Walden: Clippers are the biggest early-season surprise in the jumbled West

(Mary Altaffer | AP Photo) Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) forward Tobias Harris (34) and guard Patrick Beverley (21) react during the final seconds of second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in New York. The Clippers won 127-119.

Lost to some fans in all the furor of the Jazz’s underwhelming start is the fact that the entire Western Conference is, to this point, quite insane.

Through Friday night’s games, the top eight “seeds” in the conference would be: 1. Clippers; 2. Nuggets; 3. Thunder; 4. Warriors; 5. Grizzlies; 6. Lakers; 7. Trail Blazers; 8. Mavericks.

Everybody who had that eight-team combination, in that order, before the season started, raise your hand …

That’s right — nobody.

If the playoffs started today, beyond no Jazz, there would also be no Rockets (the team with the best record in the league last year), no Spurs (who have qualified for the postseason for an NBA-record 21 consecutive seasons), no Pelicans (with an allegedly disgruntled Anthony Davis) and no Timberwolves (who last year ended a streak of 13 straight seasons of missing the playoffs).

Undoubtedly, part of this New World Order can be attributed to Golden State’s litany of peripheral issues. Coach Steve Kerr can lament all he wants that his team is mortal now; the moment Steph Curry returns to the lineup, all the Kevin Durant drama will again be reduced to background noise, and the team’s domination of the league landscape will resume.

In the end, the only two ways for the Warriors to be stopped are: 1. A significant Curry injury; or 2. Their players getting as sick of winning everything together as all non-Warriors fans are, and going their own way at season’s end.

In the meantime, though, with the 2018-19 slate now a quarter over, we should all enjoy that everything is bananas. Who can’t get behind a team like the Clippers not only being the top team in Los Angeles but in the entire West?

No Chris Paul? No Blake Griffin? No DeAndre Jordan? Apparently, no problem.

Rattling off the names that are on the roster, you’d be more inclined to guess they were in line for a significant number of ping-pong balls as opposed to a playoff spot: Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Boban Marjanovic …

There’s nothing singularly anomalous about their individual production. Harris is the team’s leading scorer at 21.7 ppg — which ranks 18th in the league. His 8.7 rpg also top the team, and rank him 23rd. Sixth man extraordinaire Williams is scoring well again (17.6, albeit on 38.6-percent shooting), and is leading the team in assists, though his 4.2 per game rank him 42nd in the NBA.

The only player on the team with a top-five ranking in any major statistical category is Harrell, who is fourth league-wide in field goal percentage, at 64.9.

So why the Clippers?

Well, they’re fourth in the NBA in both ppg (117.5) and offensive rating (112.9). That’s partly because they’re extremely efficient in shooting the ball — they rank second in 3-point percentage (38.2), fifth in FT percentage (81.0), and eighth in FG percentage (47.3). And they’re good at freeing up shooters, ranking fourth with 9.0 screen-assists per game.

They also go after and take care of the ball — they’re fourth in defensive rebounds (37.1), ninth in total rebounds (46.8), and 10th in turnovers (14.3). LA also has proven to be solid in what the NBA deems “clutch” situations, with their FT percentage in such scenarios rising to 86.0 (third in the league), and the team ranking second in “clutch wins,” with 10.

They also seem to embrace their no-name persona. Reputations don’t matter, only production. To that end, they lead the league in “2nd rounders points per game,” with 53.6. They’re first in bench ppg (53.8), fourth in bench minutes (20.7), and fifth in bench net rating (2.6).

Are the Clippers really contenders? No. This is unsustainable. In all likelihood, they won’t be atop the Western standings much longer. We’ve already seen the Grizzlies surprisingly take and fall from the top spot, after all.

But isn’t it more fun to legitimately wonder who might grab the spotlight next — Denver? OKC? Portland? — than to simply be greeted by “GSW” at the top every time? That’s surely how the season will end. It seems pretty predictable.

Which makes all this chaos in the interim all the better.


• Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has made no secret over the years of his disdain for 3-pointers. San Antonio’s play this season certainly reflects it. League-wide, 35 percent of shots come from beyond the arc. For the Spurs, it’s 27 percent. A few days ago, Pop went on another epic rant about the bane of his existence: "Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care. … There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

• The Markelle Fultz saga in Philadelphia just continues to grow stranger by the day. More than a week ago, the second-year guard’s agent, Raymond Brothers, surprised Sixers officials by saying the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft would be sitting out until he’d had consultations with specialists on his right shoulder. His return has been further delayed with Friday’s announcement that Fultz has yet more appointments scheduled for the coming week. Sources told ESPN that there is debate within the organization as to how much the issues affecting Fultz’s wonky shooting form are actually physical vs. mental.

• The Thunder have been one of the hottest teams in the league of late. They’ve done it without defensive specialist Andre Roberson. They’ll have to keep on doing it without him. The guard ruptured his patellar tendon in January, and was on track for a November return. However, he suffered a setback in October and required a follow-up procedure. This week, he suffered another setback. According to reports, during a workout on Thursday, he suffered an avulsion fracture — wherein a tendon or ligament pulls off a piece of bone — in the same knee, and will now be out at least six more weeks.