Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers
Last Year's Record: 57-25
Key Losses: Donald Sterling, Darren Collison, Danny Granger, Jared Dudley
Key Additions: Steve Ballmer, Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Let's see now. What happened with the Los Angeles Clippers over the off-season? Hmmm. That's a puzzler. A real head-scratcher. I'm blank. Not a thing. Not a damn thing happened with the Clippers this summer.
Oh wait. There was that racism scandal followed by that crazy trial in which Shelly Sterling wrested control of the franchise away from her (allegedly) crazy and (verifiably) evil husband Donald Sterling, and then sold it to Steve Ballmer for two BILLION dollars. Does that count?
Donald Sterling was the longest-tenured owner in the NBA prior to the sale, and he had cast a dark shadow over the franchise the entire time. The team has now traded the worst owner in pro sports for the richest owner in pro sports —and while we don't know for sure yet whether Steve Ballmer will be a good owner, we can safely assume that he's an upgrade (anyone would be).
So it's a new era for the Clippers, and they have arguably the most talented team in franchise history to take advantage of it. Last season's team set a franchise record with 57 wins and this team is certainly better than the one that started that season (the one that ended the season after some mid season acquisitions was pretty good too).
Head coach and VP of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers, now in his second season with the team and approaching deity status in the organization after his handling of the Sterling saga, during which he became the de facto spokesman, has coveted shooters since arriving in L.A. and his first two signings of the summer were meant to fill that need. Spencer Hawes was the best three point shooter among seven footers last season — by a good margin ‚ giving Rivers something he's always wanted, a floor stretching big he can pair with either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan (Byron Mullens didn't turn out to be that guy last season). Meanwhile Jordan Farmar has shot well over 40% from deep over his last few NBA seasons, and while he may not be the ball hawk or lane attacker that the departed Darren Collison was, his ability to knock down threes is a very good fit for this team.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Clippers led the NBA in offensive efficiency last season — while dealing with injuries that caused their top three guards to miss 100 games and shooting below the league average on their three point attempts. A healthier season from Chris Paul and J.J. Redick (not guaranteed of course) plus the added perimeter punch should make an already elite offensive team even better.
Let's face it: the NBA is star-driven, and while LeBron James and Kevin Durant are clearly the two supernovae of the league, the Clippers have not one but two players who are potential answers to the question "Who is the third best player in the NBA?" Blake Griffin finished third in MVP voting last season, while Paul finished third in the MVP race the season before that. So one of the big strengths of this Clippers team is that they have great players to carry them when other things aren't working for them.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The Clippers weren't as strong defensively last year as they were on offense, but after a terrible first month on the defensive end, they actually finished the season in the top ten in defensive efficiency. With nine players returning, including all five starters, and in the second season playing defense under Rivers, the Clippers will hope to be better defensively from the outset.
Still, they lack a wing stopper on the perimeter, which could be prove to be a problem. In fact, the small forward position is just a question mark in general. Matt Barnes was the starter for the second half of the season and the playoffs last season after the disappointing Jared Dudley was relegated to backup duty. Barnes is a nice enough player, an energy guy who runs himself into points on offense and is a decent defender — but he's probably better suited to second unit duty on a championship-level team. Unfortunately, the Clippers don't exactly have great options for the three spot. There's second year player Reggie Bullock, who seems to have all the tools, but has barely played enough to put the all together. There's free agent Chris Douglas-Roberts. And there's 27 year-old Australian rookie Joe Ingles. Rivers would love to find a viable alternative starter and bring Barnes off the bench — but it probably isn't going to happen from this group. Look for the Clippers to be actively searching for a new small forward at the trade deadline.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The Western Conference is brutally tough, as the Clippers have found out in recent postseason trips. The goal needs to be to advance further in the playoffs — no team in franchise history has ever won more than one playoff series during the same postseason. There's no shame in losing to Oklahoma City or San Antonio — two great teams in their own right. But the Clippers will have to get past one or both of them to quiet the talk of not being able to win the big games.
This goal is most important to Chris Paul, who is universally acknowledged as the best point guard in the league, but has never been past the conference semi-finals, either in New Orleans or in Los Angeles.
Another good goal for the team would be to win at least 58 regular season games. If they can do that they will become the first team in NBA history to improve their record in seven straight seasons.
5. Is Blake Griffin's new jump shot for real?
Griffin had a break out season last year and became a marginally better perimeter shooter in the process. But he worked on his shooting even more this off-season, and convinced lots of observers that it was the real deal when he went out and made six straight jumpers in the Clippers pre-season opener. (Of course he then missed everything he put up in the second exhibition, so beware of small sample sizes.)
As great as Griffin has been, he still has plenty to work on in his game, including his shooting. If he has indeed made major strides during the offseason, then he will become nigh impossible to defend. He already has strength and quickness advantages over the vast majority of his opponents. The way defenders compensate is by playing a step or two off and daring him to shoot. If defenders have to start honoring that shot, that will set up the rest of his game.
This should be a "no excuses" season for the Clippers. Sterling is gone. Rivers is in charge, and has been there for a full season. Paul and Griffin are veteran leaders. They have a roster that goes at least nine deep, including all five starters and nine players total back from last year's team. Getting past the defending NBA Champion Spurs will not be easy, but the Clippers need to do it soon or risk becoming irrelevant again. What better time to make a deep playoff run than in this first season of a new era?
Predicted record: 60-22