5 Changes Los Angeles Clippers Must Make Moving Forward
In the first round of the 2012 NBA playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in seven games and then were humiliated and completely overmatched by the San Antonio Spurs. Progress was made in Clipper Nation with the growth of Blake Griffin and by the signing of Chris Paul, but this roster is in need of some radical changes in philosophy and personal in order to maintain its success.
If the Los Angeles Clippers truly are invested in replacing years of infamy and horrendous losing with success, then owner Donald Sterling will need to be committed towards spending money this offseason. I propose some very affordable options for the Clippers to improve their roster while remaining financially stable.
The Clippers have made gigantic strides this season but will never grow from this season's beatdown against the San Antonio Spurs unless they improve on their weaknesses that were exposed during the postseason. The Clippers must make five changes this offseason to remain an elite contender in the Western Conference.
Diversify the Offense
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The Clippers offense lived and breathed Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll.
Their offense went a little like this: Chris Paul broke down the defense through pick-and-roll basketball, and if that was taken away he would settle for contested isolation jumpers. Blake Griffin, meanwhile, showed moments of improvement from his rookie campaign by making perimeter jump shots. However, the large majority of his game stemmed from Paul creating easy opportunities for Griffin to back down defenders and use his athleticism to finish strong at the rim. This combination of Paul driving and Griffin dunking created room for the three-point shooters like Randy Foye and Mo Williams to operate.
This worked decently during the regular season, but against juggernauts like the San Antonio Spurs, driving lanes for Paul were clogged up; and with the exception of one quarter in Game 3, Griffin was a no-show for the Clipper offense. The Spurs, meanwhile, moved the ball with precision and efficiency, using all five guys on the court as options to hit jumpers or spread out the seemingly lost Clipper defense. On offense the Clippers were forced to take contested fade-away jump shots once Paul's driving ability became limited by the Spurs. This hindered the effectiveness of Paul, leaving the Clipper offense predictable and basic.
What do the Clippers need to do this offseason? Diversify the offense.
The Clippers' strengths stem from the athleticism of Griffin and Paul due to their ability to break down the defense and create matchup nightmares. In order to take the next step into the upper echelons of the league, the Clippers need to limit the dribbling of Paul and instead use multiple offensive sets to create offensive scoring chances for multiple players. This will allow Griffin to remain a dominant force in the paint while also feeding shooters on the perimeter, allowing Paul more room to operate with the ball in the halfcourt offense.
Make Your Free Throws
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The Los Angeles Clippers were horrendous from the free-throw line this season, shooting 68 percent as a team, which ranked second worst only ahead of the Washington Wizards.
This was due largely to the shooting of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who shot 52 percent from the free-throw line this season. Those numbers will need to change if they both want to take their games to the next level. Griffin shot a career low this year from the line and suffered from multiple changes in his free-throw shot, including a weird gimmick and stop midway through that made all Clipper fans queasy every time he set foot on the line. And Jordan shot a career high from the free-throw line this season, but this is now his fourth year in the league and it's time for Jordan to improve drastically.
The Clippers lost multiple games in the regular season due to their poor free-throw shooting, and in the playoffs against San Antonio "hack a Reggie" and "hack a Jordan" became very effective tactics to stop any chance of a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback by the Clippers. Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, who backed up Jordan and Griffin, were equally suspect from the charity stripe.
In order for the Clippers to alleviate pressure on Chris Paul and the backcourt, the big men of the Clippers need to spend more time at the free-throw line this offseason.
Bring Back Eric Gordon
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Eric Gordon must return to the Clippers as the starting shooting guard.
The 23-year-old Eric Gordon was a cornerpiece for this franchise just a season ago, averaging 22 points and four assists a game. The restricted free agent was the largest asset the Clippers sent packing to New Orleans in the Chris Paul deal last season.
If the Los Angeles Clippers want to be a serious contender they must add a third legitimate scorer behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and Gordon will provide that scoring option. Gordon is a consistent 20-points-a-night guy and can make plays with the ball late in the shot clock, adding a key dimension to the Clippers offense that was missing this season.
In order to add Gordon, however, Randy Foye will need to be released this offseason. Foye averaged 11 points a game this season, filling in well for Chauncey Billups as the starting shooting guard. Foye's stats pale in comparison to the quickness and athleticism Gordon will offer this team over the foreseeable future at his young age of 23. Getting rid of Foye and possibly Ryan Gomes' salary should give the Clippers more than $8 million to spend this offseason on Gordon.
Add a Frontcourt Scorer
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The Clippers need to stretch the floor, and who better than Ersan Ilyasova? Steve Novak and Boris Diaw are other possible options at that position, but the Clippers need a cheap, young option like Ilyasova.
The 25-year-old Ilyasova averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game last season and shot a career-best 45 percent from behind the arc. Ilyasova not only plays rugged minutes but will come at a very affordable price, as he's not a top-tier free agent this offseason. Having a player like Ilyasova will not only stretch the court for Blake Griffin in the paint but will also command fewer defenders in the face of Chris Paul on a nightly basis.
Ilyasova is the perfect piece to play at center due to the free-throw and shooting limitations of DeAndre Jordan late in games and will add depth and scoring to an already solid Clippers bench. Not only does Ilyasova make sense from a basketball perspective but from a financial one because he will keep salary low for a team desperate to save cash for Paul's new deal in 2013 and Blake Griffin's contract in 2014.
Expect the Clippers to make a run at Ersan Ilyasova this offseason to complete the frontcourt of Griffin, Jordan, Evans and Martin (assuming Martin and Evans re-sign).
Increase Eric Bledsoe's Role
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Once the playoffs rolled around, Eric Bledsoe received his chance and made every minute count.
In Game 7 of the first round he scored eight points and added three assists off the bench, catalyzing the Clippers' fourth-quarter run. In the second round of the playoffs Bledsoe exploded offensively. In Game 1 Bledsoe replaced Chris Paul, knifing through the Spurs defense and scoring a team-high 23 points and playing scrappy defense all night. In Game 4 Bledsoe played 26 minutes and scored 17 points, sparking the Clippers' rally in the third quarter of that game.
Bledsoe was the unsung hero of the postseason and needs to continue to play high minutes in the regular season for two huge reasons. First of all, increasing Bledsoe's minutes will lighten the offensive load on Paul, keeping him rested and healthy for when it matters most: the playoffs. Secondly, Bledsoe is the fastest player on the court every night and can use his speed and strength to spark the bench that played with tenacity and hustle all postseason.
Bledsoe's ability to drive to the basket and hustle on the defensive end must be rewarded by coach Vinny Del Negro with increased minutes and a larger role on the team next season.