The Clippers had somewhat of a roster overhaul this summer; while the starting lineup is back for another run, the supporting cast is going to look very different. In addition to the roster changes, the Clippers, along with every other team in the league, will have the benefit of a full training camp. So what can we expect from Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and crew this year? More after the jump.
For the sake of this breakdown, I am including Chauncey Billups as a starter, despite the fact that he is very likely to begin the season in street clothes as he recovers from the achilles injury he suffered on that ill fated night last February in Orlando. Barring any other injuries or a shakeup by coach Del Negro, we can expect to see Deandre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Caron Butler up front, with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups handling the back court duties.
The starters were a formidable group last season, with Chauncey and Caron Butler acting as the floor spreaders, complimenting a lethal screen and roll game between Chris Paul and his bigs, Blake Griffin in particular. Blake
Griffin made some strides with his post game, frequently commanding double teams and showing flashes of solid up and under moves, a drop step or two, and the capability of making great interior passes. That said, he still frequently relied on his otherworldly athleticism rather than refined post moves. His front-court mate, Deandre Jordan, showed a significant improvement last season, particularly early in the season on the defensive end (not to say there is not still significant room for improvement). He seemed to lose favor with coach Del Negro by the midway point last season, with most of the meaningful minutes at center going to the veteran Kenyon Martin, who was valued for his ability to guard smaller, quicker guards on switches. After the injury to Chauncey Billups, Randy Foye became the default starting two guard, and he performed quite well in his role as a starter, shooting 38.6% from three. Unfortunately, the rest of Randy's game left much to be desired, as he does a poor job getting to the free throw line and finishing at the rim, and was undersized defensively.
Ironically, the Clippers aka "Lob City", were widely percieved to be a run and gun, up and down team last season, but it couldnt be farther from the truth. The Clippers ranked 24th in the NBA last season scoring just 11 points per game off of fast breaks. Thats fewer than the 2010 season when Baron Davis and Mo WIlliams were running the show (the 2010 team was a top ten fast break scoring team). The real story is that Chris Paul is a half court master, often using every second of the 24 second clock. The Clippers offensive schemes lacked creativity, and probably should have emphasized more transition scoring, yet Chris Paul made it work. They did do a great job of getting to the free throw line, earning 23.3 attempts per contest, but converted just 68% (2nd worst in the league). Needless to say, the Clippers had to work very hard to score points in 2010-2011, and they will need to remedy that if they hope to improve on the success of last season.
What to expect/hope for:
Other than the aforementioned injury to Chauncey Billups that may cost him some time to start the season, we can expect the starting lineup to remain unchanged. There is plenty of talent in the group, even if age and injuries
are beginning to take their toll on Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler. On top of the concerns with Butler and Billups, both Blake and CP3 went under the knife this off -season. The potential problems these facts present will
hopefully be mitigated by the revamped bench, which we will discuss below. Assuming that all Starters are on the court, I think we can expect this group to play very much like they did last season. Ideally, we would see the starters less reliant on the three point shot while converting more free throws. Additionally, Blake and DJ need to dominate the boards. As a team, the Clippers were pretty good on the offensive glass last season, yet below average overall. That needs to change. The Clippers need to protect the ball like they did last season (second best in the league at just 12.4 TO's per game). They also need to take advantage of the rest the new bench will be able to provide. This should allow the starters to play more aggressive defense and push the ball more off of turnovers (most bigs can't run with Griffin and Jordan in transition, and the Clippers should exploit that). Lastly, Blake Griffin needs to make his free throws. He gets to the line at such a high rate, converting at a rate at or above above 70% is will go a long way for this team, and I expect him to do it. Defensively, it is unlikely that this starting group will ever be elite, but they are capable of playing a solid and efficient team defense.
Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, Willie Green, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Ryan Hollins, and Ronny Turiaf. Gone are Mo WIlliams, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Ryan Gomes, Nick Young, and most likely Bobby Simmons.
The Clippers bench last year was...something. When the season began the task of scoring off the bench was left solely to Mo Williams, and he did so quite admirably. The additions of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin added a nice defensive presence and some much needed rebounding, but absolutely nothing in terms of offensive production. The deal for Nick Young gave the Clippers a nice boost down the stretch and in the playoffs, and his scoring, while streaky, proved to be the difference in a number of games.
The new Clipper bench offers coach Del Negro a variety of roster/rotational options, with the key piece being Lamar Odom, who returns to the team that drafted him. Lamar is coming off of a disastrous season in 2011, just a year removed from his best season as a pro. Lamar Odom is a versatile 6-10 power forward. An excellent rebounder, he has the ability to start the fast break on his own thanks to his ball handling ability. He is not historically a great three point shooter but does have the ability to stretch the floor (he shot a career best 38% from the perimeter in 2010). He can give you minutes at the sf spot (which I expect we will see this season) and even at center when playing against smaller lineups. Lamar is joined by Grant Hill, the elder statesman of the club who has a terrific basketball IQ, and at age 39, is still productive at both ends of the floor, particularly defensively. The last "big name" addition the Clippers made is Jamal Crawford. Jamal has the reputation of being a gunner (or chucker, if you prefer). In the wrong situation, Jamal can be a disastrous fit for a team (See portland last season). But what he brings to the table is the ability to create his own shot and score in bunches. He is an enormous weapon to have off the bench, and the quality of players he will be on the floor will hopefully keep him from trying to do too much on his own. Contrary to popular belief, he is not at all turnover prone and averages around 4 assists/game for his career. He is an elite free throw shooter (best in the league last season at 92.7%) ,and gets to the line at a decent rate. He can play point guard if necessary, and is another capable defender (note: I said capable, not necessarily willing).
Those three will be joined on the court by Eric Bledsoe and a bench big, either Ryan Hollins or Ronny Turiaf. Bledsoe is coming off a terrific playoff run, and the Clippers hope that he can build off of that performance. It's a bench full of talented guys and, more importantly, guys who fit well together. Bledsoe at point guard can still be a spark plug for the Clippers, wreaking havoc on opposing ball handlers and looking to score in transition. He has a long way to go in his development as a point guard, but his blazing speed and strength make him effective at penetrating in the halfcourt, and he proved capable of being a good distributor in those situations as last season progressed. Grant Hill and Lamar Odom are veterans who can be a calming force on the court, and both are effective playing without the ball. Hollins and Turiaf need to come in and play big, take some fouls and clean up the glass, and that's about it. I expect this group to run a great deal of their offense through Crawford, working screen and rolls when he has the ball in his hands, as well as some down screens to get him the ball in catch and shoot situations. Lamar Odom's ability to spread the floor and pull the opposition power forward to the perimeter should help to open things up inside. With the ball, Odom is an effective face up isolation player down low, and the Clippers will be able to throw him the ball and let him go to work on occasion. Bledsoe and Hill can have their greatest impact on the defensive end of the floor. The Clippers also added Willie Green, another serviceable guard in the rotation who is undersized, but very much capable of being a spark plug type of player. Always a decent mid range player, last season WIllie shot above 40% from the three point line (most likely an outlier and not to be expected to repeat, although we can hope). Defensively, Willie plays hard, but is very undersized, although that shouldn't be a huge problem off the bench. If Crawford begins the season as a starter in place of Billups, Willie Green will get some good minutes at the backup two spot.
Del Negro showed last season that he is fond of the three guard lineup, and it would not surprise me to see more of that this season,with Paul and Bledsoe joined by Crawford on occasion. In fact a small ball lineup of Griffin, Odom, Crawford, Bledose/Billups, and Paul wouldn't surprise me one bit, and in the right situation could actually be quite effective. It's a talented group, and one that the Clippers will be reliant upon next season, certainly much more so that last year.
What to expect in 2012-2013:
One of the Clippers strengths heading into this season is their mix of veterans and youth. The problem is that these types of players are also a question mark heading into a season. Will the young players progress as expected/needed? Will father time be kind to the veterans and allow them to have another productive season? While this is a concern, it seems that the depth of talent and character on this roster, along with the leadership of
Chris Paul should pull this group together and allow for a very productive team. The roles seem to be clear, and there is an opportunity for just about everyone on the roster (at least everyone discussed in this preview) to
contribute in a meaningful way.
Three point shooting may be a concern (particularly with Chauncey Billups status in question), but that can easily be offset by committing to defense and scoring more points in transition and the free throw line. Coaching is a noted concern among the fan base, and the staff will need to bring more to the table this season with sets and schemes, but training camp and more practice time should help in that regard. The real unknown this season will be center play. Deandre Jordan will be relied upon to contribute heavily this year, and to do so he must stay out of foul trouble. Blocking shots (and controlling them), cleaning up the glass, and finishing at the rim. We know that DJ (still only 24 years old) is capable of doing these things, but can he do them consistently? Ryan Hollins is big and athletic, but not at all polished. Ronny Turiaf is a nice bench player, high energy and a good rebounder, but he is not particularly big and should not have to be relied upon for anything more than 15-18 mins per night. As such, DJ is going to get solid and consistent minutes this season, and a chance to earn some of that paycheck he signed last season.
The roster changes they made are bound to have mixed reviews, but the Clippers should be a better team this season than they were last, and easily one of the deepest teams in the league. The west will be fiercely competitive again this season, but I suspect no team will be anxious to face them in the playoffs. Look for the Clips to improve on their winning percentage from last season, notching 50-55 games in the win column and another trip to the second round in 2012-2013.
And you can leave the brooms at home.