With NBA training camps under way and pre-season games just around the corner, it is time again for writers from all over SB Nation to provide previews of their favorite teams. Last week was the Atlantic Division, and this week it's time for the Pacific Division. Believe it or not, this is the seventh time that Clips Nation has participated in this basketblogosphere tradition.
Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers
Last Year's Record: 40-26
Key Losses: Mo Williams, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Randy Foye, Nick Young
Key Additions: Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Willie Green, Ronny Turiaf, Matt Barnes
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
The 2011-2012 NBA season was a whirlwind. It was about a month from the end of the lockout to the first game, and much less than that from the simultaneous start of free agency and training camps. When the Clippers acquired Chauncey Billups off of amnesty waivers and traded for Chris Paul with less than two weeks before the start of the season, they had gotten a major influx of talent -- but it was all at point guard, and the resulting roster had little balance.
That imbalance actually became even more pronounced over time, as the best bigs available, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, both replicated the rebounding, defense and complete lack of perimeter skills the Clippers already had in their front court. It was far and away the most talented Clippers team in decades and perhaps ever, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense.
So the Clippers needed a full off-season as much as any team in the league. Last season's on the fly makeover had to be considered a success (it's hard to call it anything else with Chris Paul involved) but the glut of small guards along with the absence of playmaking bigs needed to be addressed. The core was in place, but everything around the edges needed to be reworked.
Which is exactly what happened. In one of the first big moves of the off-season the Clippers flipped Mo Williams (stuck in the backcourt logjam, a scoring point guard forced to play the 2 last season behind all the other Clipper points) for Lamar Odom (precisely the type of playmaking big the roster sorely needed). It's an open question as to whether the Clippers will get the NBA Sixth Man Odom from two seasons ago with the Lakers, or the truly dreadful and disengaged Odom from last year in Dallas, but from a need and fit standpoint, it was a terrific move.
Next on the agenda was a quality shooting guard, a position where the team struggled last season after Billups was lost to an Achilles injury. First they re-signed Billups, then days later signed free agent Jamal Crawford. Crawford is not the most efficient scorer in the league, and had a sub-par season in Portland last year, but he won the NBA Sixth Man Award in 2010 and was among the top wings on the free agent market. Another solid signing.
The Clippers also managed to grab Grant Hill to add to their previously thin wing spot, a sneaky good signing that may turn out to be their most important acquisition this summer. While it's true that Hill will turn 40 in training camp, it's also true that he was still starting and playing well in Phoenix last season. The Clippers are a team desperately trying to bolster their perimeter defense, and Hill was one of the top perimeter defenders in the league last season. Or as Paul put it after the first day of training camp, "Hill guarded me the last five years and did as good a job as anyone -- I'm just glad I don't have to face him anymore."
Even the end of the bench acquisitions feature familiar names, including several players who have been starters off and on in the NBA -- Matt Barnes, Willie Green, Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins. All in all, it was a very solid summer of work, especially considering that the Clippers did it all without a general manager since Neil Olshey had left for the Portland GM post. Head Coach Vinny Del Negro (a former front office exec in Phoenix), club President Andy Roeser and Director of Player Personnel Gary Sacks worked together to accomplish essentially all of their off-season goals. Sacks was then rewarded with the top job when he was promoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations in September.
Oh, and one other thing happened in the off-season that was kind of important. The Clippers extended Blake Griffin for five seasons. There was never much doubt that Griffin would re-sign, but this being the Clippers, there was ongoing speculation and getting his signature was an important milestone for the team.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
This team has talent. Paul and Griffin form one of the great superstar duos of the league, and Griffin hasn't even come close to his ceiling yet. Paul made first team All NBA last season and Griffin was chosen to the second team -- not many teams can boast two players at that level. The NBA is a superstar driven league. A legitimate MVP candidate is essentially a prerequisite for winnning a championship -- 21 of the last 22 NBA champions have featured an MVP winner on the roster. Paul was third in MVP voting a season ago and should continue to be in the conversation. So the Clippers have the top of the ticket talent to compete for a championship.
The team also has depth. The entire starting lineup from last season returns, and the off-season acquisitions allow the team to go at least nine deep with starter quality players. In ESPN's #NBARank this season, the Clippers had nine players ranked in the top 130 -- no other team had more than seven. The team's second unit will feature Eric Bledsoe, a third year player poised for a breakout season after an outstanding performance in last year's playoffs, two former Sixth Man winners in Odom and Crawford and Hill -- that's quite a group of reserves.
Offensively this figures to be one of the most efficient teams in the league, thanks mostly to the brilliance of Paul. The team was fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency last season with a pretty meager playbook that featured large doses of Paul making things happen. The additions of Odom and Hill provide the team with more playmakers than they've ever had, and Crawford is an instant-offense type off the bench. They'll be able to score.
Hopefully the team also has a good mix of youth and experience. Billups, Hill, Odom and Crawford have all been in the league a long time. Billups, Odom and Turiaf all have championships. Combined with young uber-athletes like Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Bledsoe, with Paul pulling the strings, it could be a lethal combination.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
This was not a good defensive team last season and it's difficult to know if they can improve significantly this year. In fact the team did get marginally better as the year wore on last season -- they started off near the absolute bottom of the league and finished in the middle of the pack (18th in defensive efficiency, allowing one point over the NBA average). But they know they have to be much better than that to be a contender. Balancing the lineup will help -- Williams was severely undersized at shooting guard and was constantly being torched. But how much will the newcomers help?
Odom is a long and versatile defender and should help significantly in the post if he's properly engaged. If Hill can continue to defy the calendar, he could be the perimeter stopper the team lacked last season. Crawford has never been considered a great defender, but at least he has the size to hold his own with bigger guards and some small forwards. The pieces should be better, if not necessarily great.
A full training camp may result in better team defense -- it couldn't hurt. And the team will be counting on improvement on the defensive end from Griffin and Jordan as well. But defense figures to continue to be a weak point for the team.
Perimeter shooting may also be an issue. The departed Williams and Randy Foye made 220 of the team's 514 three pointers last season, which accounted for 43 percent of their long balls. Williams and Foye were also the best shooters percentage-wise from beyond the arc. Having Billups back will help fill the void, and Crawford is a capable if unspectacular three point shooter, around 35 percent on his career.
The team hopes to counter the losses behind the arc with improvement from midrange. Griffin has been working with new shooting coach Bob Thate all summer and hopes to feature an improved jump shot. Odom is a huge improvement over the likes of Evans and Martin as a shooter, if not exactly a classic stretch four. With Paul creating havoc in the lane and Griffin drawing double teams in the post, the Clippers will get plenty of open looks on the perimeter. Will they hit enough of them to keep defenses honest? And how many of them will be worth that crucial extra point?
And speaking of shooting, the Clippers were the second worst free throw shooting team in the NBA last season. (It's actually amazing how efficient they were offensively considering the number of easy points they left on the table with their dreadful foul shooting.) Odom should be a huge boon here -- the Clippers man big rotation last season featured four of the 13 worst free throw shooters in the entire league. But Griffin and Jordan both need to do much better for the team to improve. Here again, both of them have been working with Thate to remake their free throw form this summer. It remains to be seen if it will make a difference in games.
4. What are the goals for this team?
When Vinny Del Negro was asked this question at Media Day he said the team's goal was to improve. He meant it in the cliche "We want to improve every day" sense, but unfortunately to show measurable improvement in the post-season may prove difficult. The Clippers appear to be better on paper than they were last year; but there are a few other teams in the Western Conference who are awfully good as well. Last season the Clippers won their first round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies before being swept in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. If improvement means winning a second round series, it also probably means beating the likes of either Oklahoma City or the Lakers.
This team might be the fifth best team in the league -- unfortunately, that also means they're probably the fourth best team in the top-heavy West. Making the playoffs is a no-brainer for this team, as is achieving home court advantage in the first round (which they did not accomplish last season). One great goal for the team would be to set the franchise record for wins (not an overly aggressive goal since the bar is not very high at 49 wins for the 74-75 Buffalo Braves). Advancing to the Western Conference Finals is another great goal -- but not getting there could hardly be considered a failure given the competition.
5. What do the Clippers have to do to ensure Chris Paul re-signs next summer?
When Blake Griffin re-signed with the team this summer it was step one of a two part plan to keep the team relevant for years to come. The second part will be convincing Chris Paul to commit long term.
Paul could have signed an extension this summer, but frankly had no incentive to. If he waits and becomes a free agent, he can sign for longer (not insignificant considering he will be 28 by then) while also keeping his options open. But while he has not extended with the Clippers yet, there's every indication so far that he is content in L.A. and would like to stay (I always have to be careful there with that other team around -- he'd like to stay in L.A. as a Clipper).
If your tendency is to expect the worst for the Clippers, consider two things. First, with the season about to begin, Paul has given no indication that he is in any way unhappy with his situation. Quite the opposite, he's been effusive in his praise for the team and the city. Long before this point in his contract in New Orleans it was an open secret that he wanted out, and the same was true of other recent superstars in similar situations like Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Could things go south quickly between now and the trade deadline? Sure, anything could happen, but speculation at this point that Paul will leave the Clippers is just that, speculation. It certainly isn't based on anything coming from Paul.
Second, you have to ask yourself where he could go? If presumably he's looking for a situation that would be preferable to the one he finds himself in with the Clippers, that list is very short, and none of those teams have the means to sign him as a free agent. If you're still fixated on "the toast" from two summers ago, forget it, because the Knicks have no way to acquire him.
The Clippers as an organization bent over backwards to keep Paul happy this summer. Crawford, Billups, Hill and Barnes were all acquired with CP3's blessing, if not his recommendation. Even if the team doesn't take a major step forward, it won't be for lack of trying to put the right players around him, the players he asked for.
There's another factor here as well -- Paul's a pretty bright dude, and even if, for instance, the Lakers and the Spurs remain better than the Clippers this season, Paul knows that the window is closing for those aging rosters. If he's projecting a couple seasons out into his next contract, it's not difficult to imagine a West where he and Griffin are battling Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for conference dominance year in and year out.
Anything can happen of course, but Paul is very self-aware and would be hesitant to potentially tarnish his image by forcing his way out of L.A. less than two years after forcing his way out of New Orleans. Short of a major step backward, the Clippers will be heavily favored to sign Paul next summer. They can offer him more money and more years than any other team and they can offer him the best chance to win of any team that might be in a position to sign him. A solid performance by the team this year almost guarantees that Griffin and Paul will be playing pick and roll together for another five seasons.