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Ball Don't Lie

The Los Angeles Clippers have a division title and two stars, but are they stuck in neutral?

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Blake Griffin can still do this (Getty Images)

Even when the offense goes stagnant or the defense doesn’t talk, watching a Los Angeles Clippers game can be an abject joy in ways that go far beyond the continued existence of Lob City. Between Chris Paul’s brilliance, Jamal Crawford’s well-honed mix of veteran headiness and rookie-level shot selection, Matt Barnes’ incessant cutting and complaining, and the odd Lamar Odom contribution, the team is a fascinating watch even if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan aren’t doing amazing things 11 feet off the floor.

You still get the nagging feeling, as the squad readies itself for its first two-year playoff run in two decades, that things won’t really start to matter until 2013-14. That the team’s potential won’t be reached until after the franchise figures out what to do with coach Vinny Del Negro, Jordan’s trade value, the aging role players, and Paul’s free agency. Paul is unlikely to leave Los Angeles, but he could encourage a massive overhaul that could sadly put this year’s model in an NBA purgatory of sorts.

The team feels well on its way to another first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, a team Los Angeles dispatched in an entertaining but somewhat frustrating first round pairing last year.

The Clippers seemed unable to showcase the sort of conference final-level potential some had pegged them for, and the Grizzlies were working with an injured Zach Randolph (who shot 42 percent in the series), and a possibly too-aggressive Rudy Gay (who also shot 42 percent in the series and led the team in shots per game), while watching as Eric Bledsoe defensively dominated Mike Conley (who shot, you guessed it, 42 percent in the series).

[Also: Top recruits say they would beat Michael Jordan one-on-one in his prime]

In the meantime, before the team figures it all out this July, we can’t help but look at Blake Griffin moving forward.

To the eye test, so many different little things have improved in Griffin’s game. He won’t boast the squared-off and perfect footwork of Kevin McHale any time soon, but he’s become far more efficient in the low post this season in anticipating angles and in choosing which of his pretty good moves to go to over either shoulder on either block. That’s good news, for when those “pretty good” moves turn pretty great. The production test isn’t pretty — by a lot of orthodox metrics, he’s stagnated statistically since his rookie year, but as someone who is often an afterthought in a Paul- or Crawford-led offense, this probably doesn’t concern the 24-year-old too much, just as long as the wins pile up.

Last week Griffin sloughed off any talk of a rift between he and Paul, as written up by the Los Angeles Times’ T.J. Simers, in his usual deadpan style — dryly provoking a fake fight between himself, CP3, and Jordan in the Clipper locker room in full view of reporters before a game.

In talking with Simers following the feigned brouhaha, Griffin did submit that the stresses of an 82-game season, understandably, can wear on any relationship. From Simers’ very good feature:

I had written that Griffin and teammate DeAndre Jordan had grown weary of Chris Paul's voice, while knowing Paul never shuts up on the court.

Griffin dismissed such a suggestion but said he did send a text to Paul with the suggestion they meet before Sunday's game with the Lakers.

"We had kind of a heart-to-heart before the game," he said. "It wasn't anything like we were beefing. It's just that sometimes the frustration of losing can make guys focus almost too much on themselves. I'm not saying he was doing that. I was the one doing it.

[Also: NBA-bound Michael Carter-Williams: I can go No. 1 overall]

"We need to be on the same page, which brings everyone else along and makes us better as a team."

And so rather than tell Paul to shut up, Griffin said, he asked Paul to talk to him more.

"I told him, I need you to come to me and tell me what you are thinking every single play. I might already know what he's going to say and I'll try to tell him before he says it, but I need him. And that's what we did against the Lakers. We were talking all the time and it really worked well."

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Vinny Del Negro and that shirt that the NBA keeps handing out (Getty Images)

The Clippers looked fantastic against the Lakers on Sunday, and Griffin even went on to point out to Simers that he “absolutely 100 percent [agrees] with you [that] I need to mature and get better with officials” in their back and forth. Warming words, for a man who still has yet to play 225 NBA games, and one who showed a proper sense of perspective last week in asking that the Clipper franchise not go overboard in celebrating the team’s Pacific Division title.

Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups should be healthy for the playoffs. The extended days off between games will allow Paul’s rope-a-dope style of dominance plenty of room to breathe. The team has second-round experience, this time out, and could even catch an injured San Antonio Spurs team (or, in an even freakier coincidence, those messed-up Lakers) in the second round sometime in May.

On top of that, the team is making franchise history, what with all these wins and the division title. Yes, Larry Brown took the Clips to the playoffs twice in the early 1990s, but those teams ran with mediocre records out of the dark and dinged-up L.A. Sports Arena. This team, even in its purgatory, should be winning fans over … right?

Sort of, writes ClipperBlog’s D.J. Foster, in a must-read piece:

History and perspective have their place in this, but comparing the Clippers to what they used to be instead of what they could be now feels wrong, and history probably shouldn’t be used to validate the current process as a sustainable one.

Winning isn’t often viewed as detrimental, but it certainly can be if it’s an impediment to change. We don’t often associate “best season ever” with “failure to maximize potential” in sports, and part of me does acknowledge that delving into the intangible (potential) over the tangible (wins) might make me appear silly.

But that’s the thing about the Clippers. They are complex and confounding instead of simple and easy. It’s kind of confusing to view Vinny Del Negro as the head coach of the best team in history and simultaneously accept that he could be one of the franchise’s biggest mistakes. We can condemn Donald Sterling for not spending more on staffing, scouting, analytics and coaching, but we can also applaud him for amnestying Ryan Gomes and spending more money on the talent on the floor. Things aren’t cut and dry anymore.

Which has to be frustrating. For fans of a team, it either has to be *the* year, or a lost year. The Chicago Bulls took 2012-13 off. The Miami Heat went all-in to take 2012-13 on. The Oklahoma City Thunder were thought to have taken a pass on 2012-13, until the rest of the league discovered they’d replaced one of the most efficient scorers in basketball in James Harden with one of the most efficient scorers in basketball in Kevin Martin.

[Also: Kobe scores season-high 47 points to lead Lakers over Blazers]

The Clippers worked around the edges last year, lost a general manager, and retained a coach that most ardent NBA followers are uneasy with. Or, unabashedly critical of.

In the meantime, it’s still Lob City. In the meantime, it could be a first-round ouster. In the meantime, this is a team led by a guard that could be his conference’s most devastating fourth-quarter player. In the meantime, we still can’t put a finger on these Los Angeles Clippers.

That’s probably for the best. We can’t let the Clippers get too normal.

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