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2016-17 NBA Season Preview: The Clippers Are On The Cusp

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Of breaking through, or breaking up? For better or for worse, this season will be definitive.

Blake and DeAndre, best buds
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan
Thomas B. Shea – USA TODAY Sports
2016-17 NBA Season Preview
Team: Los Angeles Clippers Blog: Clips Nation
Key Losses Key Additions
Pablo Prigioni PG Raymond Felton
SG
Jeff Green SF Alan Anderson
PF Brandon Bass, Brice Johnson
Cole Aldrich C Marreese Speights

For half a decade now the Clippers have been knocking on the door of the NBA’s ruling class. Over this time they’ve been extremely successful in the regular season, winning 56+ games for three years straight, before injuries and November doldrums knocked them down to a more pedestrian 53-29 last season. Those wins haven’t come at the cost of style, where they’ve exhibited a combination of flair and deftness distinctly their own, the freewheeling acrobatics and bombast of their early Lob City days maturing over the years like wine into slightly subtler but more refined notes.

However, true success and renown continues to elude them. Each spring brings with it a new and uniquely painful, yet all too familiar heartbreak: another season ending with them flat on their faces and the rug pulled out from under them, ousted again from the playoffs before the Conference Finals.

Every postseason is an excruciating reminder that for all their accolades and glamor, the Clippers are still firmly planted in the ranks of the nouveau riche. They’re the Jay Gatsby of the NBA, chasing the green light out their reach. F. Scott Fitzgerald might have written his famous closing line — “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” — about the team literally named after a boat.

In this mythology, the Clippers are tragic heroes — like Gatsby, glamorous and opulent on the exterior, but dissatisfied and empty within. At times they’re unscrupulous, but only out of the desire to finally reach what they’re desperately after. Yet as hard as they try, it’s as though they’re unable to escape the ghosts of their own squalid past, demons which seem to pop up at the most inopportune moments: the untimely injuries, the at-times unfathomably rotten luck, the bizarre it-could-only-happen-to-them sort of dramas that plague this team. After five years, this feels like their lot in life, their lack of pedigree disqualifying them from the East Egg world of the NBA’s uppermost crust.

Maybe that’s why the success of the team up north rankles all the more. For most of their existence the Warriors and Clippers shared similarly moribund histories, with both teams emerging from the NBA’s cellar a few years ago, the Dubs just behind the Clips. But unlike Los Angeles, Golden State didn’t have to spend the requisite time paying their dues as contenders before breaking through. They leapfrogged L.A., rocketing straight to the top and through the damn roof. Meanwhile, the Clippers are still stuck struggling on the same step — like they’re paying off a loan shark, unable to keep up with ballooning interest payments.

Could this year be different? (We say for the umpteenth year in a row.) Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no longer a can to kick down the road. If the Clippers can’t break through this year, it’s almost certain that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul exercise their player options and leave for greener pastures. Even the elusive and long-sought-after Western Conference Finals berth might not be enough to keep them in town. More than ever before, this is truly put-up-or-shut-up time for the Clippers.

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1. What significant moves were made this offseason?

The biggest move the Clippers made this summer was in fact not making a move; they resisted the calls to “break it up” from fans and pundits who felt the team had outstayed its welcome. And Los Angeles was right to do so. In a league where teams pretty much need multiple stars to become perennial contenders, the Clippers are the only instance where people argue for fewer stars rather than more. Regardless of what others think, the data bears out that the Clippers are better with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. No pu-pu platter offer of role players and draft picks changes that reality.

Los Angeles not only held course on stasis, they doubled down on it. Apart from Jeff Green (who left on Day 1 of free agency while the Clippers pitched Kevin Durant) and Cole Aldrich (whose Bird Rights the Clippers lacked, meaning they had no chance to retain him due to their cap situation), the team re-signed all their important free agents, bringing back almost their entire rotation from last year. That included eight-figure per annum deals with Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, and exceptions spent on Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

The contracts doled out to Rivers and Crawford may seem like overpays, but they held a lot of leverage over the team in negotiations — the Clippers held both players’ Bird Rights, and had no way to replace their production if they walked; the money saved by not spending on them couldn’t be hypothetically allocated elsewhere.

Once again, the Clippers filled out the roster by adding their usual bevy of veteran minimum contracts. That area has always been one of Team President Doc Rivers’ strengths; last summer he managed to pick up Aldrich, Mbah a Moute, and Johnson on minimums. This offseason brought another potential bumper crop — Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson are all savvy, seasoned veterans with postseason experience playing key roles for contenders.

Crawford’s deal will be an eyesore in a year or two, but for a team whose window is still open (even if only a sliver) and needs to produce to keep its core together, there’s no time to be concerned about future fiscal flexibility. For a team that’s never been as good as they are now, the Clippers have every incentive to try and prolong this run of success for as long as possible. They’ve pushed all their chips into the middle, going all-in on 2017.

Compared to the last few summers, this offseason might have been the most uneventful the Clippers have had in many years. And that’s a good thing. While the rest of the league was rocked by tectonic movements brought about by the skyrocketing salary cap, the Clippers quietly went about their business and shaped up their edges with solid acquisitions.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

In a summer marked by tumult and upheaval, the Clippers’ focus on continuity put them at odds with the rest of the NBA. In fact, they had less roster turnover than ever before in the Chris Paul era — a welcome change from the last few offseasons, where they annually replaced their second unit wholesale. While continuity isn’t everything, the experience the Clippers’ core group has together is meaningful and gives them a leg up over some of their competition this year. As mentioned in the above link:

Time breeds familiarity and a kind of chemistry that usually can’t be obtained otherwise.

You can see its effect with the Clippers’ core group — in the military precision of J.J. Redick curling around Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan screens for handoffs or passes from Chris Paul, in the machine-like efficiency of Paul-Griffin pick-and-rolls, and in the thunderous alley-oops to DeAndre Jordan. Over the years, these actions have become sharper and sharper, drilled into their memories by hundreds and thousands of reps in practice and in games.

And the Clippers’ core is certainly worth keeping together. The Paul-Redick-Griffin-Jordan foursome has been downright dominant when all on the floor the past few years (+16.3 net rating last season, +16.4 in ‘14-’15). The Clippers’ top lineups regularly place among the league’s elite; last year’s starting unit of Paul-Redick-LRMAM-Griffin-Jordan had the league’s best net rating of any 5-man unit with over 250 minutes played together. Relax that to 150 minutes played, and the Clippers still had three of the league’s top seven, and four in the top twenty.

Clippers' Elite Lineups, 2015-16 (150+ MP)
5-Man Unit Minutes Played Net Rating League Rank
Paul-Redick-Mbah a Moute-Pierce-Jordan 375 +11.2 20th
Paul-Redick-Mbah a Moute-Griffin-Jordan 273 +19.4 5th
Paul-Redick-Johnson-Mbah a Moute-Jordan 158 +18.3 7th
Paul-Redick-Stephenson-Griffin-Jordan 155 +19.9 4th

You could argue that the Clippers have the league’s second-best backcourt outside of the Bay Area (better than Toronto, Washington, Portland, or Oklahoma City), and by far the best PF-C combo in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (FIRST TEAM ALL-NBA, in case anyone forgot). Those four players complement one another almost flawlessly, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any foursome better than them (except for Curry-Thompson-Durant-Green, of course).

With that powerhouse of a core, the Clippers will once again be a nightmare to stop offensively. They slipped to 6th in offensive efficiency last season after finishing 1st two years in a row (mostly due to Blake missing most of the season), but they should be back in the top-2 this year, behind only — who else? — Golden State.

They’ve upgraded significantly on that end on the bench. Speights extended his range to the perimeter last year, which will be a huge boon for the second unit’s spacing. Raymond Felton is a huge improvement over pass-first-second-and-third Pablo Prigioni on both ends of the floor, and adds a dynamic new element to the backcourt playing next to Jamal Crawford and the steadily-improving Austin Rivers.

The infusion of depth should also push the decrepit Paul Pierce out of the rotation. It’s hard to overstate the positive impact not playing Pierce will have; he was the Clippers’ worst rotation player by a country mile last season.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

While the bench will be improved offensively, it might not necessarily be better overall than it was during the second half of last season (after Pierce was moved to the starting lineup, and Aldrich and Prigioni entered the rotation). That’s because the defense will almost certainly slip. As a team, the Clippers finished tied for 4th in defensive efficiency last season, in no small part due to the second unit’s surprising competency on that end. Both Aldrich and Josh Smith were excellent rim protectors and defensive anchors (although Smith struggled with everything else).

Marreese Speights is many things. He’s a beautiful and complicated human being. But he’s not a rim protector, nor is he the man you want in the middle on defense. Let other teams put him into pick-and-roll situations with Jamal Crawford and the results won’t be pretty. Austin Rivers, Brandon Bass, and Wesley Johnson are all average to above-average defenders, but they can only cover for so much. The Clippers will probably still finish with a top-10 defense overall on the strength of their starters, but it’s hard to see them matching last year’s mark.

The Clippers may also struggle with rebounding again. Under Doc, they’ve mostly forsaken the offensive glass in favor of tougher transition defense, but last year they struggled at getting defensive boards too (finishing a putrid 28th in DREB%). Some of that will improve with more Blake and less smallball in the starting lineup, but again it’s the bench that might be their weakness. Doc played a lot of small bench lineups last year with three-guard lineups and Wes Johnson at the 4, something we’ll likely see a lot of this year too. Unless they play a lot of two-big lineups with Bass and Speights, that’ll lead to continued issues with allowing second-chance opportunities.

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten the Clippers’ most-glaring and well-known weakness: the lack of a good-to-very-good two-way wing player. While Mbah a Moute is a borderline elite defender who stifled guys anywhere from C.J. McCollum to LaMarcus Aldridge last year, his offensive game is equally abysmal. He’s an even worse offensive player than either Tony Allen or Andre Roberson; Allen at least has some ballhandling skills, and Roberson is an off-ball threat cutting to the rim for easy alley-oops. LRMAM is a fine option in the regular season, but he’ll get schemed off the floor easily in the playoffs unless he’s a smallball 4 coming off the bench.

Wes Johnson blossomed last year as a help defender, but his on-ball defense doesn’t match up — and the latter is far more important when the best teams in the West start Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at the 3. He doesn’t offer much offensively apart from being a good shooter from the corners.

Alan Anderson might crack the rotation, but he’ll be 34 by the time the season starts, coming off a litany of injuries last year in Washington (where he was only healthy for 13 games). He’s smaller and probably worse defensively than the other aforemtioned SF options. He’s not more than an average outside shooter either, although he has slightly more off-the-bounce game than LRMAM and Johnson.

The paucity of reliable wing options isn’t a fatal flaw for competing with non-Warriors teams, but it does set a hard ceiling for them at the Western Conference Finals (but to be fair, Golden State would probably still be favored even if the Clippers had Paul George starting at 3).

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

4. What are the goals for this team?

The biggest goal for the Clippers during the season will be finally cracking the second-round seal and making the WCF. And while they’ve fallen short the past few years, apart from Golden State the West is wide open for the Clippers this season.

Did they get demonstrably better this offseason? Maybe not (unless you count returning a healthy Blake Griffin). But they didn’t need to. Durant leaving OKC took the Thunder out of the title picture, and the Spurs are bound to regress with roster turnover and an aging core around Kawhi. San Antonio is the only real competition for 2nd-best in the West, and the Clippers match up very favorably with them.

Los Angeles has never finished with a top-2 seed before, and they learned firsthand in 2014 and 2015 how important having home-court advantage in the second round is. If they bounce back to another 56+ win season, the 2 seed is a very real possibility.

The Clippers might finally be able to escape the ignoble distinction of being perhaps the best team ever to never make a Conference Finals. If they get that far they shouldn’t be expected to beat Golden State, but being able to take them to 6 or even 7 games would make for an extremely successful season.

More importantly, putting up a fight against the Warriors would go miles towards keeping Paul, Griffin, and Redick this offseason. That’s the biggest goal the Clippers have this year — keeping together the core responsible for dragging this formerly sadsack organization into relevancy and contention.

5. Who are the most overrated and underrated players on this team?

Jamal Crawford is currently the most overrated player on the Clippers. Although savvier fans are aware that he’s a flawed player well into his waning days at age 36, many still don’t realize how inefficient he is offensively and how poor he is defensively. That’s clear from the fact that he somehow won a record third Sixth Man of the Year award last season (I love Jamal, but obviously other players deserved it more than he did). Whether he can transition into a smaller, lower-usage role this season could make or break the Clippers bench.

As for underrated, in years past I might have gone with J.J. Redick. But a lot of ink was spilled last season about his impact on the floor and his value to the Clippers, as he led the league in 3P% and had his third straight career year in L.A.

The other choice would have been DeAndre Jordan, whose offensive contributions are still criminally overlooked in some circles in favor of haranguing him over his free throws and wondering why he hasn’t tried shooting it underhand (as if that method has yielded results for anyone for anyone other than Rick Barry, one of the league’s all-time great shooters and one of its all-time great pricks). But Jordan was FIRST TEAM ALL-NBA last season, and should benefit from the Team USA effect this year after a great summer in Rio, where he started in the knockout rounds and was America’s best player in the semifinal victory over Spain.

The Clippers’ most underrated player right now is Austin Rivers. Even after his incredibly gutsy performance in Game 6 against the Blazers, many fans still think he’s only on the team due to nepotism (a tired and incorrect narrative). He’s the youngest player in the rotation, and the only one we can expect significant improvement from this season (I ranked him #5 in my Clippers player rankings for this season).

He became a legitimately good perimeter defender last season, shot 40% from three after Christmas on 3.1 attempts per game, and showed an ability to get to the rim and finish at a high percentage. At age 24, he’s still on an upward trajectory, and could become the Clippers’ best bench player as soon as this season. I expect to see a lot more of him at the 3 in crunchtime this year.

6. Can the Clippers finally avoid a slow start this season?

Under Doc Rivers, the Clippers have always ended the season strong, peaking in March and April going into the playoffs. They haven’t started the same way the last two seasons, looking lethargic and morose in plodding commencements to the ‘15 and ‘16 seasons. Last year was a new low point, as they dropped seven of nine in ugly fashion after a remarkably uninspiring 4-0 start. But they at least had the excuses of major roster turnover and lack of cohesion, justifications that won’t hold weight this year.

The opening schedule this year isn’t a killer, but there aren’t many cupcakes early on and very few chances for the team to catch its breath in November and December.

7. Whither to, Brice Johnson?

When the Clippers took Johnson with the 25th pick this year, many expected him to crack the rotation as a rookie, including his coach. But Doc Rivers didn’t anticipate both Speights and Brandon Bass being available at the minimum this summer, and suddenly Johnson became buried on the bench like Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox before him.

Now Johnson will probably spend more of his rookie year in the D-League than in the NBA, alongside fellow rookie Diamond Stone. Here’s hoping he gets a few meaningful minutes here and there — he brings a tantalizing combination of skill and athleticism and could develop into a really good rotation player within a few seasons if given the chance to spread his wings.

Prediction:

After years of heartache and pain, the Clippers finally break through. They tie the franchise record set in 2014 with a 57-25 record, good enough for the 2nd seed this year, before winning their first-round series decisively and beating the Spurs in the second round. Although they’re no match for Golden State, they push the Warriors to six games, giving them their toughest challenge of the postseason. Buoyed by a successful year, both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin opt out next summer and re-sign max contracts with the Clippers. And they all live happily ever after.

Further Reading

For more Clippers takes, follow our staff on Twitter — Editor-in-Chief Lucas Hann, Robert Flom, and Taylor Smith are all great follows. Also check out Rob’s recent opus on the power of narrative in the NBA.

Our ongoing player preview series began last week and continues today with a breakdown of Mo Speights from our resident humorist Matt Heller. I also recently power ranked the entire roster — click here for Parts One (#15-#11), Two (#10-#6), and Three (#5-#1). And you can always learn something from our Film Room series. Here’s the most recent installment, from Caden Kinard.

Stick with us today for full coverage of Clippers Media Day. Keep up with all of our work by following us on Twitter or Facebook.