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Preview: Clippers Take on Conference-Leading Raptors in Toronto

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The Clippers will face the former mirror image of themselves in beastly Raptors— is there anything they can learn from the Raptors’ success this year?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

When: 3:00 PM Pacific Time

How to Watch: Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570 Radio

Projected Starting Lineups:

Raptors: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Clippers: Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Tobias Harris, Wes Johnson, DeAndre Jordan

Injuries:

Raptors: CJ Miles Probable (Illness)

Clippers: Danilo Gallinari Out (Fractured Hand), Avery Bradley Out (Abdominal Surgery), Patrick Beverley Out (Knee Surgery)

Quick Preview:

The Raptors are extremely good. Though they have stumbled recently with some iffy performances against bad teams, they are a talented, deep squad with a multitude of weapons on both ends of the court. While they are still playing for the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, they have a 4.5 game edge on the Celtics, and are almost assured of homecourt advantage until the Finals.

The Clippers, on the other hand, are fighting for their playoff lives. They have lost five of their last six games, and just are not playing sharply enough to make the playoffs at this rate, especially with everyone else in the Western Conference holding their heads above water. Their propensity to turning the ball over has cost them heavily in recent games, as has their failure to attain defensive rebounds. If the Clippers are to have any chance at beating the Raptors, they must tighten up those two aspects of their game.

An Extended Thought that Should Probably be a Separate Article:

The Raptors and Clippers were frequently compared to each other during the Chris Paul era. Each were among the best teams in their conference. Both teams had a small, tough, feisty, and fantastic point guard as their best player (Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul respectively), with sometimes inefficient scoring machines (DeMar DeRozan and Blake Griffin) as their primary weapons on offense. Jonas Valanciunas and DeAndre Jordan have accumulated much criticism from their respective fanbases over the years as starting centers, yet both have been able to “survive” dozens of trade rumors. Most importantly, the Clippers and Raptors had massive struggles in the playoffs, albeit for very different reasons. All these similarities led to nicknames such as “Clippers North” for Toronto or the inverse for the Clips. The resemblances even extended to the fanbases, which are largely quick to despair and distrusting of success. This season, however, the two teams have parted ways, seemingly for good.

The Clippers have almost completely revamped their entire team and front office in the past 10 months, swapping out Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford for a set of lesser-known and cheaper faces. This occurred after a first round playoff loss to a mediocre Jazz team, with the Clippers falling apart due to untimely injuries yet again. Steve Ballmer and the rest of the Clippers’ decision-makers decided that it was time to make some legitimate changes and go in a different direction, that the current incarnation of the team was untenable. They acted on that feeling, and the result is a team that will probably miss the playoffs but has much flexibility for the future.

Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ general manager, was at a virtually identical crossroads last summer. The Raptors were swept in the 2nd round by the Cavaliers, looking completely non-competitive in the process, and it seemed like sweeping changes were coming. However, he buckled down on coach Dwane Casey and the roster he had on hand, and it has paid off big time. The Raptors are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and the third best in the entire NBA, and have a real chance of making it to the NBA Finals. They could still collapse ala the Raptors of yesteryear, but this year feels different.

The reason the Clippers were never able to break through to the Conference Finals had little to do with their stars, and everything to do with the roster around them. The Lob City Clippers relied heavily on mediocre (at best) veteran talent with no room for growth. Their few draft picks were all misses (with the hilarious exception of Reggie Bullock, who was at least traded for Austin Rivers)—costly errors considering the margin for error that the Clippers were playing with. It’s hard to expect solid NBA rotation players with the picks that the Clippers had, true. Yet getting absolutely nothing out of all those prospects was a tough blow and put a real ceiling on the team.

The Raptors, comparatively, have blown past their projected “limits” as a team because their draft picks over the past few years have turned into legitimate rotation players at just the right time. The first thing in the Raptors’ favor was that they had a substantial number of picks-- they didn’t give them away like candy to acquire limited veterans. The second was that they stuck with their prospects even after a rough season or two, continually getting them at least some minutes (whether in the NBA or G-League) so that they could develop. The effect has been a second unit almost entirely composed of homegrown young players, all of whom were late 1st round picks, 2nd round picks, or even undrafted. They are hungry, they are cheap, they can learn and improve over time, and they are devastatingly good.

The Clippers have made changes to their front office and their basketball operations team. And the results have apparently brought immediate dividends to the player scouting department. Between the Clippers’ two draft picks last summer (Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell) and their three two-way players this season (Jamil Wilson, Tyrone Wallace, and CJ Williams), they appear to have found five legitimate NBA-level talents, all of whom are better than any of the Clippers’ draft picks from 2014-2016. The front office won’t continue to bat 100% forever but the early results are incredibly promising, and bode well for the two lottery picks the Clippers will probably possess this summer. Hopefully one of them can grow into a franchise player that the Clippers can build with for the next decade, as they did with Griffin, and as the Raptors have with DeRozan.

The Raptors, then, aren’t just a comparison to what the Clippers used to be. They are also a glimpse into the future that the Clippers still can be. And while that isn’t as glorious as being the Warriors, it’s also a far more realistic proposition that could lead to truly sustained success without being dependent on a top five player. This season is almost certainly not what Clippers’ fans wanted or expected, but there are many reasons to be excited for the future, and the Raptors provide a feasible blueprint for them to follow.