The Los Angeles Clippers have the eighth-best record in the NBA at 37-21 and currently hold the sixth seed in the incredibly competitive Western Conference. They have the league’s first-ranked offense, scoring 110.2 points per 100 possessions, and are ranked second in true shooting percentage (56.6 percent) as well as effective field goal percentage (53.1 percent).
This is a team that has one the of best players in the league in Blake Griffin, one of the best head coaches in the league in Doc Rivers, one of the best point guards in the league in Chris Paul, one of the best defensive big men in the league in DeAndre Jordan and one of the best sixth men in the league in Jamal Crawford.
Yet, the Clippers are often referred to as a pretender rather than a contender. Critics say they have no shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy as currently constructed. “They haven’t made enough moves to improve their roster.” “They aren’t good enough on the defensive end.” “They can’t win in the playoffs.” The players hear these naysayers, and are motivated by the doubts. They also know that the only way to silence these individuals is by winning in the postseason.
“I think we’ve been in overlooked in some ways, but that’s okay with us,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “We’re one of those teams that will ultimately be judged by our playoff success. We can win 50 or 60 games and people are still going to say, ‘Okay, well let’s see what they do in the playoffs.’ We’ve kind of graduated to one of those teams – we understand that. We just have to keep building good habits and go into the playoffs with momentum, everyone healthy and everyone playing the right way.”
The Clippers acquired Austin Rivers in January, but didn’t make any trades at last week’s deadline unlike many of their Western Conference peers. While L.A. had been looking for some wing depth, Crawford believes the fact that the team didn’t make moves could actually help them, as the Clippers’ continuity gives them excellent chemistry. The team’s core has been together for several years and they’re very comfortable playing together by now.
“I think our continuity is an advantage,” Crawford said. “If you look at all of the great teams in the ’80s and ’90s – and even the Spurs in this generation – they all stayed together and played together for years. That was their advantage, knowing where each other would be on the floor, understanding how to play with each other and having that chemistry. Chemistry is so underrated. You can make moves – sometimes, you have to make moves, I understand that – but sometimes the best move is not making any move at all. For us, we feel like we have a good group of guys, we have a great coaching staff, we have a great organization and we have that great chemistry. We’re all on the same page, we know how to play with each other and we know what the other is going to do even if we don’t say a word.”
The team is also much more comfortable playing under head coach Doc Rivers this year – his second season on the sideline in L.A. Last year, they had to adjust to his coaching style, learn his system and bond with him. That’s all in the past now and the team can focus on playing to their full potential and winning.
“It’s a lot different,” Crawford said of the team’s comfort level with Rivers this year. “Now, there’s that trust on both sides. Last year obviously worked out great, but it was our first year together. Now, he knows me and I know him. We all know him and he knows us. Now, we can build and move forward. The getting-to-know-each-other process is over. We know who we are as a team and we’re all working toward the same goal. I think it’s a lot more fun this year.”
Griffin recently had surgery on his elbow to remove a staph infection, and he’ll be sidelined for several weeks. Still, the Clippers have managed to have some success while he’s been sidelined, recently going on a four-game winning streak (that included consecutive victories over the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs). Crawford says that while Griffin’s surgery is obviously unfortunate, it may be a blessing in disguise for the team in the long run because it’ll get Griffin back to 100 percent and because the team is growing while stepping up to fill the void left by Griffin’s absence.
“It’s the only approach that we can take, looking at the glass half full,” Crawford said. “Blake has been dealing with that elbow for a while now, so being able to get him back at 100 percent – and not having to think about that – I think that’s a blessing for him. That’s great for Blake. And then for us, I think not only will Blake will be better, but we will all be better when he returns. We’ve had to step up and lean on each other. I think we can put that to use when Blake comes back and then we should take off.”
Individually, Crawford is having yet another impressive campaign in his 15th NBA season. He’s averaging 16.5 points for the Clippers, providing much needed scoring off of their bench. He remains one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league – among all players, not just reserves. Out of all the players with at least 100 possessions, Crawford ranks fourth in points per possession (1.05) and fifth in scoring frequency (48.3 percent), and he’s also second in the league in free throw percentage (90.5 percent).
This season, Crawford has also been one of the league’s best fourth quarter scorers (as he has been for the last several seasons). Even though he’s a sixth man, he finishes games for the Clippers and has a knack for stepping up in the final quarter and closing games.
“I think that’s when the game gets tougher, and I’ve always been comfortable in that situation even back when I was a kid,” Crawford said of his fourth-quarter play. “I think my teammates and coaches put me in great situations to be successful and they have a lot of confidence in me. I have a lot of confidence in myself too where even if I’m shooting 1-7 going into the fourth quarter, I can go into the fourth and hit four or five shots in a row. I love those moments, because that’s when it’s winning time. That’s the most important part of the game.”
Crawford’s strong play has him once again in the race for Sixth Man of the Year, an award he has won twice, but he credits those around him for his success.
“It’s just more a team thing because you won’t be mentioned in any kind of award conversation like that if your team is not having great success; I understand it’s more of a team thing first,” Crawford said. “If I were to get that, it would be really, really cool, but I’m not playing for that whatsoever. But it is one of those things where when your career is over and you’re looking back on it, it’s pretty cool.”
If NBA players determined who takes home awards, Crawford’s trophy case would likely look a lot different. Talk to players around the NBA about the toughest players to guard or the best one-on-one scorers, and Crawford’s name almost always comes up. Young players praise him and talk about how Crawford influenced their game. He has a reputation for humiliating players, and every opposing player knows how scary he can be when he gets hot (as he displayed last night against the Houston Rockets, scoring 18 points in 10 minutes). This respect from his peers means a lot to Crawford.
“Honestly, those kinds of comments mean so much to me because I’ve never made an All-Star team or anything like that,” Crawford said. “To have your peers respect you is everything; I learned that a long time ago, from Rick Brunson actually, that you’re as good as your peers think you are. Those are the guys who are playing against you, not just watching or writing or whatever – they’re playing the game. For them to say things like that, it means even more to me.”
Crawford is now 34 years old and in his 15th NBA season, but doesn’t plan on walking away from the game anytime soon. He’s under contract with the Clippers for one more season (worth $5,675,000), but he intends to continue playing for several more years after his current deal expires.
“I think, God willing, if I have no major injuries or anything, I want to keep playing for five more years,” Crawford said. “It’s weird because I’ve said ‘five more years’ for two years now, but I still feel like I can do that. So yeah, I think five more seasons. I still want to be playing at a high level, though. But honestly, it’s crazy, I still feel like I’m getting better and finding ways to keep learning about the game and continuing to challenge myself with things to get better at. I don’t know, but hopefully five more years. I’ve said that for two years now, so we’ll see.”
As Crawford said, he and the Clippers will ultimately be judged in the postseason. They are a very talented squad that has won a combined 150 games over the last two and a half seasons, but they have yet to advance past the Western Conference Semifinals (although they came close last year). This season, their goal is to go much deeper and win the title. Crawford thinks it’s certainly possible.
“I think we have enough to win a championship,” Crawford added. “I think when we’re at our best, we can play with anybody. Obviously, I’m sure other teams feel that way too, but we’ve had some great battles with some really good teams. I know it’s a different ballgame in the playoffs, but for us, I feel like with who we have on the sidelines and what players we have, I like our chances.”
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