Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are entering their 5th season as teammates together. That's 5 years of being called a contender without making a push into the Western Conference Finals. These Clippers, at least within the fanbase and organization, don't feel middle-class. This team feels elite, but if they find themselves watching from home again in June, there won't be much to back that up.
Remember when the Atlanta Hawks were a guaranteed playoff team but nowhere close to contending for a long stretch in the 2000s? The Denver Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony were the same way. It was always my feeling with those teams that finishing 3rd-6th in the conference and getting knocked out in the second round did those organizations no good--it was NBA purgatory, and I thought that those teams should either find a way to make a big move up to get into that top tier, or try to downgrade their talent and stockpile assets to build from scratch down the line. It's easy to convince myself that the Clippers are closer to true contention than those teams, and I don't think blowing the team up is the answer, but any way you cut it, 5 years of purgatory isn't a good deal and it's not a good indication for year 6 and beyond.
So what's the problem? It's hard to pinpoint. The Clippers can be pretty inconsistent. Did they need a SF this off-season? Of course, but unless they were gonna go out and get a star, the changes would come on a larger scale, replacing role players on the second unit as well as that 5th starter. Sometimes, it felt like the Clippers needed more shooting, but at other times, Redick led the crew in amazing displays from distance. Sometimes, it felt like the Clippers needed better defense, but how could they sign those defenders without sacrificing the shooting that they also needed? As frustrating as it is, it might have to be admitted that while better shooting and better defense will always help, the reason the Clippers didn't make it over the hump was less tangible.
Last year's Clippers team was good, it just wasn't right. Hopefully, this year's mix will be right, but there's still question marks. The team went out and got Pablo Prigioni, Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Josh Smith, and Cole Aldrich this summer--a pretty good sextet to pair with returning role players Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford. Will this supporting cast be able to lift the Clippers' main 4 players more than in years past?
Every summer, the Clippers have used their limited resources to pursue additions to put them over the top. So far, they've been unsuccessful. While J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford were all excellent additions, Jared Dudley, Spencer Hawes, and Jordan Farmar are some examples of missteps. Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Chris-Douglas Roberts... the list of ineffective and underwhelming signings from the last few years goes on and on. This season will likely be decided by the new names, mainly Stephenson, Pierce, and Smith, and if they can elevate the Clippers to a higher level this year.
All three of these players will make contributions on separate ways. For a while now, I've had Stephenson on the short list for potential Matt Barnes replacements. For all the talk about him being too short to play SF (come on guys, I don't care if he's 6'5" or 6'7", if he guards LeBron in the playoffs he can play SF) and not a good enough shooter for the Clippers' offense, I felt, even in 2014 when he left Indiana, that he'd make sense for the Clips. He's exactly the type of young, defensive, athletic player that the Clippers needed, and his murky reputation, while not ideal, lowers his market value. Anyway, Matt Barnes was a questionable character guy too and he turned out great.
Still, when Doc Rivers acquired Lance Stephenson in a trade last June, he insisted that the swingman would continue to play primarily SG and be a utility guy off of the bench, not the starting SF. Then, Wesley Johnson and Paul Pierce were signed to hold down the SF position, but after running with Johnson for the first four pre-season games, Rivers replaced him in the starting lineup with Lance. After struggling in the first few games, Lance looked better with the starters, and, pre-season hiccups aside, was able to put together some encouraging performances.
Smith, on the other hand, will bring an interior contribution to the Clippers that's distinct from other reserve big men Doc Rivers has brought in. Josh Smith is a skilled and athletic combo forward who will play both the 4 and the 5 this season. His shot blocking skills will be a boon for the Clippers, as Spencer Hawes couldn't sufficiently protect the rim when he played alongside Blake Griffin, and his offensive versatility will help him play alongside DeAndre Jordan offensively as he can distribute from the high post and run a 4/5 pick-and-roll. Playing Smith at center with a small-ball 4 such as Paul Pierce or Wesley Johnson is questionably, but if Doc manages minutes right and always keeps Griffin or Jordan (or Aldrich, at times) in the game, this new direction for the big man rotation could be an interesting alternative to the traditional-styled heaps of crap we've seen in years past. Smith's shooting on the perimeter is another story... but that story has been told enough, I think.
Paul Pierce will play the least minutes of these three newcomers, but his leadership role will be the largest. The 38-year-old veteran figures to be taking a step back from the starting lineup this season, with either Stephenson or Wesley Johnson stepping in instead, but he brings Finals MVP-level experience, clutch scoring, toughness, and lockerroom leadership to a team trying to break through and get to where he's been. Remember what Chauncey Billups did for the Clippers a few years ago? That could be the type of role we see Pierce in--crafty and clutch.
These three are just a portion of the new supporting cast, however. Consider them, along with Austin Rivers, Pablo Prigioni, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Cole Aldrich. Then, compare that with the supporting cast from opening night last season: Jordan Farmar, who was cut mid-way through the season, the same Jamal Crawford (though he struggled with a calf injury last season), Chris Douglas-Roberts, who was traded mid-season, Hedo Turkoglu, who wasn't NBA caliber, Glen Davis, who was serviceable at best, Spencer Hawes, who flopped, and Ekpe Udoh, who also wasn't NBA caliber. Yeah, I'll take this year's complimentary pieces over last year's.
There's a lot of talk about who will be the best team in the Western Conference this season. Our own Justin Russo picked 5 teams to finish with either 58 or 59 wins. The SBNation panel picked the Clippers between 3 and 5, and two of the seven writers chose the Clippers to make the conference finals while one, Paul Flannery, picked them to win it all. The moral of the story: the Clippers are right there, on the brink, just as they have been for the last four years, and just like they will be next season as well. As Steve Perrin pointed out, this isn't the Clippers last shot, but the season after this one might be. One thing is certain: this season is a shot, and you don't get very many shots at titles in this league.
Things will have to break right. Injury luck, stand-out performers, chemistry issues on other teams, and good bounces at the end of big games will determine this chaotic Western Conference just as it has in years past. The Clippers got some bad injury luck last season that pushed them down in the seeding, and a lack of standout performers off the bench crippled them in the playoffs. There was a bad bounce at the end of game 5 vs SAS, and a good bounce at the end of game 7. Bounces like that will dictate the direction of this team's season and legacy all year long.
Here's to a year full of supporting the Clippers through all the bounces, whether they're good, bad, or Jamal Crawford pounding the ball into the floor for 10 seconds before taking a contested pull-up 18-footer while Wesley Johnson sits wide open in the corner and cries (You thought you were gonna get 1500 words out of me without a Crawford dig. You thought wrong).