Antonio (a team returning it's entire starting lineup) on December 28th. Not surprising.

The addition of Kenyon Martin (who's been with the team six games now) and to a lesser extent Reggie Evans (who was injured at the beginning of the season) has made a big difference as well. The Clippers first big off the bench the last time they played the Spurs was Brian Cook. Nuff said. I haven't been a huge Kenyon Martin fan in the past, but he's always been a terrific defender. He's great in the post, but he also has the lateral quickness to defend the pick and roll aggressively, and does an amazing job of staying in front of guards on the switch. Early in the season, the Clippers defense fell off a cliff when the starters rested -- now they may actually get better, certainly with Martin.

There are still defensive issues. The Clippers best guards are Chris Paul and Mo Williams, but they're both about 6'0" -- playing them together means giving away a lot of size at the two guard. Some teams can't exploit that, but some can. (The Spurs aren't the only team that could have matchup problems against the Lakers.) The team is actively seeking a wing with size to shore up this area of the team, but they lost out to the Knicks on J.R. Smith, and it's far from certain that they can find someone who'll be a significant upgrade. DeAndre Jordan is second in the NBA and can affect the game with his activity in the middle, but he also lacks discipline and is a relatively poor post defender at this point in his career. He'll frequently go after blocked shots that he has no chance to get, leaving his man all alone under the basket for put backs. And Griffin is still learning as a defender as well. The Clippers will continue to get better defensively as these two youngsters (Griffin is just 22, Jordan 23) learn the game.

So the Clippers are improving defensively, and will continue to do so as the season wears on -- I think they'll be much better in the second half, but not elite. Will an elite offense paired with a middle of the pack defense be enough? We'll see.

SpursFanSteve: The Clippers are a pretty young team, and just lost who I'd guess is probably their best veteran leader in Chauncey Billups for the rest of the season. How is that injury effecting the Clippers both on and off the court?

ClipperSteve: The Clippers aren't as young as all that. The additions of Evans (31) and Martin (34) gives them more veteran presence than they started the season with. As far as players in the rotation, the young pups are Griffin and Jordan. Basically everyone else is a veteran. Paul is only 26, but he's kind of the best of both worlds -- young enough to be great for years to come, but a savvy veteran and leader at the same time. Losing Billups hurts -- but I also feel he's the one player from their starting lineup they could most afford to lose because they're just deeper in the backcourt than elsewhere. After his initial recovery from surgery, Billups will be back with the team in the second half of the season, and they'll still benefit from his locker room presence. On the court, he'll be missed both from a talent standpoint (particularly his three point shooting) and for his leadership -- but it's hard to complain too much about a loss of leadership when you've still got Chris Paul.

SpursFanSteve: Speaking of which, is Chris Paul everything you expected him to be- or were his early season struggles caused more by legitimate knee problems than just being out of shape?

ClipperSteve: Paul is better than I ever knew. I mean, I knew the guy was good. But watching him on a regular basis just makes me appreciate him more. He's definitely best when he's more aggressive and looking to score, and to some extent that's not his nature -- he wants to pass the ball, to get others involved. But as we saw in the fourth quarter in Portland last night, when the difference is winning and losing, he's plenty aggressive. He may have been a bit out of shape at the beginning of the season, but the bigger change (which happened during game eight against the Heat) was when he decided that it was OK to score on this team. Whether he was out of shape or hurting or just feeling his way before that time I don't know, but he hadn't scored more than 20 points in the first seven games of the season, and he's done it seven times in the 16 games he's played since. And by the way, the Clippers are 12-0 when Paul scores 17 or more.

For all the talk of "Lob City", the irony is that Baron Davis was probably better at throwing lobs than Paul -- certainly he was better at the spectacular lobs. Go back and watch some highlights from Griffin's rookie year -- the passes are the real show, and frankly that's not the case with Paul. Paul does things in a rather routine, unspectacular manner. He rarely throws lobs from 60 feet -- more like from 10 feet. Or better yet, a nice bounce pass that hits his man right in stride. Paul's game is surprisingly workmanlike -- but he's just so damn good at it everything.

I really didn't realize what a great shot maker he is. I mean, I knew he had the handle and the vision, but what sets him apart is that he can call his own number and make shots. Again, nothing spectacular, but he can always create some space with the dribble, and then he hits a great percentage. There may not be anybody in the NBA who is better at the end of the game than Paul, simply because you know he won't make a mistake, you know he'll make good decisions, and if everything else breaks down, he can still take (and make) the shot himself.

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