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ESPN Insider "Clippers among the West's best?"

Posted for those w/o ESPN Insider! Enjoy!

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Barely two months since they were eliminated from the playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippershave a new coach (Doc Rivers), a new contract for Chris Paul and now a new pair of starters on the wing (Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick). Is that enough to close the gap on theSan Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference? Here are three reasons to think that might be the case -- and three lingering questions the Clippers still have to answer.

Three reasons to like L.A.'s other team


1. Coaching upgrade

The Clippers have gone from one of the weakest in-game tacticians, Vinny Del Negro, to one of the consensus best in Rivers. Observing that improvement is easier than quantifying it, since coaching analysis has proved elusive for statistical analysts. But Rivers should be able to help at the defensive end.

By forcing turnovers, the Clippers ranked among the league's top 10 defenses during the regular season. The same formula did not work during the playoffs. Adjusted for opponent, the Clippers had the league's worst postseason defensive rating. Even though Rivers isn't bringing Kevin Garnett westward with him, he's bound to improve that.

2. Two-way role players

In the series loss to Memphis, Del Negro struggled to find a consistent rotation. That was partially coaching and partially because he had so many flawed options. Tuesday's sign-and-trade ensures Rivers will have more certainty about his wing spots.

Dudley and Redick are ideal for the Clippers because they contribute at both ends of the floor and don't have to be covered for or hidden. Their shooting prowess, and Redick's ability to create in pick-and-rolls, makes both players good fits for a half-court, playoff-style game. While Jamal Crawford will also push for late-game minutes, Rivers can count on Dudley and Redick.

3. Closer than you think

The Clippers' ugly playoff loss overshadowed a lot of the positives from their regular season, when they were even better than their 56-26 record indicated. Would you believe that the Clippers had a better point differential (plus-6.5) than the San Antonio team that came within a shot of the championship (plus-6.4)? Oklahoma City (plus-9.2) was even better, but the Clippers don't need dramatic improvement over their regular-season play to emerge as the No. 2 team in the West.

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Three lingering questions


1. Who fills out the bench?

The Clippers appear to have improved their starting lineup by adding Dudley and Redick. But what about the bench? Last season, the lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Crawford, Matt Barnes,Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf outscored opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats. Of those five players, only Crawford remains under contract.

Bledsoe is gone, and since the Clippers still need to sign a backup big man, they may not have anything more than the veteran's minimum to offer Barnes, who ranked third on the team in WARP (6.3) behind Paul and Blake Griffin. Trading Bledsoe also means Crawford may end up playing point guard off the bench, a role in which he's struggled historically.

2. Who defends Durant?

In Dudley and Redick, the Clippers have a pair of solid wing defenders who can hold their own in most matchups. Neither, however, is a stopper. That could prove troublesome when the Clippers come up against elite scorers like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Those guys won't be a problem in the playoffs unless the Clippers succeed in reaching the NBA Finals. But if the Clippers face the Thunder in the playoffs, Kevin Durant could be in for a big series

3. Who finishes games up front?

The most important question for Rivers to answer during the regular season is whether he's comfortable with DeAndre Jordan finishing games at center. Del Negro split those minutes between Jordan, Lamar Odom and extreme small-ball lineups with Griffin in the middle.

Jordan's poor free throw shooting (7-of-17, 42.1 percent in clutch situations, per NBA.com/Stats) makes him an obvious choice for intentional fouls before the two-minute mark and semi-intentional fouls thereafter. If not Jordan, it's not clear yet who might play next to Griffin down the stretch. Though Dudley has some experience playing as a small-ball power forward, he's just 6-foot-7 and rebounded worse than the average point guard on the defensive glass last season. So the answer to this question might not yet be on the roster.

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