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Clippers Q & A: Battle for Los Angeles Continues

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Tonight, the Lakers visit the Los Angeles Clippers in their final showdown of the regular season. The L.A Derby has intensified this season, with the teams splitting their first two meetings, back in January. The Lakers currently sit 3rd in the West, just 2 games ahead of the 4th place Clippers.

The Clippers come into tonight's game on excellent form, winners of their last six games. They'll try to win tonight and grab only the 3rd season series pennant against the our beloved Lakers. Speaking of which, the Lakers come into tonight's game on the most Lakers-esque of forms.

But all this goes out the window tonight, as a game between the Clippers and Lakers is anything but scripted. We talked with our good friend Steve Perrin, who runs a tight ship over at the excellent ClipsNation.

After the jump, you'll find C.A Clark's and Steve Perrin's back and forth on tonight's contest, and head on over to ClipsNation for C.A.'s answers. Just remember to keep it civil people, we're all fans in the end.

C.A Clark: How's Year One of the No Longer In The Lakers' Shadow experiment going? There's no doubt the Clippers have increased visibility across the country, but do you get the feeling the Clippers have made a dent in the fact that LA is clearly a Lakers town first?

Steve Perrin: Clearly Los Angeles is still a Lakers town: just try to buy Clippers merchandise anywhere other than STAPLES Center and it becomes pretty obvious. (Although I did see some Clippers shirts in Macy's the other day! Progress! Now if only Target would come through.) It's not just a feeling -- it's a fact.

The Clippers have done OK for themselves over the years, at least financially, simply being the not-Lakers. L.A.'s a really, really big town, and there are plenty of people out there that don't like the Lakers, for whatever reason. Heck, you can have a pretty decent fan base in L.A. just from people who've moved here from Boston, you know? For most of their L.A. existence the Clippers marketing strategy has been to promote the visiting team -- come see the stars of the NBA, it won't cost as much as going to a Lakers game, that sort of thing. That part is changing. The Clippers are developing an identity of their own based on their stars, Paul and Griffin. I'm also finding out that there were plenty of Angelino's out there who couldn't embrace the Lakers, but still wanted to root for a winner, and the Clippers' fan base has swelled considerably with those fans.

In the larger Lakers-Clippers discussion, I sometimes think about the Dodgers and the Angels. When I was a growing up in L.A., the Angels were to the Dodgers as the Clippers have been to the Lakers. The Angels made the playoffs just three times in their first 40 years of existence, and didn't win a single playoff series that whole time. In the eighties and nineties, the Angels and Clippers were consistently banished to the back pages of the LA Times sports section, while the Dodgers and Lakers were receiving saturation coverage. All that changed for the Angels in 2001 when they won the World Series. From a historical standpoint, the Angels are still nothing compared to the Dodgers -- 1 pennant versus 22 pennants. But one championship and some sustained success in the last decade (while the Dodgers have struggled) has totally changed the dynamic. I'd say L.A. is still a Dodgers town at some level -- but there are plenty of places to buy Angels T-shirts. I see no reason to think the Clippers can't make similar inroads over time, without having to win 16 championships.

C.A.C: Chauncey Billups' season ending knee injury clearly devastated the Clips for a while there, but why? He wasn't playing all that well compared to previous seasons(statistically at least), and I seem to remember talk that his penchant for taking the "big" shot in the 4th quarter was doing more harm than good. Why did the Clippers struggle so badly after he went down?

SP: It doesn't make sense, does it? The simple answer is that correlation is not causation. Yes, they were 15-7 when Billups ruptured his Achilles, and yes they were 11-14 in the next 25 games. But the difference is difficult or even impossible to explain based on anything Billups was doing on the court. The guy was shooting 36% this season. He might have been a marginally better defender than some of the alternatives, and he did do a good job of getting to the line. But his production, and subsequent lack thereof, doesn't come close to explaining the difference in the team.

So I look for other factors. You may recall that the Clippers began the season at a leisurely stroll -- the last time the Clippers and Lakers played, it was LAC's 15th game, LAL's 19th. Looking at the same pre-Billups and post-Billups records, the Clippers went 15-7 in 22 games played over the course of 44 days. They went 11-14 in 25 games played over the course of 40 days (subtracting out 4 days for the All-Star break). That's a huge difference -- from a game every 2 days, to a game every 1.6 days, it was basically a 25% increase in their work load.

It's impossible to precisely gauge the effect of schedule fatigue in this compressed post lockout season, but if you look at Caron Butler's shooting percentage in January (44%) and compare it to March (36%) you may be seeing the impact of tired legs. (Mo Williams had a similar drop off when the pace of games picked up.) The Clippers played 20 games in 31 days in March, the most games in a single month for any NBA team in 45 years. The month included a stretch of 9 games in 12 days, which concluded with that three game road losing streak that almost cost Vinny Del Negro his job. Now that the Clippers have finally caught up with the rest of the league in games played, they seem to have their legs under them again, and they're making shots and winning games. So that's an alternative to the Billups theory.

But back to Billups for a moment. I'm not a huge believer in the "locker room guy" thing, but if ever there was a player who could have an positive influence on a team WITHOUT playing, it might be Billups (or Derek Fisher maybe -- sorry; too soon?) Billups had his surgery in Colorado where he rehabbed for a few weeks afterwards. He returned to L.A. in mid-March -- and the Clippers haven't lost a game with him on the bench since. So it may well be that Billups' injury was a major factor in the Clippers' malaise after all -- just not in a way we can measure on the court.

C.A.C: Blake Griffin ... he's kind of a tool. What do Clips fans think of Blake when he does the type of thing that drags his likability way below where it should be for someone who makes such insanely amazing plays? (And yes, I know the Lakers have a few tools of their own. Overall, I'd say most of us Laker fans recognize Kobe's less admirable qualities and take them into account in our overall evaluation of him as a player, but I could be wrong. As for Andrew Bynum, well, check out the return piece for my thoughts.) Basically, I'm just curious if Clippers fans love Blake even more because of the behavior that rubs other fans the wrong way,

SP: I don't accept your premise. Blake Griffin is not a tool. Don't get me wrong -- I know what you're saying, and I see what other people see, but Blake Griffin is no more tool-like than any other high-visibility player in the NBA. In fact, he's significantly less tool-y than most.

Your premise is clearly flawed though. You need to stop taking your questions from Matt Barnes -- you're better than that. If Griffin's likability is below where it should be, why would he have been voted in as the starter in the All-Star game? There were tons of other great options on the ballot, including in the case of Kevin Love, a guy who probably deserved it more than Griffin. Yet Griffin won that particular popularity contest easily. So Griffin's overall likability is not really a problem.

With any high visibility player, particularly those that get a LOT of exposure, there's going to be a backlash. It's normal. But frankly, most of the complaints I hear about Griffin don't really ring true to me. Does Blake Griffin preen after dunks? Sure, but no more so than most NBA players. The funny thing to me is Griffin doesn't hoop and holler and high five after dunks -- yet fans view his stoic stares as evidence of tool-dom. Any guy that dunks that much, and dunks on so many people, is going to tick some fans off. I'm sure Kendrick Perkins' mom doesn't like Blake one bit. It comes with the territory. (I searched for Matt Barnes' dunks to see how he celebrated, but they weren't easy to find. On youtube if you search 'matt barnes dunk' you mostly get videos of missed dunks. So I'm beginning to understand Barnesie's issue with Blake a little better now.)

Does Blake Griffin flop? Absolutely, but again, no more so than most NBA players. I'll also say this about Griffin's supposed flopping. Griffin takes a ton of abuse out there. He's a terrible free throw shooter, so he's a hard foul magnet. A couple months into his rookie season, Griffin started doing the "head snap" when he got hit -- and he started getting a lot more whistles. Players accentuate contact in the NBA because it works -- they get more calls from the refs that way.

Blake Griffin is one of the most engaging, personable, well-spoken and hard-working players in the NBA. He's not perfect, but I've been told that nobody is. He's risen to a level of exposure that was bound to create a backlash. But Blake Griffin a tool? There are plenty of tools in the NBA -- Griffin isn't one of them.

C.A.C: OK, I tried my best to avoid it, but there's no way not to ask ... How's Vinny Del Negro working out there? When the Clippers lost 3 straight around the trade deadline (when coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan became available), my first thought was that the team was actively tanking to bring in a better head coach. Is that a fair reflection of how much (or how little) VDN brings to the table, or has the blogosphere poisoned my mind against a decent, if not spectacular, head coach?

SP: I'll try not to give you my pat answer on Vinny Del Negro. Here are the things you need to know:

1) He's not an Xs and Os guy. He never claimed to be, and when the Clippers hired him in 2010 they knew he wasn't. His offense is boring and predictable and his defensive schemes are pretty simplistic. But a Chris Paul pick and roll can be difficult to defend, even if you know it's coming. When the Clippers are executing well, it doesn't matter a lot that the offense is predictable.

2) VDN has a track record of almost completely losing a team, and then getting them back for a final push. It's actually pretty eerie, and I don't have a great explanation for it but look at his first two years in Chicago and compare it to what's happening now with the Clippers. The 08-09 Bulls lost 6 of 9 from 2/25 to 3/13 and were sitting at 29-37 overall. They proceeded to win 12 of their last 16 to finish at 41-41 and sneak into the playoffs. In 09-10 the Bulls went on a 10 game losing streak from 2/27 to 3/19, in the process going from 4 games over .500 to 6 games under. They closed the season 10-4 to once again finish 41-41 and make the playoffs. A similar scenario seems to be playing out with the Clippers right now. Say what you will about VDN, but the whole "losing the locker room" thing doesn't seem apropos. Teams play hard for him in April, and that's not nothing.

3) Vinny wasn't hired to coach a contender, and in all likelihood he won't be the coach next season. I mean, sure, if the Clippers never lose again between now and the NBA Finals, he could be back. But assuming the Clippers do more or less what they're on course to do -- make the playoffs, win a first round series, lose in the second round, something like that -- the Clippers won't exercise the option they have for VDN next season, and they'll see if they can convince D'Antoni or McMillan or Jerry Sloan or some such higher visibility coach to take the job. And yes, Donald Sterling will spend the money if it means increasing his chances of keeping Chris Paul and Blake Griffin long term.

C.A.C: How has Clips Nation managed expectations throughout the season? Was there any "banner" talk when Chris Paul was acquired? How has the team's up and down performance this season been dealt with? Do you think the Clippers are about where you expected them to be, or have they under (or over) performed?

SP: The Clippers won 32 games last season. Any "banner" talk would have been limited to future scenarios based on a core featuring two young, compatible superstars. There was jubilation that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would make the team competitive for many, many years to come, and that with the right acquisitions around them and a little luck they could compete for a title. But no one is expecting that to happen this season.

Having said that, on the whole the Clippers have exceeded my expectations -- or perhaps I should say that the rest of West has mostly failed to meet expectations. The Mavericks and Lakers both took a step back (ironically, both due in part to Lamar Odom, the Lakers because they lost him and the Mavs because they got him). The Grizzlies have failed to take a step forward. Oklahoma City is the only real juggernaut in the West, with San Antonio remaining a definite enigma that has overachieved to this point.When the Clippers were playing well back in January, I made the argument that they were in the conversation, with all those other teams, for second best team in the West. Oklahoma City is clearly better, but who else? I mean, at this point, you have to say based simply on results that San Antonio is legit, but I certainly don't view the Spurs as an insurmountable playoff obstacle for the Clippers.

When the Clippers were playing poorly, I still felt more or less the same -- but again based mostly on the somewhat underwhelming competition in the West. While the Clippers were losing 9 of 12 the Mavericks were losing 8 of 10 and the Grizzlies were losing 6 of 8 and the Lakers were losing at Detroit and Washington or struggling against New Orleans. Any of those teams that is playing well going into the playoffs can make a claim to be the third best team in the West (and the fifth best team in the league), and would have a very good chance against the Spurs as a playoff opponent.

On the day the Clippers traded for Chris Paul, I felt like the playoffs were guaranteed, but that I'd be happy if the team got out of the first round this season. Now winning in the first round seems more than reasonable (though a loss to the Lakers or the Mavs or the Grizz would hardly be a catastrophe), and a trip to the Conference Finals seems possible. And for a Clippers fan, that's a pretty amazing position to be in.