UPDATE: With the departure of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, the Clippers have reportedly signed 7-footer Ryan Hollins to improve depth behind their frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
With another busy NBA off-season well underway, many teams improved, as the rich got richer. The headlines of this off-season are simple, the defending champions added sharpshooter Ray Allen, the Lakers added Steve Nash and also reportedly signed Antawn Jamison to bolster their bench. The Brooklyn Nets have also added Joe Johnson, and have resigned Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez to compliment their franchise player Deron Williams.
With these teams improving from last season, one NBA team that people seem to overlook are the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers, who have had a very busy offseason, signed Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and veteran Grant Hill, as well as re-signed veteran guard Chauncey Billups. With the return of Chauncey Billups and new acquisitions, the Clippers have a very solid team on paper that can make some noise in the very competitive Western Conference. But, how far can this roster take them? Can they make a deep playoff run, and even come out of the Western Conference to make the finals, or will they struggle and have an early playoff exit, or even worse for Clipper Nation, miss the playoffs?
Certainly, with a team as stacked as the Clippers, there is no way they will miss the playoffs. However, there are several important factors that will dictate how far the Clippers can go next season, one of the most important one being health. Injuries are inevitable in sports, and a big question is, how effective will both Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin be as they look to come back from injury. Billups who lost last season to a torn Achilles is part of that veteran leadership in the backcourt, alongside Chris Paul who really make a difference on the court. His veteran experience and presence was missed, as they started the 2011-2012 season 15-7 with him, and slowly started to lose close games down the stretch without him. A healthy Billups would give the Clippers a veteran leader who can keep the team composed during late stretches of the game, a vital aspect in the playoffs.
The Clippers also hope for a full recovery from Blake Griffin, who tore his meniscus in his left knee during Team USA Olympics practice. The same knee that cost him his rookie season, Griffin has undergone surgery and is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. this injury hurts the Clippers, because Griffin cannot improve his game this offseason with a bummed knee.Although his defensive game, as well his arsenal of weapons on offense could improve, there is no doubt that Griffin's physicality and fearlessness on offense made him a force to be reckoned with this past season. Because he lacks a variety of ways to score, if his knee is not 100 percent it will certainly limit his productivity to make the dunks that we are so accustomed to seeing by Griffin.
Another question surrounding the Clippers is how efficient will the role players and new acquisitions Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, and Jamal Crawford be. The Clippers have a lot of talent on this team, as they return floor general Chris Paul, Caron Butler, and defensive Juggernaut DeAndre Jordan, as well as a few others. Team chemistry may be a problem with new acquisitions, but with Chris Paul orchestrating the offense, consistent team play can be expected. They also have a lot of depth, as their bench is a very solid unit behind their starting five. Jamal Crawford can contribute off the bench and provide immediate offense, and Grant Hill's veteran leadership will not go unseen.
With Mo Williams' departure, 3rd year guard Eric Bledsoe will likely see increased minutes, as the backup point to Chris Paul. Beldsoe, who contributed little last season saw his minutes increase during the postseason. With the increased playing time, Bledsoe increased his points per game average by five, as well as increased his field goal percentage from 39 percent to 59 percent.
The Clippers also need for versatile forward Lamar Odom to return back to form. After a dreadful season last year with Dallas, Odom looks forward to a better season and contribute to the Clippers. If Odom gives the Clippers anything from when he won the sixth-man of the year award with the Lakers, it will significantly help this team with versatility as well as a productive player from the bench (assuming Caron Butler retains starting duties).
On paper, this team looks like it can definitely make a deep playoff run, but it will be difficult for them that to go all the way and make the NBA Finals. Although Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro finished last season 40-26, he has not consistently shown that he can take teams to a deep playoff run. With two mediocre seasons in his first coaching tenure at Chicago (41-41 in both seasons), and one horrible losing record of 32-50 with the Clippers in his first season there, Del Negro has not shown consistency in winning with his coaching. There were even reports last season that Del Negro had lost the players on his team, and that his players "did not want to play for him." However, the Clippers have exercised the option on Del Negro's contract and have brought him back for next season.
The Clippers also play in the very competitive Western Conference. There are at least three teams ahead of the Clippers that can make the finals as legitimate title contenders. Defending Western Conference Champions Oklahoma City Thunder and re-vamped Los Angeles Lakers (who also had a very good offseason) are well ahead of the Clippers to come out the west, and you can never discount the veteran San Antonio Spurs led by coach Greg Popovich.
Although the Clippers have made vast and significant improvements this off season, the lack of a consistent winning coach, as well as the brutal competition in the Western Conference will make it very difficult for them to come out of the Western Conference. But, no matter how well you analyze stats or break down a team from top to bottom, in the world of sports, you never know who will come out as champions.