We welcome aboard the Kamenetzky brothers, Brian and Andy, who were must-reads at ESPN-Los Angeles but were let go at Christmas by the WorldWide Leader In Shedding Talent. Each week, the Cali Report on Sheridan Hoops will take a trip around the golden state, examining the fortunes of its four teams – CS.
We have to start with the best of the four, and no NBA team aside from the Oklahoma City Thunder (a half-game ahead) are sporting a better won-loss record than Donald Sterling’s.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Only the willfully blind could ignore what the Clippers have done 39 games into the year, but any lingering doubts among those still distracted by the logo on the jersey as opposed to the players wearing them should disappear after the LAC’s last two games.
On Monday in Memphis, the Clippers took the floor for the first time without MVP candidate/best point guard on the planet Chris Paul. Some 48 minutes later, the Clippers had a 26-point win, emphatically demonstrating the potential and versatility of this year’s roster in the process.
Starting in place of Paul, Eric Bledsoe was an efficient 5-of-9 from the floor with four assists against Memphis, then turned it up a notch for 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists vs. Houston.
Blesdoe doesn’t have anywhere close to CP3′s skill organizing an offense. Fortunately, he doesn’t need to.
The Clippers don’t just have a lot of depth — two likely All-Star starters in Paul and Blake Griffin supported by a gaggle of reserves so dominating they’ve earned a kitchy nickname – but components skilled enough to absorb Paul’s absence and keep the offense from bogging down, even with Chauncey Billups on the sidelines.
Particularly in the frontcourt. Lamar Odom, who arrived at training camp looking like he’d spent the summer feasting on chocolate replicas of his 2011 Sixth Man of the Year trophy, has slimmed down and pushed his assist rate back in line with career norms. Grant Hill, who played his first game of the season Saturday, is a smart and skilled passer. Griffin is an underrated passer. Monday night, that threesome combined for 12 of LAC’s 20 assists.
Matt Barnes, meanwhile, is playing the best basketball of his career, providing an outlet for all that sharing and quality spacing. Plus, he’s been listening to the eggheads. He entered Tuesday’s game in Houston averaging 8.6 shots a game, 7.1 of which are coming at locations of high value – at the rim or beyond the arc (where he’s shooting about 41 percent since December 1).
LOOKING FOR NBA TICKETS? LOOK NO FURTHER
In those moments where shots are hard to generate, few players are capable of creating his own shot like Jamal Crawford, who scored a season-high 30 points, including 12 straight to start the fourth quarter, in the Clips’ 117-109 victory over the Rockets. The Clippers improved to 11-1 this season when the 12-year veteran Crawford leads the team in scoring.
Defensively, the league’s third stingiest defense swarmed the Grizzlies, holding them to 73 points and 30.3 percent shooting (their worst mark since the move from Vancouver to Memphis). Yes, Memphis was short Rudy Gay, away from the team following the death of his grandmother, but Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol hit only 11 of their 40 attempts. And on this side of the ball Bledsoe was his typically disruptive self, with great ball pressure, a pair of steals, and a great second half block on Tony Allen.
Tuesday night, the Clippers went into Houston, again without Paul, and again scored a win over a playoff caliber team. Griffin led the team in assists with eight, and the Clippers shot almost 54 percent from the floor. Overall, the defense wasn’t as crisp, but they held the high-powered Rockets to only 18 points in the third, at one point pushing their lead to 20 before cruising to the finish line.
Obviously the Clippers don’t want to play without Paul for any length of time, but the ability they showed to win — and win big — without him ought to scare the rest of the conference.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
They added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, so OF COURSE it makes sense the Lakers season might be resurrected by … Earl Clark?
Dwight Howard’s labrum tear, Pau Gasol’s concussion, and a season-ending hip injury for Jordan Hill was enough necessity to mother a little invention for Mike D’Antoni, who was basically forced to use the 6’10″ forward, playing on his third team in four seasons since the Suns drafted him with the 14th pick in 2009.
Called “Eazy” by his teammates, in five games after cracking the rotation Clark averaged 11.2 points, 10 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks, and his length and athleticism glowed radioactive for a team particularly short on the latter.