Despite Playoff Outcome, LA Clippers Here to Stay as NBA Title Contenders

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Despite Playoff Outcome, LA Clippers Here to Stay as NBA Title Contenders
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The Los Angeles Clippers had every reason to be upset about the way their campaign ended.

They won a franchise-record 57 games during the regular season, only to see their playoff push brought to an abrupt end by blown double-digit leads in back-to-back games. They worked hard for months to establish greater camaraderie and chemistry under Doc Rivers, only to see that cohesion unravel under the pressure of consecutive comebacks by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They'd done everything they could to distance themselves from the organization's embarrassing past on the court, only to see Donald Sterling's racist baggage consume (and ultimately doom) them off of it.

"As humans, you have an emotional capacity for so much," J.J. Redick said at the Clippers' practice facility in Playa Vista on Friday, via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi. "Unfortunately, I think between that [Sterling situation], the Warriors, that series, Game 7 of that series, the way we won Game 4 [against the Thunder], the way we lost Game 5 ... all of that combined took a lot out of us."

The hours and days after such devastating defeat are more for mourning than sober reflection, much less sanguinity. But once the ink dries on this particularly painful postmortem, the Clippers will awake to find themselves in a rather promising position going forward.

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Naturally, the Clippers' cause for optimism begins with the team's core. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both under contract until at least the summer of 2017, with player options for the 2017-18 season available to each. Redick is signed through 2016-17. Jamal Crawford is under the Clippers' control until after the 2015-16 schedule.

At this point, the biggest threat to the long-term stability of L.A.'s roster is DeAndre Jordan. He'll be an unrestricted free agent after next season and figures to be a hot commodity on the open market if he continues to improve as rapidly and impressively as he did this year. The Houston native grew from a tantalizing but unreliable big man under Vinny Del Negro to the league's leading rebounder and field-goal finisher (and second-most prolific shot swatter) in Year 1 under Doc Rivers.

Jordan's length, athleticism, speed and coordination for a 7-footer should be more than enough to earn him a substantial raise over the $11.44 million he'll earn next season.

In the meantime, the Clippers can look forward to another year of Jordan's on-court growth and locker room unification. As Bleacher Report's Chris Palmer wrote of Jordan:

"Along with the role of defensive captain, he's established himself as one of the NBA's best teammates and the heart and really goofy soul of a Clippers team that's shown unflappable team chemistry." 

As important as Jordan may be to the Clippers as a defensive catch-all and team "mayor," he still sits behind Paul and Griffin on L.A.'s internal hierarchy. Those two can already count themselves among the NBA's upper crust. Paul, who missed 20 games (18 with a shoulder injury), finished seventh in the MVP race this season after checking in third and fourth, respectively, over the previous two. Griffin checked in third in 2014, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

It's in Griffin that the Clippers find their greatest hope for an even higher ceiling. In his fourth pro season, Griffin showed off a more polished, all-around game, of which fans and detractors alike had gleaned only brief glimpses during his previous campaigns.

Of greatest and most obvious interest was his smoother, more confident shooting stroke. Griffin knocked down a career-best 71.5 percent of his 8.4 free throws per game, all but eradicating any notion of him as a liability in crunch time.

Better yet, the Clippers can now count on him to hit jumpers, as well. He slowly unveiled a more effective mid-range jumper, particularly in the pick-and-pop, over the course of the regular season and wound up knocking down nearly 42 percent of his tries therein come playoff time, per NBA.com

But never was Griffin's arrival as a superstar more evident than during Paul's injury-related absence early on in 2014. Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and a whopping 10.4 free throws while shooting 55.4 percent from the field during CP3's recovery. Those extraordinary efforts helped the Clips compile a respectable 12-6 record when the team might've otherwise struggled.

At the tender age of 25, Griffin still has plenty of time in which to further actualize his prodigious potential. A summer spent training with Team USA ahead of the World Cup of Basketball in Spain should afford Griffin ample opportunity to further sharpen his skills and build up his confidence alongside and against the best players on planet Earth.

The more Griffin does to transform himself into a multidimensional threat, the better off the Clippers will be.

And the better off Paul, in particular, will be.

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As great a player and as reliable a leader as Paul is and has been for years, he could stand to relinquish the reins of his team's offense a bit, especially late in games. According to NBA.com, Paul finished 34.1 percent of L.A.'s possessions with a shot, a trip to the free-throw line or a turnover during the regular season—the highest such share of any Clippers regular other than the scantly used Hedo Turkoglu.

Despite his overall effectiveness, Paul's ball dominance in such situations wasn't always to L.A.'s advantage. He converted just 40.6 percent of his attempts therein, and come playoff time, his turnover rate in clutch situations jumped to 13.9 percent, up from 5.1 percent during the regular season.

That sort of slippage isn't entirely surprising for a player of Paul's size, responsibilities and attitude. He's not a natural scorer, per se, and often struggles to create anything better than a low-percentage, mid-range look for himself in isolation. Paul's a competent three-point shooter (35.7 percent for his career), but he is hardly L.A.'s best option.

Even less so off the dribble; according to NBA.com's SportVU stats, Paul shot 33.3 percent on pull-up threes this season.

And if Paul does manage to wind his way into the lane, he's not likely to get a good look at the cup among the proverbial trees.

All of which is to say, Paul would do well to trust his teammates more when the game's on the line. His competitiveness and desire to win deserves appreciation, but he does his team no favors when he tries to do it all on his own while essentially gasping for breath.

To be sure, Paul's fellow Clippers have been complicit in this to some extent. Their frustrating tendency to deviate from their offense under pressure came back to bite them in a big way in Games 5 and 6 against OKC.

Part of that is a matter of trust. The Clippers, for all of their individual talent and veteran savvy, lacked experience as a collective under Rivers. Not until the tail end of its playoff run did this team start to feel like a cohesive whole.

"I told somebody at halftime, it's crazy, you play all season long, and the last few games we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play," Paul told a group of reporters and this writer at his postgame press conference on Thursday. "And it's crazy that it's over."

Rivers concurred. "I think we started coming together, time ran out. It did," he said after Game 6.

Luckily for the Clippers, they'll have more time to further cement their identity next season. Of their postseason rotation, only Danny Granger and Glen Davis will be free agents. Darren Collison could be if he turns down his player option for 2014-15.

For the most part, then, L.A.'s roster is already set. They have some needs to address—more perimeter shooting, some actual depth up front, a "small-ball"/stretch 4, maybe even another wing—but shouldn't have too much trouble doing so. Paul Pierce could take care of a few of those on his own if he decides to return to his hometown for a mini-Ubuntu reunion with Rivers, as ESPN.com's Marc Stein proposed.

However, this is where the specter of an ugly legal battle between Sterling and the NBA could complicate things for Rivers and the Clippers.

Through his lawyer, Sterling has already refused to pay the $2.5 million fine he owes to the league as penance for his racist remarks and has vowed to fight in court for the due process he feels he's been denied by commissioner Adam Silver, per Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann.

The league has made clear its desire to strip Sterling of his ownership of the Clippers, but the 29 other owners aren't likely to convene for a vote to do so until the playoffs are through. There's no telling what Sterling's response to such a measure would ultimately be, though given his history of litigiousness, a tooth-and-nail tiff in the courts spurred on by Sterling would be anything but a surprise.

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Likewise, there's no telling how any of this will affect the Clippers' attempt to improve their team this summer. Surely, some free agents will be deterred by the thought of working for Sterling, even though he's been banned from all NBA-related functions and the league is working to remove him from the equation financially.

Who those free agents might be, though, is anybody's guess at this point.

"I think I'm prepared for somewhat of a messy summer, mentally at least," Rivers remarked. "I just think it's going that way."

As messy as the offseason may be for the Clippers off the court, that muck needn't bleed into the team's day-to-day operations. And if it does, Doc's squad will be better equipped to handle it after dealing with the distractions through the most trying of playoff pressure cookers.

Assuming ownership of the team changes hands before too long, the Clippers have every reason to believe that this is just the beginning of a more prosperous era.

 

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