With a revamped roster, the Los Angeles Clippers will be looking to improve on their franchise-best 56 wins last season.
Additions like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, as well as the re-signing of Chris Paul and Matt Barnes have the Clips thinking championship. For the last couple of seasons, decent free agents have made their way to LAC, but perhaps the move that best legitimizes the Clips as contenders was this summer’s deal for head coach Doc Rivers.
Along with the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Rivers might be the most revered and well-respected coach in the NBA. Rivers stretched out a three-year plan with the Big 3 in Boston that included one title, two trips to the Finals, and three appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Improving on 56 wins will be a tough challenge, especially with the stiff competition in the West. Last season, seeds No. 1 through No. 5 could have finished second in the weaker Eastern Conference. Although teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets have taken steps back, the West is just as top-heavy.
The Golden State Warriors improved their roster by signing free agent Andre Iguodala and the Houston Rockets nabbed Dwight Howard. Even the New Orleans Pelicans made moves to compete for a bottom playoff seed.
With the West so competitive, how many wins can we expect the Clippers to finish the regular season with in mid-April?
We will take a look at the Clippers’ main strengths and weaknesses, tremendous expectations and roster complexion before making a prediction.
Man in the Middle
Heading into 2013-14, Lob City’s major X-factor is the production of DeAndre Jordan. Last season, DJ played just 24.5 minutes-per-night under lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro.
Opting to play the more experienced Lamar Odom in crunch time, Del Negro played Jordan an average of just 5.0 minutes per night in the fourth quarter. He actually averaged fewer fourth-quarter minutes than either Ryan Hollins or Ronny Turiaf. Although both those players surely saw a lot of garbage time in blowouts, the discrepancy still bears mentioning.
Jordan’s failure to earn significant fourth quarter reps indicated that Coach Del Negro had little confidence in his big man. The reality is that Jordan’s drawbacks were severe enough that Del Negro could justifiably bench him.
DJ shot just 38.6 percent from the free-throw line last season, and there have been no indications that he will have a major improvement in his performance from the charity stripe next season. His poor shooting made him a prime candidate to be intentionally fouled, causing the Clips’ high-octane offense to be stymied in the process. Jordan also has rather bad hands, and he was prone to dropping quick or low passes from Paul or Chauncey Billups.
Even with Jordan's drawbacks, advanced statistics suggest that a lineup featuring DJ yielded some of the best offensive and defensive results.
The five-man lineup with a team-best net rating of plus-22.6 featured Paul, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and Jordan. That lineup also had a team-best offensive rating of plus-115.7 and a defensive rating of plus-93.1, the third stingiest of any rotations appearing in at least 20 games together.
Jordan demonstrated some semblances of an offensive skill set in the post early last season. In the Clips’ opening night victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, Jordan went at Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post early and often. In a close loss on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jordan also had a key up-and-under late in the game.
Confidence is another thing to consider. Until the NBA intervened, Jordan was almost on his way to Boston in exchange for Kevin Garnett. How he deals with potential trade rumors will be a compelling plot to track.
Matchups might reign supreme in the NBA playoffs, however. While Jordan might have no problem competing against the likes of Festus Ezeli or Markieff Morris, the context will change against the West’s best.
Jordan will still struggle against imposing big men like Gasol, Howard, Tim Duncan or even Serge Ibaka. Should the Clips make a deep playoff run, they can surely guarantee a date with Houston, San Antonio, Memphis or Oklahoma City.
Hopefully, Jordan’s time at Team USA camp this summer will be constructive and bring him back better than ever in October. The success of Paul and Griffin is a given, but if Jordan can develop into a formidable big man and a defensive force, then Lob City might be able to exceed its already skyscraper-high expectations.
Space and Pace
With the additions of Redick and Dudley, the Clippers brought in two dead-eye shooters that can open the floor offensively.
A career 39.0 percent three-point shooter, Redick will be a potent addition to an already lethal offense. Expect Redick to play a role similar to Ray Allen in Boston, coming off of screens and serving as the primary beneficiary of open looks afforded to him by CP3.
Redick’s versatility and ability to handle the ball will make him more than just a glorified spot-up shooter, however. The Clippers can move him inside the three-point line and run him off of curls at the elbow as well. From the free-throw line area, Redick drained 45.7 percent of his jumpers last season.
Like Redick, Dudley is also a proficient shooter, draining 40.5 percent of his long balls over his career. Dudley’s shooting peaked in 2009-10 when he drained 45.9 percent of his three-balls. He was the beneficiary of plenty of open looks afforded by the penetration of Steve Nash and the attention paid to big man Amar’e Stoudemire.
Playing alongside a potent inside-outside combination of Paul and Griffin should afford Dudley similar looks. In the 2009-10 season, Dudley excelled from the corners, knocking down 47.2 percent of his attempts. The corner three is one of the most efficient shots in basketball, and maximizing Dudley’s potential from there will be key.
Redick and Dudley will draw all the attention as the Clips’ two new sharp shooters, but that will not detract from the shooting threats of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Reggie Bullock. For years, the Spurs have been maximizing their long ball threats by surrounding Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with specialized shooters like Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Gary Neal. With the revamped Clips’ roster, Doc Rivers can mix-and-match different rotations and create a similar spacing blueprint.
The addition of sharpshooters on the perimeter also has secondary and tertiary benefits that should improve the Clippers’ already-lethal offense. More shooters will stretch out the defense, giving Paul more space to penetrate into the paint. Additionally, Griffin and Jordan will also get more space to operate in the post. Expect Griffin’s 3.7 assists per contest to improve, as he makes the extra pass to corner shooters.
With the new host of three-point threats, the Clips’ 107.7 offensive rating of last season should continue to balloon, making an already dominant offense even more explosive.
West Coast Ubuntu
With the acquisition of Doc Rivers, Clippers’ management is tacitly buying into Ubuntu, a team-first mindset with every player belonging to something greater than himself. Rivers brought Ubuntu to the Boston Celtics, and rode it to a title in 2008.
Connoting selflessness and teamwork, Ubuntu should be Lob City’s guiding principle in 2013-14. However, the current Clippers’ roster is dissimilar to that of Boston six years ago, and one of Rivers’ main challenges will be to restructure Ubuntu accordingly.
In Beantown, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett had previously struggled to earn a championship on their own. It was coming to Boston, and believing in a team-first ego-less mentality, that made the Celtics so formidable.
By adhering to Ubuntu, the Clippers will also be buying into a vision of trust for their teammates and their coach. If the Clippers’ want to take the leap from fringe contender, then they will need to tighten up their mediocre defense.
After a quick start, the Clippers’ boasted a top-five offense and top-five defense. This was a period when the Clips enjoyed their most sustained success, including an incredible undefeated December. That month, the Clippers boasted a stingy 95.0 defensive rating, a number that would have lead the league over the course of the season.
With injuries amounting in the second half of the season, the Clips’ defensive rating swelled to 104.2 over the final 26 games after the All-Star break. For some perspective, that number would have lodged the Clippers between the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks for the 11th worst defense in the league.
Integrating Rivers’ complex defense will really determine whether this team is capable of winning a championship. Since the 2007-08 season, Rivers’ Boston Celtics’ teams have finished with the best or second-best defensive rating in four out of the six seasons. Just once did Rivers’ defense fall out of the top five, finishing No. 6 last season.
Rivers’ defense has found success outside of Boston as well. Chicago Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau was one of the main architects behind the complex defense, and has lead his Bulls to a top defense since he made the move from New England to the Midwest in 2010.
Defending the three will be a must for Los Angeles.
Last season, Lob City had the league’s fifth-worst three-point shooting defense, allowing opponents to convert 37.3 percent of their long balls. That number was the worst of any Western Conference playoff team.
Rivers’ defensive schemes will be especially beneficial here. An undermanned C’s squad held opponents to just 34.2 percent from downtown last season, the fourth lowest in the league.
Ultimately, it will take Rivers’ philosophies to transcend the Clippers’ roster. Whereas the Celtics had Garnett patrolling the paint and intuitive rotations developed through years of playing together, the Clippers will be looking at Jordan on the back line and a group of decent individual defenders that must coalesce into a unified defensive force. Lob City is banking on a vision, and Rivers' impact on the floor and in the locker room will play a significant role in how well this team performs in 2013-14.
What it all Means in the Standings
The offseason acquisitions of Redick, Dudley and Rivers should certainly yield more victories in 2013-14, but just how many W’s is a challenging question to quantify.
Last season, the Thunder won the conference, finishing with a record of 60-22. Once the No. 1 seed was locked up, OKC benched Kevin Durant for the final game of the regular season in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, suggesting that they probably should have finished 61-21.
While the Western Conference is still incredibly competitive, there should be less parity this season. The Dubs poached Iguodala from the Nuggets, but will that be enough to supplant the Clippers’ as the class of the division? The Grizzlies kept their roster intact, but the impact of the loss of head coach Lionel Hollis is yet to be seen?
The Utah Jazz are entering full-tank mode in pursuit of Andrew Wiggins and an Achilles injury to Kobe Bryant could have the Lakers off the playoff pace early next season. Will this finally be the year that the Minnesota Timberwolves stay healthy and reach the postseason? Could a young core in Portland make a push at the No. 7 or No. 8 seeds?
Even the Houston Rockets could be something of a wild card. The dynamic duo of Howard and James Harden will certainly have the Rockets winning more than 45 games next season, but even a ten-win jump would have them finishing No. 6 in last year’s ultra-completive conference.
As it currently looks, the conference’s top two teams still appear to be the Thunder and the Spurs, with the Clips lurking just behind, and with a potential dark horse in Houston. Continuity could be key, and the third installment of the Paul-Griffin Clips should have Lob City in the hunt for a top-3 seed next season.
Given the growing split between the haves and have-nots in the conference, it could take more than 60 wins to earn the No. 1 seed in the West. As such, the Clippers will need to excel dramatically on defense and avoid the injury bug if they hope to supplant either Oklahoma City or San Antonio.
2013-14 Win-Loss Prediction: 60-22.
All statistics used from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.
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