The Clippers have lots of problems. Being in denial isn’t one of them.
They are acutely aware they have underachieved and are no longer willing to trot out the easy excuses to soothe the sting of being only four games over .500 as Christmas approaches.
It’s true that the Clippers have eight new players. It’s also true that learning each other’s tendencies and finding which players best fit together takes time.
Another truth: It’s 28 games into the season and the breaking-in phase should be over.
“This is the point in the season where it’s too late to keep saying, ‘OK, well, we’ve got to figure it out,’” forward Blake Griffin said late Saturday after the Clippers took another Texas misstep with a 107-97 loss to the Houston Rockets that followed a defeat against the San Antonio Spurs the previous night. “We’ve got to be better than this. We are better than this and we’re not showing it, so we’ve got to figure something out.”
The first thing the Clippers need to do is address their point-guard rotation after backup Austin Rivers suffered a severely sprained right ankle against the Rockets. Rivers could be out for an extended period, meaning the Clippers probably will rely on a committee of Pablo Prigioni, Jamal Crawford and Lance Stephenson for their ball-handling needs beyond starter Chris Paul when they face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night at Staples Center.
The Clippers still feature three of the NBA’s top players and a fortified bench. But both the starters and reserves have underperformed, for a variety of reasons.
Paul has appeared less aggressive while dealing with injuries to his groin, ribs, eye and finger. Center DeAndre Jordan’s energy level has inexplicably vacillated and shooting guard J.J. Redick has missed a handful of games with ankle and back injuries, depriving him of consistent rhythm.
The Clippers (16-12) somehow have been more inconsistent despite returning their core of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and sixth man Crawford for a third consecutive season. This is the fourth year Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Crawford have played together and the fifth year of the Paul-Griffin-Jordan era.
A year ago at this time, the Clippers were 19-9 despite a notoriously thin bench.
“Being how our team was last year, I think we’re behind as far as figuring out that trust and stuff like that,” Paul said. “So we’ve just got to keep building.”
Among the newcomers, Stephenson, Josh Smith and Paul Pierce have been disappointments. Pierce has acknowledged frustration with his career-low playing time and production. Stephenson has been in and out of the lineup, twice receiving the dreaded Did Not Play—Coach’s Decision. Smith has developed a maddening over-reliance on three-point attempts despite shooting only 31.5% from long range.
Even Griffin’s consistent production and some better-than-expected play from small forwards Luc Mbah a Moute and Wesley Johnson have not been able to compensate for the shortcomings of almost everyone else.
“It’s not like we have a ton of rookies in here to where we’re trying to figure out how to play and find our way,” Jordan said. “Everybody knows their job; we’ve just got to accept our roles and play.”
The Clippers have been routinely outrebounded and rarely have been able to get good games from their starters and reserves on the same night. The starters were so listless against the Rockets that Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged he considered removing them for the rest of the game in the first half.
Paul was plenty assertive after the game in his assessment of the Clippers.
“We’re not a team that anybody needs to be worried about, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Although the Clippers stand fourth in the strangely mediocre Western Conference despite their unimpressive record, they have only five victories against teams that currently are over .500, not nearly enough to make anyone consider them a team to beat.
“We haven’t won any big games and we haven’t won any games that you go into them thinking, OK, this is one we have to get,” Griffin said. “I feel like we’ve lost all those games. We’ve won some games I think we should have won, but we have to be better than that if we expect to be a playoff team and a team that contends.”
For now, the Clippers are challenging for only one designation: flop of the year. At least they seem to realize it.
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself as a team,” Griffin said. “I think this is the point of the season where either something’s got to change or we’re not going to put ourselves in a good position come playoff time.”
CLIPPERS VS. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
When: Monday, 7:30 p.m. PST.
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 980, 1330.
Records: Thunder 18-9, Clippers 16-12.
Record vs. Thunder (2014-15): 2-1.
Update: Oklahoma City has solidified its hold on third place in the Western Conference by winning seven of its last eight games, including a 40-point shellacking of the Lakers on Saturday. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to be the NBA’s top one-two punch, combining to average 52.1 points, 14.6 rebounds and 13.6 assists. Meanwhile, the Clippers are 0-3 against the top three teams in the West and are desperately in need of a marquee victory more than a quarter of the way through the season. Beating the Thunder certainly would qualify. “That’s a great team,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “They’re ahead of us in the standings, they’re playing well, they’re healthy. That’s one of those games that we have to go get.”