Taylor Smith of Clips Nation stopped by to answer a few questions in preparation for tonight's 8 p.m. tipoff.
Daniel Christian: The Clippers have had some behind-the-scenes issues recently, namely the Blake Griffin incident. What type of effect do you see this having in the short/long term? Do you think this team can contend with such dysfunction
Taylor Smith: The Clippers can definitely contend with the roster they have in place. They seemed destined for the Conference Finals a year ago until the short roster just ran out of gas in the Houston series. While I seriously doubt they'd have beaten the Warriors, they still weren't all that far removed from a possible trip to the Finals. Potential dysfunction is obviously a concern, but they've managed to be an upper echelon team over the last few years even with some reported strife. I don't think locker room issues would be the primary reason for this team failing to win a championship.
DC: With all that said, the Clippers are 4th in the West and 28-16. They might not be contenders the way they were last year, but I don't think, at least before the Griffin news, that this season has been an abject disaster or anything. How would you assess the team's play thus far? What positives are there to focus on moving forward?
TS: They got off to a sluggish start with so many new faces, but the way they've been able to right the ship has been impressive. In spite of the roster turnover they're still right about where they were at this point last season, record wise. The downside is that most of the damage they've done to this point has been against the weaker teams in the league. LAC is 22-4 against sub-.500 teams, and just 7-12 against teams .500 or above. The primary positives, as you'd expect, have been Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Chris Paul. They've all been exceptional this season, particularly lately with Griffin sidelined. A lot of the time they're able to win games based largely on just having more talent than other teams. And that's fine until you're having to face other talent-laden teams like the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder or Rockets come playoff time.
DC: The Clippers have a great top 4 guys, and JJ Redick in particular, has been on fire this year. But to me, it's always seemed like one of the Clippers' primary problems has been the lack of bench production. They tried to address that over the offseason with signings like Josh Smith, Wes Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute. Is that still a problem preventing the Clippers from tapping the upper echelon of the West?
TS: It's definitely a problem. This year's bench has more talent than last year's did, but it still hasn't totally come together. The primary task for the bench is just treading water and holding a (hopeful) lead while the starters rest, but that's been a tall order for them all year. That said, they have seen an uptick of late with the likes of Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni entering the rotation. Once Griffin comes back, sliding Paul Pierce to the bench should also help to fortify things a bit, too. Guys like Austin Rivers, Wes Johnson and even Lance Stephenson have all had their moments so far, but they've really struggled to find a consistent rhythm and lack cohesiveness at times. Staggering the rotation to allow Griffin or Paul to play with the bench guys is going to be vital for Doc Rivers in the long term.
DC: How do you think the Clippers match up against the Hawks? Anything Hawks fans should be on the lookout for? Also, care to give a prediction?
TS: It's an interesting matchup because they're fairly similar teams. It's a shame the Clips won't be operating at full health because you can draw some pretty easy parallels between the top four players on each club. One thing Hawks fans should certainly be ready for is an assertive Chris Paul. He's had to shoulder more of the offensive load without Blake in there, and he's found his shooting stroke following some early season struggles. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder will have their hands full, obviously. I'll also be fascinated by the Redick-Korver matchup because those two are essentially basketball clones. With the Clips on the last game of a tough five-game road trip and on the second half of a back-to-back, though, I think I'll have to go with Atlanta in this one. I'll say 101-95 to the Hawks.