As part of a new series we're doing here at SB Nation Dallas, we'll be conducting a back-and-forth with other SB Nation writers from around the country to preview big games for area teams.
For the Mavericks-Clippers basketball game on Monday night, we've brought in Steve Perrin, who covers LA's most exciting team exhaustively over at ClipsNation.
Head over there for a look at my responses to his questions about the Mavericks season so far.
1) Talk a little about what it's like to watch this team on a nightly basis. As an NBA fan, seeing Blake Griffin at his athletic prime has got to be a once-in-a-lifetime
That's an interesting question, and one I hadn't really thought about before. I've seen every one of Blake's 107 NBA games, plus a bunch of pre-season games and some summer league as well. I'm wouldn't say I'm inured to his athleticism, but I'm certainly accustomed to it. Sure, I jumped off my couch when did the unspeakable to Kendrick Perkins, but it never occurred to me that it would melt Twitter. That's what he does -- no need to Tweet. Last night in Charlotte he had a breakaway dunk where he went with a two-handed power dunk, and it was dissed by Chris Paul as being "weak". The bar is pretty high when you see him all the time. Besides, I'd have to get into better shape myself if I jumped up and down every time he did something spectacular.
On the other hand, I probably get much more excited about the little improvements in his game than the average fan. Critics realize that Blake's game has tons of holes in it. He gets the vast majority of his points from pure athleticism. Even on his post moves, he mostly 'athletes' the ball into the hole -- he jumps a little higher than his opponent, is strong enough to control his body, has the hand eye coordination to aim at the basket. There's very little technique to his game at this point. So I get pretty geeked over a simple up fake and positively giddy about a nice up and under, which he's added to his repertoire recently. He's a hard worker and is refining his game all the time, so not only do I get to see him in his athletic prime, I also get to see him develop. Regardless, you're right about the once-in-a-lifetime opportu
2) For the first time (ever?), the Clippers are much more exciting than the Lakers. LA is a notoriously front-running city, how has the average sports fan in the city reacted to this change?
First and foremost, make no mistake -- this is a still Lakers town. Walk into any store and there are dozens, maybe hundreds of Lakers items for sale -- cap, jerseys, T-shirts, pennants, posters, coffee mugs, key chains -- all kind of crazy stuff. But it's unusual if there is one Clippers item. That's just how it is, and it will be that way for awhile. Angelinos love their Lakers, and for any Lakers fan the Clippers are still the other team.
Having said that, I've long known that one Clipper fan archetype was the die hard NBA fan who disliked the Lakers for whatever reason. Maybe they grew up somewhere else and learned to hate the Lakers there, maybe they got disillusioned during the Kobe-Shaq era -- the Clippers have long cultivated these fans and survived in LA simply being the not-Lakers. This season I'm running into another sub-type of Clipper fan -- those who dislike the Lakers but still want to root for a winner. It turns out, there are a lot of them. When you take into consideration the exciting brand of basketball the Clippers are playing, and the fact that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are two of the most telegenic and personable players in the league, you realize that for any resident of LA that has a passing interest in the NBA and no pre-determined allegiance to the Lakers, the Clippers will be their team. And of course, we're just scratching the surface -- when the playoffs roll around, Clipper fever will really take off.
3) Whenever I watch Chris Paul, I get the sense that this is a guy who has absolutely maximized every bit of his ability. Does he have any holes in his game or is he as good as a basketball player could possibly be at 6'0 175?
He's as good as he can be. Next question. Look, I suppose a player can always be better. If he's shooting 55% from the floor, he could shoot 60%. But the biggest complaint I can reasonably level against Chris Paul is that he's too unselfish. The team would be more successful if he called his own number a little more often, which frankly he does in big games. But you're basic point is spot on. This is not Russell Westbrook (or Blake Griffin) we're talking about here. Chris Paul is not an athletic freak; post knee surgery, he's probably not even an above average athlete as compared to his NBA peers. He just understands and plays the game better than anyone else.
4) What do you think is a realistic goal for this team this year and how do you see the Clippers matching up with the rest of the West?
Heading into the season, I felt confident that the Clippers would make the playoffs, but I thought it would be a stretch for them to get out of the first round. The team has come together much more quickly than I thought it would, and they've shored up some weaknesses (specifically with the signings of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin), and now I think they definitely have Conference Finals potential. The Clippers have played one of the toughest schedules in the league so far and still have the second best record in the West. They've got wins over every Western Conference team with a winning record except the Spurs, and are 3-1 against the Eastern Conference teams with winning records they've face.
You also have to look at the general landscape in the West -- I think Oklahoma City is the only team that can reasonably claim to have a better team than the Clippers. There are shortcomings and questions about every other team in the West. On the other hand, there are like nine other teams in the West that are good, and any one of them could get on a roll at the right time and move past the Clippers in the pecking order. Interestingly, although the Thunder appear to be the most talented team in the conference, the Clippers actually match up well with them. The Lakers on the other hand are a matchup nightmare for the Clippers, as LAC has issues containing big, high scoring wings like Kobe Bryant, and there's no one on the roster to defend Andrew Bynum if DeAndre Jordan gets into foul trouble.
5) What weakness in this team are you most concerned could be exploited in a seven-game series?
The Clippers' defense in general is not where it needs to be. It's getting better -- you have to remember that this team had three new starters at the beginning of the season, and has since lost one of those, and defensive continuity tends to take time -- but it's currently a problem. Specifically, as I mentioned above, the team does not have a defensive stopper on the wing to contend with high scoring guards, especially the ones with size.
The injury to Chauncey Billups hurts some here, as he was one of the better defensive options of the wing, but the very fact that Billups was defending Kobe was less than ideal to begin with. GM Neil Olshey is working to address this problem, and will be looking for defensive help on the wing right up until the March 15 trade deadline. Having said that, I think the Clippers will present a lot of problems for their playoff opponents as well. The offense may be simplistic, featuring a steady dose of pick and roll -- but with Paul orchestrating things, and lots of scorers on the floor, it will be anything but simple stopping it.