Expectations are the sort of thing that draws a dividing line firmly between those teams that think they’re contenders and the ones who act like they’re contenders. Several teams entering this season think that they can contend for a division title, conference title, or even the NBA title. Very few, in all honesty, can. That’s just the way it goes. Among the teams that can are the Los Angeles Clippers. They’re now in their third year with Doc Rivers and in the fifth year since Chris Paul arrived in a trade from New Orleans. Many great things have been expected of them. Several have been met, but others have not. This might be the year they have to meet them all.
When the NBA league office altered the course of history several years ago, it jumpstarted the Clippers’ run to the top of the Western Conference. Since 2011-2012, only two teams have a better winning percentage than the Los Angeles Clippers (.670) do. Those teams being the Oklahoma City Thunder (.676) and San Antonio Spurs (.721). Since Doc Rivers came onboard just prior to the 2013-14 season tipping off, the Clippers (.689) are also still third in winning percentage. Only the Golden State Warriors (.720) and, once again, the Spurs (.713) are ahead of them. Those are the last two teams to win a championship. The Clippers sit firmly behind the last two champions in a spot they’ve seen seldom lately; watching as others succeed where they have failed.
The Western Conference is a cauldron of uncertainty. We all have some idea as to what might happen, but no one knows what actually will transpire. There are teams entering this season with just as many expectations as the Los Angeles Clippers, but no one team feels like they’re in a race to the top more than this team does. It’s Year 5 of the Chris Paul Era and the team has to at least make it beyond the second round to prove any kind of legitimacy to those who observe them from the outside. Stagnation is a real thing. The Dallas Mavericks were dealing with the same level of stagnation prior to winning a championship in 2011. Breaks just have to go your way. Dallas made some of their own breaks and the Clippers must try to follow suit.
We all are aware of the inherent risk Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers have taken on this upcoming season. By trading for Lance Stephenson and signing Josh Smith, the team has now comprised themselves of some volatile players with sketchy track records. While they have an abundance of talent individually, they have struggled at times to fit into the team concept. For Stephenson, this is probably his last chance at being seen as a vital player. For Smith, this might his best shot at winning a championship. The team will need both on their best behavior to have any chance of prolonged success this season.
Stephenson’s fit into this team is certainly an interesting one. Seen as a malcontent and cast to the wayside by the Charlotte Hornets, the Los Angeles Clippers saw promise where only others saw hopelessness. It’s that type of gamble that could pay off. Stephenson, as of right now, seems like he might be the team’s starting small forward on opening night. His combination of defensive ability and ball-handling is one the team could use in a variety of ways in an attempt to give Chris Paul a break on both ends of the floor. If Stephenson performs well and helps save Paul’s legs by limiting the workload Point God has to undertake, then one might say the gamble was worth it.
The sheer volume that Paul has had to deal with on both ends of the floor throughout his tenure in Los Angeles has been talked about before. He’s not just the team’s best perimeter player on offense; he’s also their top guy on defense. That level of intensity for 48 minutes of a game wears on you over 82 games during the regular season and however many during the playoffs. We have seen, time and time again, Paul get worn down as the season goes along and it has led to him getting banged up in the playoffs. Last year was another prime example. Stephenson might be a means to that end. A scary means, but a means nonetheless.
Smith’s case is a little less unstable. He’s here to provide a backup to both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. He can play the four or the five with little dip in play. Smith has the ability to be a force of nature on this team, especially when he’s playing center with the backup unit and can ignite a fast break with his ball-handling and vision in the open floor. As long as he is able to tone back his shot selection – which, let’s face it, he won’t be able to do because he hasn’t done it over the course of his career – then he should be a big time advantage for the Clippers when they go to the bench and let them play key minutes.
Last year, the bench was the issue. No team played their starters more than the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014-15. The unit of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan played 1217 minutes together and sported a Net Rating of +17.7. There were 33 units that played at least 250 minutes in the NBA last season. That Clippers group ranked fourth in Net Rating behind the San Antonio Spurs’ starting lineup (+23.6), Golden State Warriors’ starting lineup (+19.6), and Cleveland Cavaliers’ starting lineup during the second half of the season (+19.3). Los Angeles’ undoing was, obviously, their bench. It could not sustain any lead that the starters provided for them.
In theory, that should all change this season with the arrival of the aforementioned Josh Smith, as well as veteran and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. On top of those two, there’s also Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as free agent newcomers. Branden Dawson, who is unlikely to play much – if at all – this season, was the team’s second round draft pick and is also new to the squad. The two main returning bench pieces, though, are Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. C.J. Wilcox, the team’s first round pick from 2014, is also back.
The bench, on paper, is far more versatile than last year’s group. They’re certainly far more athletic considering the team is going from Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Spencer Hawes to Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Josh Smith. A lot has changed in just one calendar year as far as the bench is concerned. For the Clippers’ title hopes, that’s a huge deal. No longer should the bench be as putrid as they were last season when the Clippers somehow still won 56 games despite the bench’s woeful nature. When none of the five main starters were on the floor last season, the team had an Offensive Rating of 101.5 and Defensive Rating of 107.7. Over the last two seasons, it was a 103.4 Offensive Rating and 108.6 Defensive Rating. This year’s group should not produce that level of inadequacy.
A better than average bench means more rest for your starters. It happened a few years ago with the team and their A Tribe Called Bench group. It occurred last season with the Golden State Warriors and their Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. It seems to be a yearly theme in San Antonio because Gregg Popovich is a wizard. Good benches mean good things for the most part. This year’s Clippers squad appears to have the best bench they’ve had in a while. It’s up to them to put it all together on a near nightly basis and give the starters a break, which in turn would mean great things for the squad as a whole.
The expectations for the Los Angeles Clippers are sky high this year for good reason. This is now the team’s third year under Doc Rivers, fifth year with Chris Paul, and the only teams better than them in the Western Conference – when using either a two year split or four year split – have at least reached the Western Conference Finals or won a championship. The time is probably now for the team. Chris Paul certainly isn’t getting any younger, the two big men are in their primes, and the pieces surrounding the squad are all at the right stage in their respective careers to help the team as much as possible.
A lot can happen over the course of a season. Injuries happen, chemistry issues happen, etc. Calculating how the season is going to go for one team in particular might be one of the trickiest things to do. Especially a team that has had such turnover as the Clippers have had over the last several months. Their trusty small forward (Matt Barnes) is gone and they’ve replaced him, in some capacity, with an unknown variable (Lance Stephenson). Their head coach has swung for the fences time and time again only to repeatedly come up short with his moves. The iron is now as hot as ever, though, and the team currently possesses the right time to strike.
You make your own breaks in this league. Golden State did it last year and San Antonio took advantage of the breaks they made and were given the prior year. With as tough and as deep as the Western Conference appears to be this upcoming season, there still might be no better time for the Clippers to take advantage of the breaks they are given or make on their own. They feature three of the best players in the game at their respective positions. They feature one of the top basketball gurus in the game. If they can’t win now, then when will they? It’s not do or die, but it’s as close to being do without death as there can be.
No one knows what to expect this NBA season. At least not entirely. We know who some of the good-to-great teams will be because we just inherently know. The Clippers will surely be one of them. A lot can go wrong for them this season, but a whole lot can go right if things click together and go the way they could most certainly go. Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, and Paul Pierce are all valuable additions to the team. They’re better players than what the team had last season in some respects. The team’s big three will still be their ultimate meal ticket. The man at the helm will keep urging them on. A title is their goal. Expectations are mounting. The season is upon us.