February 5th, 2012 was a good day to be a fan (especially a long-suffering one) of the Los Angeles Clippers. At that point in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Clips were 14-7, fresh off a 26-point shellacking of the Washington Wizards, with big wins over the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks, the Memphis Grizzlies and the rival Lakers under their collective belt.
Chris Paul was running the show to near perfection. Blake Griffin was flying around and dunking in peoples' faces. Chauncey Billups was draining threes like it was nobody's business. Even Mo Williams was lighting it up off the bench...and making folks in Purple and Gold wonder why their team couldn't snag the Clips' leftovers at point guard.
In other words, Lob City was rolling, to the extent that it looked like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
Things took a terrible turn the next day, though. The Clippers beat the Orlando Magic on the road in double-overtime, but lost Billups for the season to a torn Achilles'.
Mr. Big Shot's absence didn't exactly precipitate a total collapse—the Clippers finished 40-26 for a franchise-best winning percentage of .606 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs with a Game 7 win on the road against the Grizzlies—but it did leave many of their fatal flaws exposed. DeAndre Jordan either couldn't hit or was too afraid to take shots of any distance from the rim. Their frontcourt, on the whole, was woefully thin. And their defense, the 12th-worst in the NBA (giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions), wasn't even close to championship-caliber.
No string of three-point barrages could cover up those ills, or the fact that Vinny Del Negro was stalking the sidelines. And, unfortunately for the Clippers, Del Negro will still be there when the 2012-13 season opens on Halloween.
On the flip side, the Clippers should have enough talent, versatility and veteran leadership on their roster to not only overcome VDN's coaching handicaps, but also make some noise in the NBA championship conversation.
Any non-Lakers title talk in LA begins and ends with Chris Paul. The five-time All-Star played like an MVP (and, by some accounts, should've finished higher than third in the voting) after arriving in LA amidst some rather controversial circumstances (see: basketball reasons) and despite having only an abbreviated training camp and limited practice time during the season with which to acclimate himself to his new environment.
CP3 is expected to miss part of the team's training camp next month after undergoing surgery on his right thumb in late August, but should still be better off, as far as experience and comfort is concerned, than he was during last year's whirlwind.
Speaking of things that spin (often out of control), Blake Griffin will be back, another year older and wiser and hopefully with a more refined repertoire. The high-flying power forward says he's fully recovered from a knee injury suffered during camp with Team USA in July and that he's already in the process of honing his wayward jump shot.
Much to the delight of Clipper Nation. Griffin converted a woeful 52.1 percent of his free throws last season, thereby rendering himself a liability late in games. If the Clips are to contend for a title, they'll need Griffin to be not only present in crunch time, but productive as well.
As for DeAndre Jordan...one miracle at a time, folks. Even just a smidgen of offensive ability, beyond the requisite dunking, would be welcome. Frankly, though, it's more important that DJ grow out of his phase as an overanxious shot-blocker and into the defensive anchor the Clips are paying him so handsomely to be.
There's plenty to like about the Clippers roster beyond this core three. Caron Butler's three-point shooting and "Tuff Juice" defense on the perimeter will come in handy, especially against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant in the Western Conference.
Eric Bledsoe should see a significant uptick in his minutes this season in the wake of Mo Williams' return to the Utah Jazz. Bledsoe will be Paul's primary backup at the point now, and will finally have an opportunity to show off his considerable skills in more than just fits and spurts.
But what makes the Clips so enticing are the new additions to their bench mob—namely, Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Ronny Turiaf. Odom and Crawford are both coming off abysmal years with the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, and, as such, should have no shortage of motivation to shine this season. Odom's playmaking, skill and versatility, along with Crawford's microwave scoring, will add a decisive offensive punch to LA's reserves.
Hill and Turiaf should be of considerable service on the other end of the floor. Hill, who'll be 40 by the time the upcoming campaign tips off, reinvented himself as a perimeter shooter and lockdown defender with the Phoenix Suns, while Turiaf has long been a big, tough body with whom to tangle in the middle.
And if a 10-player rotation isn't deep enough for VDN, he can always throw Willie Green, another speedy scorer; Ryan Hollins, a poor man's DeAndre Jordan; and the newly-signed Matt Barnes into the mix.
Depth and defensive improvement will be among the biggest keys to the Clips' hopes of hanging with the league's elite this time around. They proved last season that they can compete with the young and the restless in the West after beating OKC three times in four tries.
The tougher challenge for the Clippers may well come opposite the teams in the West that have been there and done that—the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. The Clips went a combined 2-4 against those two powerhouses during the 2011-12 regular season before being swept out of the playoffs by the Spurs.
San Antonio returns with largely the same run-and-gun combo of savvy veterans and young bucks that out-executed LA at every turn. The Lakers, meanwhile, improved by leaps and bounds this summer (on paper, at least) by adding Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison, and should be better off on the whole with more time to adjust to the sideline stylings of Mike Brown.
This isn't to say, though, that the Clips can't compete. They have one surefire MVP candidate, in Paul, and another, in Griffin, who might be there in just his third year as a playing professional. Their offseason additions weren't slam dunks in and of themselves, but taken collectively, they constitute a significant upgrade to what was a streaky second unit.
Strange as it may seem, the difference between merely having a seat at the table of Western Conference contenders and actually diving into the proceedings for Lob City may well rest on the health of Chauncey Billups' Achilles'. He lent the Clips a spark and a swagger last season that the franchise had never before seen in its own ranks. He was the glue that held together what, at the time, was a talented collection of parts that had a ways to go before it could gel into a cohesive whole.
Once his foot went kaput, so too did just about any hope of the Clippers covering up their many holes well enough to make a deep playoff run.
That hope is due to return much sooner than expected. According to Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times, Billups is well ahead of schedule in his rehab, having already stepped back onto the court for some of his workouts.
He still has plenty of work to do before he's fully fit to play. But if Mr. Big Shot can regain any semblance of the fine form he put on display through his first 20 games in LA—and if the rest of the roster can hold up its end of the bargain—then the Clippers could be knocking on the door of the NBA Finals come spring of 2013.