Why L.A. Clippers Will Stay a Top-Four Team in the Western Conference

Jeff NisiusContributor IINovember 29, 2012

Nov 28, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups (1) and Chris Paul (3) react during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Timberwolves 101-95. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

The Clippers' ascent to the top of the Western Conference coincided with the development of Blake Griffin into one of the league’s best big men and the arrival of Chris Paul.  Additionally, management has done an excellent job of signing veteran role players who fill out the starting five and make up one of the league’s best benches.

Despite all that, the Clippers' fast rise to the top can easily crumble with the departure of Paul this summer.  Should that happen, the Clippers will still be talented, thanks to the development of young players such as DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe.  However, losing the team’s leader and one of the best point guards of the past two decades would be devastating.

But will Paul leave?

It is highly unlikely the Clippers will take part in any sign-and-trade that sends Paul out of Los Angeles.  For that to happen, the Clippers would need to believe he would walk to a team with cap space.  Who are the teams that could offer Paul a maximum contract worthy of consideration? The Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are all potential playoff teams that may entice Paul to leave.

However, none of those teams will have the type of talent that the Clippers do, let alone the market size. Paul leaving would be a major blow to the franchise, but it looks unlikely at this point. 

Mark one large check for the Clippers maintaining their positioning out West.

Secondly, Vinny Del Negro's contract is set to expire this summer.  Considering Vinny was nearly fired late last season and did not receive a contract extension this past summer, the status on his returning is clearly up in the air.

Meanwhile, the Clippers have lost four of their last five games, including their latest loss to the New Orleans Hornets on November 27th.

"We lost to a very ... let me choose my words ... not a very talented team but well coached," Paul said.

One major flaw of this team has been the coaching, or lack thereof.  With coaches such as Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan sitting at home without jobs, one has to think they would strongly consider the Clippers coaching vacancy this summer. 

Regardless, improved coaching would certainly cement the Clippers as one of the best teams in the league, let alone the Western Conference.  That many mean hiring a new coach, but it also could mean Vinny Del Negro improving.

While coaching is extremely important, player development might be the most vital aspect of teams maintaining their status as a conference heavyweight.  Look no further than the San Antonio Spurs, who seem to churn out quality role players with nearly every draft selection they make.

Recently, this has been one area where the Clippers have been one of the league’s best.  Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan have transformed from marginal role players to focal points in the Clippers offense and defense.

Jordan’s development has drastically improved the Clippers' defensive efficiency from 18th last season to 4th this season.  According to basketball-reference.com, Jordan’s defensive rating this season is a career-best 100, while his career average is 105.  Considering the Clippers' recent losing streak, Jordan’s defensive rating could be even lower had the team not dropped four straight.

Additionally, Jordan’s offense has gone from nonexistent to visible.  He is posting a career-high ten points per game and taking 3.3 more shots per game than his career average.  While that may not seem like much, Jordan usually scored his points off lobs and offensive rebounds.  This season, he is displaying improved post moves, including a jump hook and up-and-under moves.

While Jordan’s development has been much-needed, perhaps no other third-year player in the league is as exciting as Eric Bledsoe.

A blur in the open court and a terror on defense, he tore through the Grizzlies and Spurs in the playoffs last spring and has continued that trend so far this season.

His scoring jumped from 3.3 points per game last season to 10.1 so far this season.  His field-goal percentage is a career-high 51.4, and his offensive rating is a stellar 111.  Not to mention his hounding defense, where he is holding opposing point guards to a PER of 8.9, well below the league average, according to 82games.

So why is Bledsoe’s development so important?  The Clippers now have numerous options thanks to Bledsoe. 

First, the team has a backup plan should Paul bolt in free agency.  While Bledsoe may not be ready to take over for Paul, he has clearly proven he can make an impact on both ends of the floor.

Secondly, should Paul stay, Bledsoe could become one of the most coveted trade chips in the league.  The Clippers would have multiple options to move Bledsoe in order to improve other positions, such as at small forward.  While a trade may not happen, it will give the Clippers some flexibility, considering a new contract for Paul would put the Clippers near the luxury tax and limit their ability to add more pieces to the puzzle.

The Clippers can reasonably expect Bledsoe and Jordan to continue their development and improve the team as a whole.  Both may be valuable trade assets, but they could just as well turn into core players the Clippers cannot live without.

Overall, the Clippers have tons of talent and have a very deep bench.  They have multiple ways they can maintain their status as a top-tier team in the West, not to mention improving their rank. 

However, Chris Paul is the main factor in vaulting the Clippers to the top, and there is a possibility he leaves for a new destination this summer.  With Paul as their captain, the Clippers have only scratched the surface of what they are capable of. But all things equal, it would be pretty difficult for Paul to leave behind what he helped build in Los Angeles: a title contender.