The Phoenix Suns (5-4) start a six-game road trip tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers (4-3). Neither team is playing up to their potential. Today, we talk to Justin Russo, aka FlybyKnite, of our sister SBNation site ClipsNation to get the inside scoop on the Clippers' start.
Dave: The Clippers have started out a bit slow this year, at least compared to some preseason pundits who expected them to lead the league in wins this season. Is their struggle and example of unrealistic expectations? Or are the Clippers really having troubles? Or both?
ClipsNation's FlybyKnite: I think it's two-fold. I think they're struggling to deal with the expectations of being a top Western Conference team, or even a top team in the NBA, and it's sort of got them in this "we'll flip the switch when we need to" mode. Except it doesn't work like that and teams are genuinely not going to be pushovers. You can't just flip the switch and expect things to work out. The other side of it is I think the team is going through some early season ruts due to injuries and bugs. Last weekend, Blake Griffin was dealing with what sounded like the flu and DeAndre Jordan had to deal with it on Monday night against the Spurs. Plus, Griffin had a small fracture in his lower back during the offseason which is why he didn't play for Team USA so that really might be hampering him early on in the year. He's just not as explosive as he has been. So, I do believe they're having some troubles but I think the troubles will work themselves out as the season trudges along.
Dave: As a casual Clipper fan, I love watching DeAndre Jordan play basketball. He's so impactful when he's making plays. But are Clipper fans as enamored with DJ? As talented as he is, is he the best defender he can be when he's not blocking shots?
Oh man, I might catch some flak for this one. There are Clippers fans who love DeAndre. Quite a bit, actually. And I totally get it. But he isn't the best defender he can be when he's not blocking shots. As solid of a shot-blocker as he is from the weakside at times, I genuinely don't even view him as a great, or even good, defender. I know there are others who will disagree with me but also some who would agree. He's not the problem on defense but he's also not what his numbers indicate he is. I'd say he's right around league average for his position when it comes to defense. He has a lot he can improve upon but I'm not sure he'll be able to. He is what he is right now and I think he's basically a maxed out defender who can give you highlight blocks and the occasional solid post defense but nothing much outside of that.
Dave: Chris Paul is a master and seems to want to show Eric Bledsoe he still rules the court whenever they play the Suns. This preseason, it seemed that Paul was doing whatever he could to will the Clippers to a win. And that was preseason. Is Paul just a killer against every team, or have Clipper fans noticed an uptick in play against Bledsoe too?
It's both. It's definitely both. Paul hates being outshined by anyone and really gets annoyed when opposing point guards try to one-up him. However, that Bledsoe matchup is one that really picks at him. He liked Eric but this is the master-student relationship still in Chris' eyes and I believe he wants to go out there and give Bledsoe a lesson in how point guards operate. That's not to say Bledsoe isn't great or anything. Bledsoe's fantastic. But it's these kind of matchups where you really see what drives Chris Paul inside. It's the fear of failure and getting outplayed by someone who you perceived as being beneath you. Fear can motivate people in crazy was and Chris is one of those guys. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But he's always going to give them hell.
Dave: Eric Bledsoe was a really good backup in Clipperland with a lot of potential. Do Clipper fans feel he has reached that potential yet after having such a good season last year? Or does he have room to grow (or drop)?
Honestly, I still think he has a world of room to grow. And, if I'm being honest, what he is today in Phoenix is not what he would have been if he had stayed with the Clippers. The Suns coaching staff should get a massive amount of credit for turning him into the player he is today. He's not as out of control as he was with the Clippers and they've done wonders with his jumper, both with results and with the look. It's aesthetically different and it's quite clear. I still think he's learning how to play basketball. Bledsoe has the ability to be one of the top five guards in the game since he's so ferocious defensively and then channels that ferocity offensively when driving to the hoop or running aggressive pick-and-rolls. The guy's a little dynamo and the sky's truly the limit for him. Imagine what he'll be like when his jumper gets more consistent and he's able to control things a tad more. Scary.
Dave: Finally, what is your prediction for the Suns and Clippers season series this year? Last year, it seemed that the games were weird. The Suns dished a blowout, as did the Clips, and the other two were much more closely contested with unexpected leaders being deciding factors (ie. Matt Barnes)?
I was actually in Staples Center in December when the Suns throttled the Clippers something fierce. That was a sight to behold, let me tell you. The series this year seems like it should be a good one. The Suns have a better bench this year thanks to Isaiah Thomas and the "likely to go nuts at any moment in good and bad ways" Gerald Green. The structure of the season series is weird, though. You guys are coming in on Saturday on a back-to-back and then you visit again in early December but then we don't see each other until late January and then the final matchup is on the second-to-last day of the season in Phoenix. Oddly enough, the Clippers and Suns are the only two teams in the NBA who won't play on the final day of the year. Weird. That matchup has the Clippers coming in on a back-to-back. So there're two back-to-back matchups, one apiece, and then one matchup at home against a rested opponent. Seems like that structure lends itself to a very hard fought season series and one that, like last year, could come back down to X-Factor candidates like Gerald Green, one of the Morrii, Alex Len, Matt Barnes, Spencer Hawes, or someone like that. When you get two good teams against each other in a series, there are always those games where someone breaks out randomly. As for the prediction, I'll say we split the season series with 2 wins apiece.