5 Keys to L.A. Clippers Competing with the Best of the NBA Western Conference

Jeff Nisius@JeffNisiusContributor IISeptember 13, 2012

5 Keys to L.A. Clippers Competing with the Best of the NBA Western Conference

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    The 2011-2012 Los Angeles Clippers took the league by storm, traded for Chris Paul, morphed into Lob City and earned the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2006.

    However, the Western Conference has gotten even stronger this offseason, making the journey through the playoffs as difficult as ever.

    What do the Clippers need to do to keep pace at the top of the conference standings? 

    Read on to find out five keys that will keep the Clippers competing with the best in the West.

Staying Healthy

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    Last season the Clippers were marred with numerous injuries, none bigger than Chauncey Billups rupturing his Achilles midway through the season. 

    In addition, Eric Bledsoe tore his meniscus in October and would not return until mid-February. Caron Butler broke his hand during his first Clipper playoff game. Blake Griffin sprained his knee during game five against Memphis and then tore a ligament in the same knee during a Team USA scrimmage over the summer, and Chris Paul tore a ligament in his thumb during Team USA’s training camp.

    While the Clippers have more depth this season, having added Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom, it will be extremely difficult to keep up with the Spurs, Lakers and Thunder without remaining relatively healthy. 

Improved Defense

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    The Clippers offense will be strong again; however, the defense needs to improve.

    The Clippers finished 18th in defensive efficiency, 14th in defensive rebound rate, 21st in opponents' true shooting percentage, 28th in opponents' three-point percentage and 17th in block rate, according to Hoopdata. Those numbers must improve if the Clippers expect to have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. 

    Nevertheless, one way the Clippers defense can improve is by DeAndre Jordan turning into a solid defender. Jordan’s offensive game is virtually nonexistent, but the team desperately needs his shot blocking and rebounding in the middle.

    Jordan only played 27.2 minutes per game last season mainly because his defense could not be counted on late in games, which forced Vinny Del Negro to play Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans.

Bench Play

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    The front office addressed a major weakness on last year’s team—the bench. The Clippers bench averaged 26.5 points per game, ranking 26th in the league

    In this upcoming season, Jamal Crawford and Chauncey Billups will split time at shooting guard. Grant Hill and Caron Butler will do the same at small forward, and Lamar Odom finally gives the team a legitimate back up for Griffin. Del Negro will have multiple combinations off the bench, including sending out a small lineup with Griffin at center, or a large lineup with Odom at small forward.

    In addition, Eric Bledsoe’s stellar performance during the playoffs—9.1 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game and 1.5 steals per game—has given fans high hopes for the third year guard out of Kentucky. Bledsoe will see plenty of time on a strong Clippers second unit, which will allow him to do what he does best—attack off the dribble.

Vinny Del Negro

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    Considering the Clippers' depth this season, Del Negro must find his most effective units early and based on a consistent substitution pattern, something he took entirely too long to figure out last season. While injuries prevented Del Negro from settling on a rotation until February, the roster is flexible enough to overcome most injuries this season.

    Additionally, Del Negro’s offense was stagnant at times last season, partially due to his constant use of a two guard sideline-to-sideline pick-and-roll set. The resulting stagnation on offense and inconsistent, sometimes baffling, substitution patterns nearly cost Del Negro his job

    There will be no excuses in 2012-2013, as the roster is composed of quality veterans, solid young players and two superstars. Del Negro has the talent on the roster to win games, and now he must take advantage of that talent and produce results.

Blake Griffin's Development

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    There is no doubt that Blake Griffin is one of the NBA’s top power forwards. However, the Clippers need an improved Griffin in order to advance past the second round this spring.

    One area Griffin needs to show improvement on is the form on his mid-range jumper. Blake shot a woeful 37 percent from 16 to 23 feet last season. The main problem was inconsistency in his shooting form. When Griffin had time to catch, setup, tuck his elbow and shoot, his form looked fine. Conversely, when Griffin did not have time to set up, his form was inconsistent, leading to some ugly misses. Blake needs to show that he can consistently catch and shoot in one fluid motion.

    Finally, an improved shooting form will also allow Griffin to improve his performance at the free throw line. Last season Griffin went to the line 468 times, fourth most in the league.  Unfortunately, Griffin only made 52 percent of those free throws. Shooting a higher percentage at the line will not only improve the Clippers as a whole, but it will also help prevent teams from intentionally putting Griffin at the line.