Thomas Wood from the excellent Clipsnation website and I had an email exchange about our respective teams in advance of tonight's match up. Here is a link to his questions and my answers about the Wolves, and below are my questions and his answers about the 11-5 Clippers.
1. The team got off to what looked like an indifferent start, but just had a 6-1 road trip that seems to have righted the ship. What got better? Was it just a matter of quality of opponents, or did they start playing better basketball?
May I say both? Both. Against a quality Miami team, the Clippers put together maybe their most complete and impressive win of the season. The defense is looking livelier and the offense is finding better shots through better ball movement, but all of this is coming in spurts. 6-1 looks good, but if you take out the 14-2 Grizzlies who utterly dominated the Clippers, this road trip featured opponents with a combined record of 39-62 (as I write this on of the morning of Nov. 30). So, the best way I can say it is, this team isn't fixed, but it's improving.
2. Blake Griffin seems to have taken his game a bit more to the perimeter this season--more jumpers, fewer rebounds and free throws. Is this an intentional strategy to put less wear and tear on his body? Is it worth it?
That's a question most of Clips Nation has been contemplating. I've wondered whether Doc is letting Blake establish himself out there while accepting the growing pains, just to plant a seed of doubt in defenders' minds later in the season. It's a very Greg Maddux-y kind of plan. But, it's fair to wonder whether Blake is saving himself physically. His conditioning may be lacking given that he spent a good portion of the summer resting a back fracture, and Blake looks noticeably less explosive and more tired at the end of quarters than he has in past seasons. Pushed to an answer, I would lean more to the latter explanation, and I would expect to see a bouncier and more aggressive Blake as he works himself into shape.
3. What is your early sense of new ownership? Do you think Steve Ballmer is going to be good for the franchise? Are fans happy with him, and if so, how much of it is what he is and how much of it is that he isn't Donald Sterling?
Everyone seems to be excited, and yes, it is largely because Ding Dong the Donald is Dead. Ballmer may have his warts -- just look at his Microsoft tenure -- but look at what we had before. We're like paupers having a first taste of the good life. Ballmer brings commitment and excitement. Sterling brought paranoia and disappointment. I'm still guarded in my optimism -- the Dodgers' News Corp. era taught me that spending billions of dollars doesn't guarantee on-field success -- and that kind of suspicious Weltanshauung takes time to reshape. Clipper fans are like twitchy chihuahuas, in unrelenting anticipation that the other shoe will drop. But for now, we'll celebrate, look at each other in gleeful disbelief, and enjoy the merriment for however long it lasts. Ballmer's overzealous celebrations might embarrass some fanbases, but these fans will take it. We know true shame.
4. What does it feel like to be a fan of a team that actually takes and makes a lot of three pointers? Wolves fans want to know.
It's dramatic. When the threes are falling, the Clippers can erase a 27-point deficit in minutes like they did in Memphis in 2012. When they're not falling, it's frustrating. Good possessions turn to dust and leads disappear just as quickly. It's an important part of the new NBA, despite what Byron Scott says, and each of the last four NBA titles have been won by teams that made frequent (and effective) use of it. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan making hay inside, it's critical for the Clippers to effectively space the floor. It's also critical that they don't actively hunt out the three, but take it when it opens to them.
5. What weaknesses, if any, will keep the Clippers from reaching the Finals? What needs to get better to make them a championship squad?
1) Defense, 2) defense, and 3) defense. They also need to improve their defense. They've worked their way up to 15th in defensive efficiency (but again, schedule). The 3rd-ranked offense should continue to improve and finish as a top-two unit, especially if Doc can make a move for a small forward with a more consistent outside shot than Matt Barnes. But for this team, it comes down to stops. DeAndre can be a shot-swallowing monster for stretches and in certain matchups, but he'll need to do it for the better part of two months come April. Doc will also need to decide whether Barnes can regain his form as a solid perimeter defender, because the Clippers won't be successful if Chris Paul has to defend the opponent's best outside scorer for four rounds of playoff fourth quarters.
6. How would the Clippers fans define a successful season this year? Is anything short of the Finals going to be seen as a disappointment?
I find this to be your most intriguing question, because frankly, I'm not sure. The Clippers' fan base is a diverse one, with a few diehard long-timers who remember Benoit Benjamin becoming increasingly outnumbered by more recent and more casual additions who can't even recognize Eric Gordon. Personally, I think this season should be championship-or-bust. Cleveland will need this season (and offseason) to find cohesiveness and add depth. The Thunder are dealing with a debilitating run of injuries. The Spurs, well, they have to age sometime, right? This is a wide-open year and the Clippers seem like the team best suited to take advantage, with two legitimate stars paired with system and roster continuity. But, I sense some patience among Clips Nation, that there is still growth to come from both internal improvement and outside reinforcement. I just can't determine the source of the patience, whether it's from the old guard who are just happy to have a competitor, or from the newcomers who don't understand the evanescence of championship windows. I imagine that come what may in June (or May, or, God forbid, in April) that the fanbase will still be split.
Thanks to Thomas and all the good folks at Clipsnation for this exchange. Hopefully the Wolves keep it close, though I seriously doubt I'll manage to stay awake for the whole game given it's a 9:30 CST start.