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LA Clippers preview: Are they a contender?

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Through the first month of the season, the Clippers have beaten some of the best teams in the NBA and lost to some of the worst. They play the Mavs on Wednesday night on ESPN.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Widdoes is part of a talented group of writers over at ClipperBlog, ESPN's blog about ... well you can figure it out from their name. You can follow him on Twitter @charliewiddoes.

The Clippers have been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the NBA this season. How good are they and how good can they be by the end of the season? Do you see them as a legitimate contender to win the West?

They are really good. The offseason didn't go as I would've hoped and the coaching situation is certainly not ideal, but at the end of the day, they have so much talent and they match up so well with the other contenders -- both from the West and Miami -- that I absolutely believe that they could win it all. It's not only Chris Paul and Blake Griffin this year, but the emergence of DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and a cast of role players that has embraced the idea of sacrifice for the collective.

But you make a good point about schizophrenia: they have beaten the Heat, Grizzlies, Lakers, Spurs (twice), but when things go bad (Jamal Crawford shooting 4-for-14, Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan playing fewer minutes than Lamar Odom, etc) they are just as capable of losing to the Clevelands and New Orleanses of the world. Once the playoffs come around, you wonder if Vinny Del Negro will make the right adjustments and manage the rotation so that they field their best lineups when it counts.

Blake Griffin's stats are down across the board this season. Has he reached his ceiling as a player or is it more a function of a different role in the offense?

The obvious answer is that his minutes are down -- he's only playing 33 per game, about four fewer than his career average. That's a trend up and down the roster, though, and a function of the depth they've assembled. I don't think he's reached his ceiling as a player by any means, but his evolution may play a part in the way the numbers look.

He's become a much better mid range shooter (44% from 16-23), but he's also shooting them more than ever (5.2 per game). So while everyone was clamoring for him to develop the J -- which he began to do over the last two months of last season -- they may have forgotten that the long 2 is just about the lowest-percentage look you can get on a basketball court. He's been making them, but he also hesitates quite a bit and that may have impacted his aggressiveness for the time being. He's also improved as a defender this year, so that is promising. My instinct is that Blake is still on track to be an absolute force by the end of the year, we are just witnessing his growth.

Eric Bledsoe has become the flavor of the month across the blogosophere, even earning the nickname "Mini-LeBron". Talk a little about his game for Mavs fans who haven't gotten a chance to see him play yet this year.

If you stack his numbers up against Russell Westbrook's in his third season, the two are nearly identical. He's really, really good. We do a recap show on ClipperBlog after every game, and it's a battle each time to think of something new to say. I guess "Mini-LeBron" is the most appropriate description we currently have. Like LeBron, he absolutely dominates the game on defense. He can quite literally guard two guys at once, able to help off of his man and disrupt another, without getting out of position to recover. He lives in the passing lanes and, other than DeAndre Jordan, is the Clippers' best shotblocker. He's 6 feet tall.

He's quite simply one of the best defenders in the game, but Gregg Popovich was effusive in his praise for Bledsoe at both ends of the floor. He is 9th in the entire NBA in PER (2nd among point guards behind only Paul) because he gets the the basket with blinding athleticism, creates space, and finishes. He's also become an 86% free throw shooter. In addition, he's got classic point guard vision and while still an issue of some significance, he has gained more control of his own pace as he's matured. The sky is the limit for this 22-year old.

There hasn't been much talk about Chris Paul's impending free agency. Dallas has "dry powder" with available cap space to pursue a max free agent. Can you see a scenario where Paul doesn't re-sign with the Clippers?

Yeah, I don't sense much concern about his future in L.A. anymore. As Clipper fans, we can always see a worst case scenario, but from everything you hear, Paul loves his situation, LOVES the locker room that HE has assembled, and so it's tough to see him picking up and leaving. While any sane player would choose Mark Cuban's organization over Donald Sterling's, I believe the Clips have done a good job of distancing Sterling from the team and doing everything in their power to make Paul feel at home.

When is Grant Hill expected to be back and how do you think Vinny Del Negro will set up the rotation come playoff time? Seems like there may be too many chiefs and not enough indians on the Clippers in terms of guys who want/need minutes.

If the playoffs started today, I would be very concerned about the scarcity/allotment of minutes. Bledsoe and Jordan are still being shortchanged regularly, and that directly hurts the team's chances of winning. But there have been some encouraging signs. Willie Green went from starting to "DNP" as soon as Chauncey Billups returned. The thinking goes that "things will sort themselves out," especially on such a veteran team, and while I'm not sure that's a reliable solution to a real problem, it probably does come into play at the 3. Grant Hill might not play again (the Clippers have a way of letting bone bruises kill seasons), but if he does, you have to think that Caron Butler will cede some minutes either through injury or ineffectiveness.

As a Mavs fan, my only response to Lammy Odom's super-impressive stat line and physique this year is "lol". Do you think he can turn it around or is he done as an effective NBA player?

Contrary to what I would have told you a week ago, I don't actually believe Lamar Odom is "done." Perhaps I have been sucked into the alternate reality of this Clipper season, in which games like Monday against the Jazz (seven points and six rebounds in 18 minutes) symbolize great progress rather than just a "meh" performance from a fringy NBA role player.

He's looked horrible to this point in every sense of the word -- he still has had a negative impact on the season by win shares, which is even worse than last year -- but the quality of backup bigs in the NBA and his undeniable feel for the game and ball skills mean that simply by getting down to 230 lbs. (he says he's at 240 now, down from 250 on media day), he has a chance to contribute. It's nearly impossible for him to justify the cost of his acquisition (Mo Williams and a 2nd-round pick, less than 24 hours before Dallas was set to release him), but the team is focused on the playoffs, and he could be ready to help by then. If anything, this just speaks to how talented the Clippers are that he's logged 14 minutes a night and been this bad, so far.

Are you from LA? How does one become a Clipper fan anyway when you share the city with one of the most high-profile and successful franchises in professional sports?

Born and raised in L.A. My parents moved there in 1983, just when the Clippers were on their way up from San Diego. My pops wanted to watch basketball and decided that he could do so for a fraction of the price of Laker tickets -- all he had to do was sell his soul to Donald Sterling. So was born a family of Clipper die-hards, and as we've grown older, I think we'd all agree we are thankful to root for the underdogs instead of the Kobe's.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.