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A few months ago, once they really kicked into gear following the James Harden trade, the Los Angeles Clippers were the hottest team in the league and seen as a true contender in the Western Conference. When CBS Sports NBA staff made our midseason predictions, three of seven writers picked them to get to the Western Conference finals, and one had them as a Finals team. 

Fast forward to now, and suddenly they're a team in crisis. They're 9-10 since the All-Star break, getting carved up on the defensive end and are just half a game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans in the race for the No. 4 seed. After a recent loss, head coach Tyronn Lue called his players "soft."

The Clippers will face a tough test on Friday night against the up-and-coming Orlando Magic. Ahead of that game, our experts shared their thoughts on what's going on in Clippers land, and if there's still any hope for them heading into the playoffs. 

James Harden was recently asked if the Clippers are the team that had a 26-5 stretch in the middle of the season or the one that is 18-22 otherwise. He said, "We don't know." What do you say?

Jack Maloney: Somewhere in between is the obvious answer, but I'm going to lean more toward the latter, given their concerning recent form. Since the All-Star break they have one good win over Minnesota, that's it. Their eight other victories have come against bottom feeders or lower-tier Play-In Teams, and they're 2-9 against opponents with a winning record in this stretch. 

Sam Quinn: They're somewhere in between. This is a roster far better suited for the playoffs than the dog days of March, and they went just 6-6 with Russell Westbrook injured. He's by far their biggest source of energy off of the bench, and his absence proved significant. They're not quite as dominant offensively as they looked at their peak, but this is still a roster with three high-end shot-creators and enough supporting shooting to stretch any defense.

James Herbert: I mean, it's the exact same group of players that went 26-5. On paper, the Clippers still have the same strengths: Tons of playmaking, lineup versatility, scheme versatility and spacing. But they haven't been playing with the same urgency on either end. Is that because of boredom? Nagging injuries? Something fundamentally broken? I can't say. It's not a great sign when the coach calls the team soft, but, personally, I can't quit the Clippers. We've seen what it looks like when they're clicking, and their talent suggests they're much closer to contention than mediocrity.

The Clippers are 28th in the league in defense rating (118.4) since the All-Star break. What's going on? Are they really one of the worst defensive teams in the league? 

Maloney: Kawhi Leonard might still be the first pick if you could choose any player in the league to get you a stop in a must-win situation. But other than him and Paul George, who do you really trust defensively on this team? They're an older group that lacks athleticism and struggles in too many key areas: 23rd in defensive rebounding rate (70.4), 22nd in turnovers forced per game (13), 19th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.0) and 18th in opponent second-chance points per game (13.9). I would expect them to be a bit better come playoff time, but the issues on that side of the ball are indeed a serious concern. 

Quinn: It is really, really hard to build a defense around Harden. He can't stay in front of anyone, and he really only makes sense in a scheme that can allow him to focus on generating turnovers and taking advantage of his strength and low center of gravity in the post. When Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were younger that would have been less of an issue. Right now, they're just not strong enough at the point of attack against faster guards to reliably get stops.

Herbert: Ivica Zubac was an All-Defense candidate for a while, but a calf injury took him out of the lineup in January and it seems like it's still affecting him. Opposing teams have made 40.8% of their 3-point attempts against the Clippers since the All-Star break, which is the second-highest mark in the NBA (and extremely unlucky). But no, they aren't one of the worst defensive teams in the league! They have size and switchability, and, uh, they have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the wing. The Clippers' slippage on defense has been weird. 

Time for some positivity. What's one reason the Clippers can still make some noise in the Western Conference playoffs? 

Maloney: Kawhi Leonard is one of the best, most consistent playoff performers of his generation, and this is the healthiest he's been since joining the Clippers back in 2019. When he's been on the court this season, they have a plus-8.8 net rating, and his playoff history suggests he's going to be playing about 40 minutes a night once the real games start. His presence alone is enough to make them a threat. 

Quinn: They have Kawhi Leonard and playoff Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the world. He outplayed Kevin Durant in the first two games of last year's series against the Suns before he got hurt. As a Clipper he's averaged just under 30 points on 53-38-87 shooting in the postseason, and when defenses take away the easy stuff, there might not be a better weapon to have in your arsenal in all of basketball than Leonard's mid-range jumper. As long as he's healthy the Clippers have a chance.

Herbert: The Clippers are built to go matchup-hunting come playoff time, especially with James Harden in the mix. If opponents put their two best defenders on Leonard and George, who guards Harden? It's really not that difficult to be optimistic about the Clippers' chances in the postseason; just put on one of their games from before this slide. 

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