When Chris Paul officially became a Los Angeles Clipper after being denied the chance to team up with Kobe Bryant, the Clippers were no longer the forgotten stepchild of LA's NBA franchise. Paul -- with his dynamic ball handling and unmistakable passing ability -- instantly changed the tenor of the Clippers and helped it to become one of the most exciting teams in the entire league.
Outside of the Staples Center, the billboard of three Clippers -- and no Lakers players -- suggested that change was on the horizon. The only question people had now was whether the new excitement would translate to wins.
Paul is a maestro on the open floor and the catalyst to "Lob City." As expected, his connection with Blake Griffin has been nearly flawless, but perhaps even more impressive has been his ability to integrate DeAndre Jordan into the mix.
But it's his defensive energy -- he's second in the league in blocks -- that teammate Caron Butler believes has made the most dramatic impact.
"He's been unbelievable," Butler told The Huffington Post. "He has a presence inside the paint, in terms of being that guy who can anchor the defense, and keep the defense on a string."
Butler, who in December signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Clippers, played in just 29 games for the world champion Mavericks last season before rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee.
He believes that time will only help this team unite even more and improve on rebounding and defense, two elements where the Clippers rank a poor 27th and 20th, respectively.
Head coach Vinny Del Negro wants his team to play a physical brand of defense -- by depending on fast rotations, bumping cutters and an increased effort -- in order to overcome a lack of athleticism and quickness on the perimeter. Relying on the shot-blocking prowess of Jordan is vital, he said, but they should not rely on it too much to cover up problems on the wing.
"We feel like we should and will be a better rebounding team and get better defensively," Butler said.
In their first two benchmark victories of the young season against the Heat and Lakers, the 7-4 Clippers vastly improved on defense. Normally a scoring juggernaut, Miami scored a mere 89 points on 99 possessions. The Lakers meanwhile, were held to 94 points, mostly thanks to the Herculean, 42-point effort of Kobe. Neither foe ever established a consistent rhythm, and both were coerced into contested jump shots during critical junctures.
Paul -- whom Butler praises as the linchpin to the Clippers' success -- was terrific against Miami with 27 points and 11 assists, and even better against the Lakers, registering a season-high 33 points.
With the truncated 66-game season, integrating a marquee player into the flow is challenging enough. When that player happens to be a point guard, it is even harder. Paul though, is such a cerebral player and natural floor leader that he has assumed the role with ease.
"The reason why everyone plays off of each other so well is because of Chris Paul," Butler said.
After losing three of its first four games, the Clippers have rattled off seven of nine, with signature wins over the Lakers and Heat before being trounced in Utah without Paul. With Griffin becoming a reliable post option and not just a dunker, he is scoring on the block and consistently warranting double-teams. Despite the loss of Eric Gordon in the CP3 trade, the Clippers have a cadre of shooters to spread the floor as kick-out options in veterans Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams and Butler.
Even still, this team is likely another year or two away from being a real contender in the Western Conference. Winning four out of seven against the likes of Dallas, Oklahoma City and the Lakers is not the same as winning in January. Just don't tell that to Butler, who knows first hand what it takes to capture a title.
"We all got the urge of winning," he said. "There are a lot of similarities in this locker room [compared to Dallas]. Guys genuinely care about each other. That's something that I saw early on in Dallas, and I see a lot of that going on right now."
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