Los Angeles Clippers Season Preview

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers

 

The Offseason Summary

IN – Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass

OUT – Cole Aldrich, Pablo Prigioni

The Clippers are rolling it back one more time. Though each of the last 3 years has threatened to be the end of this group, there really is no comparison – this is the single most important season in Clippers history. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and JJ Reddick will all be free agents by seasons close.  Paul and Griffin are locks to opt out of their deals barring career ending injuries and Reddick automatically enters free agency. And if  Paul or Griffin should leave, or even takes too long to resign – their salary restrictions will make it difficult to retain 3 of the core 4, and impossible to replace them if someone bolts.

Here in lies the obstacle that must be surmounted by the Clippers. The only assured way forward for the Clippers franchise is to achieve and succeed at franchise historic levels in both the regular season and playoffs. This group has never advanced to the Conference Finals and that will be an absolute must if this core is to survive the off season.  But in order to do so they will be competing against a revived Western conference and a juggernaut in the Warriors the likes of which the league has never seen before. It seems like a lot to ask of these guys, but sports is rarely fair and the basketball gods are cruel even to the all-time greats like Paul.

Since the days of “Lob City” the Clippers have suffered some of the ugliest, most unfortunate losses of the playoffs – JJ Reddick speaking to teammate Jamal Crawford on The Vertical Podcast casually tossed around the “cursed” label. And you can really see it.  One moment the Clippers were a lock to knock out the up and coming Trailblazers squad and Steph Curry had just twisted his ankle slipping on a sweat puddle at center court. The championship window creaked open in that moment, just long enough to entertain the fact that the Clippers could make the finals and genuinely compete for a title. But just as soon as that window opened, it slammed closed again. This time not due to a Paul or Griffin turn over or the bizarre 3 point heroics of Josh Smith, but rather a freak accident – Paul broke his hand. And then it mattered little (in the short term, anyway) that Griffin had also reinjured his torn quad in the same game. Though Austin Rivers admirably fought to prove otherwise, the Clippers season was done in that moment.

And once more they will have to fight just to get back to that opportunity. Paul remains a point god, capable of breaking down teams on offense while also being the best defender at his position in the league. Blake Griffin is one of the most impactful forwards in the NBA, he’s a all-star and a perennial fringe MVP candidate. DJ gobbles up rebounds and is the ultimate roll man (and was recently voted the best center in the NBA by league GM’s for what that’s worth). JJ Reddick and Crawford are consummate professionals and 3 point assassins. Doc Rivers, despite his most questionable GM moves (like signing every player from an Eastern Conference finals team in their late 30’s) remains a solid to great NBA coach. This team maximizes their talent almost always, but so far they just have not gotten it done in the playoffs. But while the Spurs retool following the loss of Tim Duncan and the injury to Danny Green, the Clippers stand poised to snag the 2 seed and give the new-look Warriors at least a competitive series.

The Lineup Potential

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Clippers best lineup is always going to consist of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and Reddick. But due to injuries (both to their players and those inflicted on equipment managers) the Clippers core only played 273 minutes together. That’s nothing, and it’s a testament to the Clippers (and particularly Paul and DJ) that they were as successful as they were last year lacking Griffin. Most teams that lose a top 10 player for that much of a season tumble like a house of cards (See: Pelicans, New Orleans). A lot of critics have called for the Clippers to “blow up” the core because they aren’t getting it done. This has an understandable appeal, but the path back to convention if they do this is far from clear. Paul and Griffin are unquestionable top 15 players in the league – and the Clippers financial situation won’t allow them to make on the fly adjustments should they lose either one. It’s very easy to call for a rebuild, but throwing away a mid-fifties win team with players of Paul and Griffins quality for years of losing and mediocrity – with no guarantees of a return to form – is a tough pill to swallow.

Expect this lineup to run teams off the floor. Additionally occasionally playing Marreese Speights at the 5 will create much needed space on offense when DJ sits. Mo Buckets can flat out shoot and score in bunches, but its hard to see any lineup with Mo at the 5 not just cratering on defense.

 The Keys to the Season

Health – the Clippers best lineups logged very few minutes last season due to Griffins dual injury and suspension issues and they still played pretty exceptional ball. Ranking as 6th on defense and 8th on offense is astounding given that Griffin missed 45 games. Griffin has been rehabbing throughout the entire off season, which means his conditioning might be below peak performance coming into the season. Furthermore, there will be worry that the injury saps some of Griffin’s explosiveness, which is a foundational cornerstone of his game.

Luc Mbah a Moute or Alan Anderson? –  Lob City hasn’t had an above replacement level starting small forward in the entirety of the Lob City era. The decision this year will center on going with Luc Mbah A Moute, a good individual defender and solid role player, or Alan Anderson – a well-travelled NBA journeyman, average 3 point shooter and good team defender. If the Clippers make a win-now trade this year, it will be in attempt to plug this hole.

Where will the Clippers find their shooting and spacing? –  Reddick lead the league in 3 point % with a scorching hot 47.5% and it would be fair to count on some regression on that number. But JJ has improved basically every year to this point in his career so I won’t bet against him repeating that level of output.

Of big help would be if Blake Griffin could learn to stretch his range out to the 3 point line. With even players like Marc Gasol shooting 3’s this year – it’s not out of the question. Griffins shooting mechanics are solid and he’s shot pretty efficiently out to 18 feet the last two years.  The Clippers are one of few teams playing to very skilled traditional bigs in their best lineups and as long as one of those players is Deandre Jordan, the Clippers spacing will suffer if Griffin can can’t draw his defender far from the paint.

The Bench – Of real concern to the Clippers will be bench defense. Losing Cole Aldrich hurts more than they’ll think and additions like Brandon Bass and Ray Felton, alongside Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford do not figure to produce much above “turnstile” level defense. After playing successfully without Griffin for much of last year, expect the Clippers do experiment more with making sure that Paul or Griffin is on the court at all times during the regular season to attempt to mitigate the bench weaknesses. While Doc Rivers will shorten the rotation come playoffs, over 82 games having this shallow a team will cost these guys a significant number of wins.

What Kind of Season Can We Expect?

As much as players and coaches might say otherwise, there are moral victories in sports – and these are tied directly to expectations. Ask any Clippers player what would constitute a successful season and expect to hear a resounding chorus of one word “Championship”. But this is a team that has not made the Western Conference Final and is playing at the same time during the rise of a Western conference super-power unlike any that has come before it.  If this team can make the Western Conference Finals and take a game or two off the Warriors, I think that might be enough to convince Griffin, Reddick, and Paul to resign.

This team is built to win a lot of games in the regular season and I think their ceiling is as a 60 win team, which would be their best record to date.  I think they could potentially have both a top 5 defense and offense, which is traditionally a good test for contender status. I have some very real questions about the Spurs (particularly should they trade LMA) that leaves me inclined to pencil in the Clippers as the 2 seed overall in the West.

What some have called the Clippers weakness may also be their greatest strength. Yes, this team hasn’t made big moves to change their roster and in some ways has suffered for that. But while other teams will spend half the season or more trying to figure out how to make the pieces fit, the Clippers have this from day one. With a core this good, and they are really really good, the level of team cohesion the Clippers have is a powerful weapon that will take this team further than they’ve ever gone before. It might well be the last ride for “Lob City’ but it promises to be their best yet.

 

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