There was once a time when the Los Angeles Clippers would have settled for a second-round exit in the playoffs. But that's not enough anymore. The franchise has title aspirations, and with the 2014-15 NBA regular-season schedule unveiled, they'll start planning their path to the Finals.
The Clippers have had a somewhat muted offseason, with C.J. Wilcox, Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes their biggest additions. Those three players aren't landscape-changing stars, but they should help the Clips improve.
There's a lot to like about Los Angeles. Blake Griffin is almost unrecognizable from his rookie self—in a good way. J.J. Redick was a solid addition last offseason who helped spread the floor. Chris Paul remains the best point guard on the planet. Head coach Doc Rivers is one of the best in the business.
Realistically, only so much could be done this summer, given the team's financial constraints and current personnel.
Magic Johnson hasn't started doubting Los Angeles and listed the Clippers as the third-best team in the Western Conference:
In the West the Top 4 teams are: 1. Spurs 2. Thunder 3. Clippers and I can’t decide who should be #4 between the Rockets & Trailblazers.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) July 14, 2014
Almost everybody can agree that the Clippers are at worst a top-four team in the West right now.
The conference semifinals have proven to be the franchise's biggest hurdle, having never advanced past that stage in any of its 10 postseason appearances.
Overcoming that obstacle can't be done in the regular season, but the first 82 games of the year will set the tone for how LA's playoffs will unfold.
You can view the full schedule on NBA.com.
Championship Odds: 12-1
According to Vegas Insider, the Clippers are one of the top teams in the West and a serious threat to win an NBA title. They're listed at 12-1 odds, which are only worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers (16-5), San Antonio Spurs (4-1), Oklahoma City Thunder (6-1) and Chicago Bulls (10-1).
In terms of winning the conference, Los Angeles is listed at 5-1, behind the Spurs (13-5) and Thunder (16-5).
Note: Odds are up to date as of Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 5:13 p.m. ET.
Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs
When: Dec. 22, 2014 and Jan. 31, 2015
The Spurs sit atop the throne, and if the Clippers want to get there, they'll have to usurp the king.
San Antonio is getting older, but it demonstrated last year that age has yet to become a major issue. Having brought most of its team back, the Spurs are more than capable of repeating, and at the very least, they remain equipped to earn a top-four seed.
Rivers has some experience defending an NBA title, having won one with the Boston Celtics in 2008. He said the Spurs' continuity will be their biggest strength as they try to go back to back, per Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:
The mistake we made, if we made a mistake, we didn't bring back the same team. You think about Miami, the first two years they won it; they bought back the same team. When you think about (this past season), Mike Miller wasn’t there; they made changes. The Spurs rarely take away. They keep adding. [...]
If I can get in that situation again, that would be something I've learned. You win it, don't change that team. Keep that team and then add to it.
Last year, San Antonio won the season series, 2-1, largely off the back of its scorching offense. The Spurs shot a combined 131-for-254 (.516).
The Clippers were an above-average defensive team last year, posting the ninth-best defensive rating (104.8) in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com. However, that strength was sorely lacking against San Antonio. And until it improves, Los Angeles might be stuck looking at another early exit.
Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors
When: Nov. 5, 2014 and March 8, 2015
The Clippers' toughest competition in the Pacific Division will almost certainly be the Golden State Warriors. The Phoenix Suns had a great year in 2013-14, but they still don't look to have the pieces necessary to get a top-four seed.
Los Angeles will want to finish first in the division, otherwise it will be fighting either the Spurs, Trail Blazers, Rockets and maybe the Memphis Grizzlies for the open spot in the top four. And that's not a fight anybody wants to get into.
Over the last two seasons, the Clippers and Warriors have been extremely close in terms of head-to-head record. Golden State has won the regular-season series, 5-3, but Los Angeles won last year's first-round postseason matchup in seven games.
The Warriors are still very young and only getting better. Stephen Curry is 26 while Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 24. Maybe Harrison Barnes puts it together after his disappointing sophomore season.
It's difficult to ascribe much importance in a division race to two regular-season games, but the Clippers' performance on the road against the Warriors may go a long way toward maintaining that cushion they enjoy in the Pacific.
Since really turning the corner as a franchise, the Clippers have won 56 and 57 regular-season games, respectively. Los Angeles hasn't gotten any worse, so anywhere between 55-60 games is a realistic projection.
However, overtaking either the Thunder or Spurs might be tough to do. OKC remains one of the best teams in the West while San Antonio is the champion until someone knocks it off.
The Clippers will likely slot into the third seed, meaning another 50-plus-win season is in store. Expect improvement in the regular season but only incremental steps. This team's real test will be in the postseason.