Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers
Last Year's Record: 56-26
Key Losses: Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill
Key Additions: J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
The Clippers season ended badly last May. Despite the fact that the team set essentially every franchise record for success worth mentioning, including a best ever regular season mark of 56 wins and a 17 game win streak that featured an undefeated December, four straight playoff losses to the Memphis Grizzlies sent them crashing out of the first round of the playoffs. To their credit, the organization did not rest on their regular season laurels and instead set about making fairly significant changes, as the Clippers were among the busiest teams this off-season.
The renovations got off to a fast start, as head coach Vinny Del Negro (who had just led the team to consecutive seasons of the best winning percentages in franchise history) was not offered a new contract and the team set about looking for an upgrade. For once the basketball gods seemed to be smiling on the Clippers, as big name after big name came onto the coaching market. But as enticing as a George Karl might have been, when Doc Rivers let it be known that he would be interested in leavig the Boston Celtics (where he was under contract for three more seasons), the Clippers immediately knew who they wanted to take over. It was a long, bizarre, and at times contentious process that featured more than one pronouncement of the death of the deal and an unprecedented intervention by Commissioner David Stern to nix an early proposal that included some players switching teams in addition to Rivers, but eventually the teams agreed on a future first round draft pick as compensation for the Celtics in exchange for allowing Rivers to head to L.A. And just like that, Donald Sterling was employing the highest paid coach in the entire NBA, a highly accomplished individual who went to great lengths to leave the Celtics in order to join the Clippers -- and we were truly through the looking glass.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't view Rivers as a massive upgrade over Del Negro, but the Clippers had plenty of personnel plans as well. The first order of business was to re-sign Chris Paul -- which happened quickly and with little fanfare. Whether Paul ever had any intentions to go anywhere else is anyone's guess (I for one don't think he did), but if Paul used his leverage to make sure that Rivers wound up as his coach this season, so much the better. With Paul safely in the fold with a five year deal that mirrors Blake Griffin's contract duration, the Clippers began addressing some of the shortcomings of last year's team. The big moves came quickly, first and foremost in the form of a three-team trade in which the Clippers sent Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to Phoenix while receiving back Dudley from the Suns and a signed-and-traded J.J. Redick from Milwaukee. It was difficult to part with the potential-laden Bledsoe to be certain, but in one transaction the team added two great perimeter shooters who will likely start on the wings on October 29 when the season tips off.
After acquiring Dudley and Redick, the Clippers then used their mid-level exception to sign Matt Barnes (a key member of last year's roster) and Darren Collison. Collison in particular was quite a coup -- with Bledsoe gone, the Clippers clearly needed a point guard to back up Paul, and getting Collison, a borderline starter, for the bargain price of $1.9M per season was a steal.
In the front court, the Clippers signed Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison to minimum deals. Mullens (young and unproven, a player the Clippers hope can be developed into a solid NBA big) and Jamison (long past his prime, a player that has made several all star teams who the Clippers hope still has something in the tank) would seem to be very different acquisitions, but they have one thing in common with one another and with almost all the other newcomers to the roster this season -- they can shoot. Rivers and the Clippers clearly made it a priority to add shooting during the off-season, and they did just that.
The personnel changes seem to make a lot of sense for this team and they may prove very important, but let's face it, if you're looking for significance, look no further than Rivers.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
This team will be able to score the ball -- and that seems like it's probably an understatement. The 12-13 Clippers were fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, which is obviously very, very good -- and there's very little question that they will be harder to stop this season. For one thing, Del Negro's offense was among the least imaginative in the league -- a CP3 pick-and-roll is always a good option so the team had plenty of success on the offensive end, but there would seem to be a lot of headroom which Rivers should be able to exploit with better movement and better spacing. Moreover, the addition of elite wing shooters, simply put, makes the Clippers an effing nightmare to defend.
The team wasn't terrible from the perimeter last season, just a tick below league average in three point percentage. And the loss of Butler hurts a bit, as he shot a career high .388 during the season. But Dudley (.405 from deep on his career) and Redick (.390) are both in a different category as shooters than basically anyone on the Clippers roster last season. Butler and Willie Green put up career numbers for a reason -- they got a ton of open looks as defenses focused on stopping Paul and Griffin. With Paul wreaking havoc driving into the lane and Griffin passing out of double teams, opposing defenses are going to have a pick-your-poison nightmare with this season's Clippers -- can you afford to leave Redick and Dudley in order to help in the paint, or do you have to stay home on such deadly shooters?
We haven't even gotten to Jamal Crawford, the Clippers sixth man extraordinaire, who led the team in per minute scoring last year. Crawford set a single season franchise record with 149 made three pointers -- and he'll be the third best three point shooter on this year's team. And as if all that weren't enough, after lining up next to the likes of Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans and Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom, Blake Griffin, for essentially the first time in his career, will from time to time share the Clippers' front court with someone who can make a 15 footer -- hell, a 12 footer, an eight footer -- giving him a little more space to work down low, at least when either Mullens or Jamison is in the game.
And while we're discussing strengths, let's point out the obvious; Paul and Griffin are very, very good. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and the Clippers have two of them. Paul has been the third-best player in the league for both of his seasons in L.A. and Griffin has been named second team All NBA in back-to-back seasons. Paul is in his prime, while Griffin is just entering his, with plenty of room for improving an already potent game. The Clippers' supporting cast is actually quite good, but it all starts with Paul and Griffin.
At the end of the day, the fourth most efficient offensive team in the league made major upgrades to their ability to shoot the ball as well as to the braintrust tasked with generating open looks. They'd be good on offense if they ran a Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll every play -- as we found out last season. More weapons and more offensive creativity will make them even more potent. If they aren't challenging for the top spot in offensive efficiency, I'll be surprised and disappointed.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The opposite of strength is weakness, and the opposite of offense is defense, so sorry to spoil the surprise, but we all knew where this was going. In fact, the Clippers were a pretty solid defensive unit last season, eighth in the league in defensive efficiency, one slot ahead of the Miami Heat. So the old cliche that defense wins championships can't really be used to cast the team as a non-contender last season.
Having said that, they had some defensive shortcomings to be sure -- and all those upgrades to shooting throughout the roster were accompanied by a few likely downgrades among individual defenders. Neither Redick nor Dudley can be described as wing stoppers (though they are as good as or better than last year's starting wings, Butler and Chauncey Billups). But the real problem comes in the front court, where the departed Odom was arguably the team's best defender last season, while Jamison is a defensive train wreck and Mullens isn't much better.
However, the calling card of Rivers' Celtics teams was always defense, and while they did have defensive savant Kevin Garnett to anchor their schemes, other players on the Boston rosters weren't exactly super-plus individual defenders. Rivers has neither Garnett nor Tom Thibodeau with him in L.A., but he'll still look to make major upgrades to the Clippers on the defensive end, and he's not without assets. While Redick and Dudley may not have the uncanny lateral quickness of lockdown defenders, they both possess basketball IQ's off the charts, and Rivers' schemes in Boston relied as much on the smarts of the defenders as on their physical gifts. Redick, Dudley, Paul, Barnes, and even Crawford could all thrive in the new system.
It will still require an anchor in the middle to make it all work, and that's where Rivers will really earn his money if he can turn Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into the defensive stalwarts he says they can be. Rivers has spoken glowingly of the raw defensive potential of his young front court on several occasions since arriving in L.A. The first time he mentioned Jordan's potential to be the Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA one day I thought he had surely misspoken or I had misheard -- but he's said the same thing several times since, including at Media Day just prior to the start of training camp. If Rivers can get Jordan anywhere close to that level of defensive play, the coach will be worth every penny, and the Clippers could be very good indeed.
Realistically, unless Griffin and Jordan both make huge strides on the defensive end, the Clippers are probably a bit soft in the front court. The young starters are very, very good, but toughness has never been their stock and trade -- though I do expect them to be better this year. In recent years, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, and then Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf, provided a nastier edge off the bench. That infusion of toughness is just not going to come from the likes of Mullens and Jamison and Ryan Hollins. Camp invitee Lou Amundson has a real chance to make the roster for this very reason, but I for one would not be surprised if the team were to make another move for a veteran big before the trade deadline.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Expectations have never been higher for any Clippers team. That's not saying much of course, but it's not nothing. So what are reasonable goals?
Winning the Pacific Division is a given; they won it by nine games last year, and with Golden State as the only other team in the division that is even expected to make the playoffs, the competition shouldn't be too fierce. The Warriors will be good -- but the Clippers should certainly be better. Anything short of their second straight division win would be a disappointment.
Improving on last season is another great goal -- which of course means setting another franchise record for wins. But 57 wins seems a bit random as a goal -- let's make it an even 60.
But none of that will matter without post-season success. Even if the Clippers were to post the best regular season record in the Western Conference (a goal that is by no means unrealistic), it won't matter if they can't get out of the first couple rounds of the playoffs.
Winning the Western Conference and advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in their history is a goal within reach. There are some great teams in the West, most notably San Antonio and Oklahoma City, but the Spurs are another year older while the Thunder had a completely dreadful off-season that saw them lose their third leading scorer without any replacement -- this could very well be the Clippers' year. How's that for setting expectations high?
5. What can Doc Rivers get from DeAndre Jordan?
It's pretty clear that Rivers has taken on Jordan as his special project. His strategy seems to be to build up DJ's confidence: telling Jordan that he has DPOY potential demonstrates to Jordan the type of confidence the coach has in his ability, but it could also backfire by setting expectations unrealistically high and putting too much pressure on a not-notoriously-mature 25 year old.
Still, it's a welcome contrast to the Del Negro era, in which the head coach seemed hell-bent on destroying Jordan's confidence at every opportunity -- successfully so in most cases. I've long said that DeAndre Jordan's NBA role model should be Tyson Chandler, and it's obvious that Rivers has a similar vision. Rivers wants Jordan to have an unrelenting focus on the defensive end of the floor, to concentrate single-mindedly on being a defensive force and not to sweat the other stuff -- and it's a great approach. The Clippers will be able to score, everyone knows that -- and Jordan's going to contribute by doing what he does best, finishing at the rim on lobs, putbacks and other easy stuff. But the season will hinge on how well the Clippers stop people, and that starts (or maybe it ends) with Jordan.
Griffin likewise has untapped potential and it will be interesting to look for Rivers' influence there as well. It's worth noting that between injuries and the NBA lockout, Griffin has never had a full off-season to work on his game since entering the NBA -- not until now. Rivers has singled out Griffin amongst all the team for his work ethic this summer. The guy is a diligent worker, so don't be surprised if he has made significant improvements after a full off-season of refinements. Rivers can push him ever higher -- but Griffin is already a very productive player. It's DJ that seems to have the most headroom.
Can Rivers bring out the best in Jordan? So far he's been effusive in describing his young center's potential and he's said in no uncertain terms that he wants and expects Jordan to play a bigger role, to play more minutes, and to be in the game in the fourth quarter, free throws be damned. As Pepper Brooks once said, "It's a bold strategy Cotton; let's see if it pays off for him."
Expectations are through the roof for this Clippers team -- for good reason. They've added a high visibility coach, they have two superstars on brand new maximum contracts (remember that Griffin signed his contract extension a year ago but is just now entering that new deal) and they added some attractive pieces to the roster. The team is almost certainly going to exceed the luxury tax for the first time in their history -- though not by a lot since they're bound by the hard cap at $4M above the tax line. And last year's post-season flameout adds even more pressure. Can they handle these increased expectations? They've certainly got the talent and the coaching to do so.