Have L.A. Clippers Finally Joined Western Conference's Legit Title Contenders?
Not only that, they’ll have legitimate championship expectations, the best point guard in basketball, the most unpredictably exciting forward since Shawn Kemp, more shooting and versatility on the wings than they’ll know what to do with and one of the most accomplished head coaches in sports.
Does this mean we should pencil the Clippers in for a seven-game series next June against the Miami Heat? Probably not, as the Western Conference will be as competitive at the top as it’s ever been.
But if they emerge out of the West, or even win the 2014 title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. They have weaknesses heading into the season, but so does every other contending team, including the Miami Heat. What matters is that these Clippers (at least on paper, so far) should be classified as an elite team. Let's look at why.
A Dramatic Improvement at Head Coach
Let’s start from the top. They now have Doc Rivers as their head coach. First-round draft picks are vital in today’s financially conscious NBA, but the Clippers rightfully told everyone in the league they could care less when they sent their 2015 pick (unprotected) to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Rivers.
Despite helming one of the league’s least efficient offenses over the past few years, Rivers is renowned as a tactical mastermind who rightfully prioritizes defensive execution as the key to winning basketball games.
Now that he has a point guard who can stretch the defense as his floor general (Chris Paul is a career 35.6 percent shooter from behind the three-point line and shot an insane 50.3 percent from 10-16 feet last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com), Rivers’ days of commanding a below-average offense should be over.
The Best Point Guard Alive?
Speaking of Paul, after the Clippers acquired Rivers to replace Vinny Del Negro as head coach, they re-signed him to a five-year, $107 million contract. That's one of the better free-agency signings in franchise history. Actually, it's the one sitting clear at the top.
Last season the Clippers scored 112.1 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor, the highest on/off figure out of every player on their roster and an efficiency level that would’ve ranked two points per 100 possessions higher than the league-leading Miami Heat.
When Paul sat, the Clippers offense plummeted to 101.3 points per 100 possessions, which, ironically, would’ve ranked a smidge above what the Boston Celtics averaged last season—way below average.
Under Rivers, by far the best coach he’s ever played for, Paul’s efficiency should be even better, with an actual offensive system he can depend upon that expands beyond basic pick-and-rolls with either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan.
An All-Star Forward Who’s Still Improving
The third most important person in the franchise right now is Griffin. Given the fact that he’s a 24-year-old three-time All-Star, that statement by itself makes the Clippers look like an impressive basketball team. Forget about his planet-crumbling dunks for a second; Griffin’s important because he draws double teams in the post and is both faster and stronger than almost every forward who guards him in isolation.
Griffin’s per game numbers didn’t get better last season, which is somewhat of a concern. His PER stayed roughly the same (dropping exactly one numeral from the previous season), but his True Shooting percentage bumped up from 55.7 percent to 57.2 percent, mostly because he was noticeably more accurate from the free-throw line (though not quite where he needs to be just yet).
The addition of Rivers and a couple new faces on the wing should put Griffin in more successful places to succeed next season. If he can manage to use his athleticism in more than one area, specifically the defensive end, the Clippers could have two top-10 players on their roster by the time the playoffs roll around.
New Three-Headed Monster On The Wing
Those two new faces we just discussed are J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, sweet-shooting three-point artists who can do so much more than stand in the corner and knock down open shots.
Both are smart and active defensive players who should quickly grasp Rivers’ system, giving the Clippers a more consistent unit on that end than last year. Both can also handle the ball a bit, make correct passes off the dribble and initiate a little pick-and-roll action. It’s a major upgrade over Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill and Willie Green.
The Clippers also brought back Matt Barnes, their best individual wing defender and someone who’s able to thrive without the ball by making timely cuts from the weak side.
Improved, But Not Perfect
Based on all the reasons outlined above, the Clippers will be a very good team next season if their main components can stay healthy. But even after all the changes and hopeful in-house improvement that takes place, the team’s front office failed to address perhaps its biggest weakness from last year’s team: rim protection.
The Clippers have no depth in the frontcourt. Jordan is a force of nature, but sometimes it works against him. Despite possessing all the athleticism in the world, he lacks discipline on the defensive end and can’t hit free throws (38.6 percent last season!).
The team re-signed Ryan Hollins, but he’s spent his career bouncing from team to team for a reason. Los Angeles still needs a dependable big man who can consistently anchor the team's defense without being an offensive liability. The Clippers also lost Eric Bledsoe to the Phoenix Suns but quickly replaced him with Paul's old backup Darren Collison for the veteran's minimum. Smart move.
Can they overcome their problems? That's up for debate. But with all the other improvements they made to the roster, it’ll be very entertaining just watching them try.
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