Clippers basketball is finally back!
While the Golden State Warriors already have a preseason game under their belt with their new-look squad, this will be the first of the year for the Los Angeles Clippers. Over the last several years, we’ve witnessed the development of one of the best-known rivalries in recent memory with these two teams. Collectively, these games have involved lots of physicality, numerous technical fouls, ejections, and a combination of both bold and subtle trash-talk from coaches and players. The Warriors have dominated the league during the last two seasons, and during the entire Lob City era, both teams only faced each other once in the post-season (a first-round Clippers win, at the peak of the Donald Sterling fiasco). For the players and the fans though, the hatred and vitriol is real.
This preseason game certainly won’t be about the final score, but it will give us our first opportunity to witness the matchup between arguably the two best teams in the Western Conference this season. Let’s first examine the offseason for each team this year.
The Clippers’ Offseason:
After yet another tough post-season exit which capped off a year marred by injuries, drama, and brutal Western Conference competition, the Clippers approached the offseason ready to re-tool their roster without gutting it. Head coach Doc Rivers made it known that he wanted to retain all of their free agents; in an era where continuity and chemistry is often overlooked for a variety of reasons, the core of this team has been together for quite some time. Although expensive, the multi-year re-signings of Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Wesley Johnson were necessary for a team in need of second-unit offense (Rivers’ defense certainly made him a commodity as well). Luc Mbah a Moute, the best wing defender on the team and arguably one of the best isolation defenders in the league, was also retained quite inexpensively. While the departures of Jeff Green (signed with the Magic) and Pablo Prigioni (signed with the Rockets) were not ideal, the loss of Cole Aldrich (signed with the Timberwolves) was definitely a blow to a team lacking front court depth and overall rebounding.
Rebounding was perhaps the most important factor for the Clippers to address heading into the offseason. Last season, per NBA.com, the Clippers ranked 25th in overall rebounding; for a team who ranked top-ten both offensively and defensively, this was simply unacceptable. After several years of questionable drafts (Reggie Bullock in 2013, C.J. Wilcox in 2014, and Branden Dawson in 2015), their focus this year was very clear. With the 25th, 39th, and 40th picks, the Clippers selected Brice Johnson (North Carolina), David Michineau (France), and Diamond Stone (Maryland), respectively. Michineau will remain overseas this year, but combine Johnson and Stone with the bargain free agent additions of Marreese Speights and Brandon Bass, and their front court looks deeper both offensively and defensively. (But we still miss you like crazy, Cole!)
Rounding out the roster this season were the additions of Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson. Felton, who has had a string of down years, offers a veteran presence and a capable back-up guard, providing some injury insurance at the very least. Anderson, a reliable shooter with some defensive savvy, could crack the rotation consistently this year, though his minutes could fluctuate depending on individual match-ups, as well as the involvement of Paul Pierce, who just recently announced that his 2016-17 season with the Clippers would be his last. Considering that the Clippers didn’t have a lot of cap space to work with this offseason, they managed to work creatively to maintain continuity and establish greater depth both offensively and defensively.
The Warriors’ Offseason:
One could argue that the Warriors had the toughest post-season of all. After supplanting the 1995-96 Bulls with a historic 73-9 regular season record, with MVP Steph Curry leading the way, the Warriors appeared destined by nearly every visual and statistical measure to not only win it all, but to coast on the way there for the second year in a row. But after offensive inconsistencies, crucial defensive lapses, numerous groin kicks, and a fair share of hubris directed at the one guy in the league who won’t ever forget it, they ended up blowing a 3-1 series lead in their Finals re-match with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team that was once dubbed “light years ahead” of the rest of the league ended up losing Game 7 in dramatic fashion, on their home court, to a team who: changed head coaches mid-season, won 57 games in the lop-sided and arguably-inferior Eastern Conference, and had very little post-season impact from its second highest-paid player. It was a collapse of epic proportions.
(Let’s take a moment of indulgent silence so we may reminisce about that particular series of unlikely events, so that Clippers fans everywhere may bask in the memories of the faces of those dejected fans and players.)
Now that that’s out of our system, let’s discuss the Warriors offseason. Though if you still think the association between the Warriors and villainy was only meant for the Clippers-faithful, you missed quite a bit this summer.
The Kevin Durant Sweepstakes were in full-swing; owners, general managers, head coaches, and star players from every team he was willing to meet with absconded to the Hamptons over the course of a long, drawn-out holiday weekend hoping to snag a once-in-a-generation player in his prime. Hot-take media aside, it seemed unlikely that Durant would want to leave a perpetually playoff-bound team who gave him the reigns, a team who could pay him more than anyone else, and a city that whole-heartedly embraced and cherished him. It also seemed unfathomable that he would willingly leave behind a close friend and teammate in Russell Westbrook: a triple-double machine, perennial All-Star, and arguably the most athletic person to ever play the point guard position. But the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Western Conference exit at the hands of the Warriors, after leading 3-1, apparently left more questions than answers in Durant’s mind.
The front offices and fans of every other team courting him for his services were certainly all hopeful but generally realistic (aside from the plethora of people who tweeted at Clips Nation Editor-in-Chief Lucas Hann with outlandish signing, trade, and sign-and-trade scenarios. Seriously though, if you have actual, real salary cap questions, it’s @LucasJHann for your future reference). For the Clippers in particular, the math just wasn’t going to work. In the end, it appeared to be down to three teams for Durant: the Thunder, the Warriors, and the Boston Celtics, in that particular order. On the morning of July 4, 2016, one team and its fans awoke to heartbreak, another team and its fans awoke embracing an embarrassment of riches, and the rest of the league and the entire NBA blogosphere awoke to a combination of surprise, resignation, and hatred.
Jerry West, and the powers that be, made Durant an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
The point is, unless you were a fan-of or player for the Warriors, you probably didn’t like it. And actually, you might have hated it even if you were a player for the Warriors; the signing of Durant meant letting Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Leandro Barbosa all go in free agency, as well as trading away Andrew Bogut for cap room. And Speights, who would have stayed on a minimum deal, didn’t even receive the offer. For a team whose slogan was “Strength in Numbers”, a nod to its roster depth and emphasis on positional versatility, it willingly parted with a significant portion of its rotation, including two starters. While they were able to pick up Zaza Pachulia, David West, and Javale McGee all on minimum deals, there is a much clearer drop-off from their starting unit to their second-unit this season.
Let’s examine what each team needs to focus on for this matchup.
The Clippers must exploit the Warriors down low. The Warriors lost a lot of interior presence in terms of defense and rebounding with the departures of Bogut and Ezeli, and to an lesser-but-notable degree with Barnes. While Speights was often a liability defensively with the Warriors last season, they will surely miss some of his rebounding and ability to score both inside and out as a big man. Per NBA.com, for the Warriors last season, Bogut, Ezeli, Barnes, and Speights combined for an average of 20.8 rebounds per game and 3.4 blocks per game. The Warriors, as a team last season, averaged 46.2 rebounds per game and 6.1 blocks per game. This means that, for a Warriors team which ranked 4th in total rebounds per game and 2nd in total blocks per game, just four of their front court players accounted for nearly half of their total rebounds and more than half of their total blocks. The Clippers need to take advantage of this.
Look for the Clippers to give the ball to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan early and often. Jordan, a 2016 All-NBA First Team center, 2016 All-NBA Defensive First Team center, and 2016 Gold medal Olympian, will likely return to the court with some extra swagger in addition to his notable accolades. Jordan, known for his defensive and rebounding prowess, is just as notably, an excellent finisher offensively. Per NBA.com, Jordan finished the regular season with a field goal percentage of 70.3% and 12.7 points per game. Combine his abilities with all of the knowledge that he has been able to soak up over the summer, and he could become a force against the Warriors. Griffin, whose one-on-one training with future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett went viral last week, should also expect to get the ball often; Griffin, already a much-improved post player, appears determined to continue to improve this particular facet of his game, in addition to three-point shooting. Griffin is already an excellent passer and has demonstrated his ability to do so from anywhere on the floor; going to Griffin and Jordan early allows the Clippers to open up the perimeter for reliable shooters in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.
Roster depth is a factor that the Clippers will not overlook, and a meaningless game (in terms of Wins-Losses) against a formidable opponent will present a perfect opportunity to experiment with various lineups. In addition, Doc seems willing to give his rookies a shot this year, and while only time will tell, this should be a perfect opportunity to get their feet wet.
The toughest aspect of this matchup for the Clippers, as it will likely be for the rest of the league this year, will be defending the Warriors perimeter threat. Although Durant and Curry didn’t quite hit their stride in their preseason opener versus the Toronto Raptors, they will learn rather quickly how to gel. Clippers lineups employing defense and length may be utilized; watch for a lineup including Jordan, W. Johnson, Mbah a Moute, Rivers, and Paul.
The main focus for the Warriors will be adjusting offensively; their ball movement was excellent last season, and Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Green will continue to do what they do best, but implementing Durant didn’t look as fluid as most expected in their preseason opener against the Raptors. Durant, who can score in just about any way from just about anywhere on the floor, just gives them more options. And when they employ their new-look “death lineup” (Curry, Thompson, Durant, Iguodala, Green) against the Clippers, their combined outside shooting and ability to make deft cuts to the basket and move the ball make them very, very dangerous.
If the Warriors want to establish offensive presence early, they should go to Thompson early and often. Thompson, who will usually be guarded by Redick, will likely exploit his size advantage, whether he decides to shoot over Redick in quick catch-and-shoot scenarios, work off of screens, or post-up the smaller guard, expect Thompson to get the shots he wants most of the night.
Warriors draft pick and rookie Patrick McCaw could be an X-factor in this matchup; against the Raptors in his first ever NBA game, he demonstrated excellent court vision for a player of his age, as well as some defensive savvy. Per NBA.com, in 22 minutes of play against the Raptors, McCaw posted 11 points (71.4 FG%), 5 steals, and 4 assists; it is, of course, a small sample size, but it shows his potential to significantly impact a second unit that lost some depth.
Expect a raucous Oracle Arena crowd who gets their first glimpse in-person of Durant in a Warriors uniform.
Expect a more focused and cohesive Clippers team with the potential to jump out and lead early.
Also, JaVale McGee might fall down or pass the ball to someone on the bench at some point.