NBA Championship Dark Horses: LA Clippers, Denver & Atlanta

TheSportsNotebook continues its buildup to Christmas Day and the NBA, by taking a closer look at three possible NBA championship dark horses. The Los Angeles Clippers finally made a splash last year, winning a playoff series and are off to a hot start this time around. Denver has a good young team and over in the East, Atlanta is off to a strong start. We’ll start our review with the Clippers and Nuggets, since not only are both in the West, but they play head-to-head on Christmas night (10:30 PM ET, ESPN) and then again on New Year’s Day.

LA Clippers (20-6): The Clips are playing at a championship level on both sides of the floor, befitting a team with their record. Chris Paul is still the NBA’s best point guard, dishing 10 assists a game, providing a little bit of a three-point threat and being very good shooting from inside the arc. Paul doesn’t drive a rapid pace—Los Angeles’s pace can be classified as a little slower than the norm—but he operates this team at high efficiency.

There’s no shortage of weapons for Paul to target, and Blake Griffin is averaging 18 points/9 rebounds, while center DeAndre Jordan is a reliable second option down low at 10/7. Jamal Crawford has been a solid scorer at the two-guard, popping in 16 ppg and small forward is a solid tag-team between Matt Barnes and Caron Butler. They split time fairly evenly, though Butler is the better player and the team’s best option from three-point range.

After a Sunday night game with Phoenix, the Clippers can show themselves to the country, between Christmas night at home with Denver and then a Thursday night home date with Boston that will be part of the TNT doubleheader. The week closes with a challenging back-to-back against a pretty decent Utah team.

I like most everything about this team—they have no obvious weaknesses, they have a nice six-man rotation and they have a clear go-to player in Paul. If they could get Chauncey Billups healthy, it would be an ideal veteran presence for the playoffs. For now, Los Angeles will again be at least a top-four team in the West and perhaps even more.

Denver (15-13): You can say I’m pushing my luck in putting Denver in this discussion, rather than sticking in them last week’s article about the borderline playoff teams in the West. If you think that, the record bears you out, as the Nuggets are #8 in the West, but I think this is a team that’s going to make more substantial noise before the season is over.

Denver is young, with 25-year-old Ty Lawson running the show and 24-year-old Danilio Galianari being the key option in the offense. Lawson is averaging seven assists a game, with Galianari getting 16 ppg, but the 6’10” small forward needs to shoot better. Galianari’s 31 percent shooting from behind the arc is symptomatic of a team-wide problem, which is that no one is hitting threes.

The Nuggets have Andre Iguodala, formerly of Philadelphia, at the two-guard spot and while he’s hardly a scoring machine, he’s a reliable and consistent offensive threat. Kenneth Faried is a good complementary piece in the offense and he hits the boards, averaging 10 per game. Rebounding is something Denver does exceptionally well, ranking 3rd in the league, with a center tandem of Kosta Koufus and JaVale McGee also going to the glass and blocking some shots.

Defense is the issue right now, where Denver is 16th. They also brought in Corey Brewer, who knows a little something about the subject from his days in Chicago. The new personnel has to mesh better on the defensive end, but if they do, a young team that drives a fast pace and rebounds, can rise rapidly up the standings.

The time to make a move is now—not only are the Nuggets teetering in the playoff race, but their holiday games with the Clippers are sandwiched around matchups with the Lakers, Mavericks and Grizzlies.

Atlanta (16-9): A big shout-out to this team, who lost top scorer Joe Johnson and has replaced him with a committee at the two-guard spot and still churned their way to #3 in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have two outstanding low post players in Josh Smith and Al Horford. They’ve combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds and Smith can step out and hit the three.

The backcourt relies on depth, with Jeff Teague and Devin Harris splitting time at the point, and then a trio of Kyle Korver, Louis Williams and DeShawn Stevenson making up for Johnson’s lost production at the two-spot.

Most of all what this team relies on though is defense, where they rank 5th in the league. When you play defense you beat the teams you should, and Atlanta’s got a winnable run of Detroit, Cleveland and Indiana ahead of them this week. They aren’t going away anytime soon.