Are LA Clippers One Piece Away from True NBA Title Contention?

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Are LA Clippers One Piece Away from True NBA Title Contention?
USA TODAY Sports

Let's get something out of the way.

The Los Angeles Clippers, as currently constructed, are title contenders. 

The Clippers have the league's best point guard in Chris Paul, one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the league in Blake Griffin, a defensive anchor in DeAndre Jordan and tons of three-point shooting to surround them with.

This was the league's best offense in terms of efficiency last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and the Clips were a solid ninth in defensive efficiency in their first year under head coach Doc Rivers. With natural improvement, the Clippers have the makeup of a team that could absolutely win the title.

Are they the favorites to win their first-ever NBA championship, though?

Probably not.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

The road to the Finals is so much easier in the East, and so you'd put LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ahead of them for that reason. The San Antonio Spurs are the reigning champs and looked unreal last postseason, so they should be considered more of a favorite. The Oklahoma City Thunder ousted the Clippers in the playoffs in six games last year and lost nothing this offseason, so you can put them ahead as well.

Even with that said, the Clippers are certainly right there in the mix with all those teams, and given the nature of the league with injuries, that's exactly where you need to be.

Because the Clippers aren't the clear-cut favorite, however, there is room for improvement. The most obvious hole seems to be the small forward position, which is currently manned by Matt Barnes.

In a lot of ways, Barnes is a great fit for the Clippers. He's a garbage man who fights for loose balls, defends with effort and adds toughness. He's brilliant off the ball with his cuts, and he's at least a serviceable perimeter shooter.

At 34 years old, however, Barnes is already starting to lose some of the athleticism that makes him so useful. While he's a strong defender, it's not ideal to have him as your lone wing stopper, considering the limitations of both J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford at shooting guard.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

After the free-agency addition of Spencer Hawes to occupy the third big man role, it's easy to see what the next area of improvement should be. 

Here's Jeff Nisius of Bleacher Report:

Although the Clippers finally were able to address their need for a reserve big man, the small forward position remains a major concern. The team would absolutely benefit from an upgrade at the position, because if the team wants to advance out of the Western Conference they are going to need a long, athletic defender on the perimeter.

The problem is that the team has been unable to find that player in the draft or free agency. The hope last year was for [Reggie] Bullock to develop into a potential perimeter stopper. While that might still be the case, he is more of a guard-forward 'tweener' rather than a defensive stopper at small forward.

Rivers could very well make a trade but what assets will he need to part with in order to land an impact defender? Nearly as important; will said player be able to space the floor? Rivers has put an emphasis on spreading the floor. Either way, the team needs an upgrade at small forward and the sooner the better.

Again, the Clippers don't necessarily "need" one more piece to contend. Upgrading at small forward and moving Barnes to a bench role would certainly seem to improve the odds of winning it all, though, and that's not lost on Rivers.

Here's what Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this offseason: "It's no secret Rivers wants to upgrade his small forward position and that he has been trying to trade starting small forward Matt Barnes."

Trading Barnes would deprive the Clippers of their glue guy on the wing, which would be tough to do. Instead, finding a trade for Jared Dudley might make more sense. It would certainly be selling low after Dudley's poor first season with the Clippers, but the lack of athleticism and mobility he displayed last year isn't promising for the future.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

The hope is that Dudley will be fully healthy and in better condition for the upcoming season and that second-year player Reggie Bullock will be ready to step into a bigger role. A small forward by committee approach could work just fine.

Here's what Dudley told Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles last year about playing time: “We’re a team that’s deep. We’re a team that can go far and everyone’s just got be ready and wait for your opportunity.”

The same can be said about this year's team, and maybe a little roster competition will get Dudley going.

Of course, the Clippers might not need to be all that better at the 3 this upcoming season.

Remember, this was the league's best offense last season, and there's optimism that the defense will improve in year two under Rivers as well.

With Jordan in a contract year and hitting his prime, the Clippers may be able to take a production hit at small forward and be just fine thanks to his improvements.

Here's Zach Harper at CBSSports.com with more on Jordan's impact:

His athleticism wasn't just a highlight factory anymore; he was actually a deterrent at the rim and he got better as the season went along. The Clippers with Jordan on the court after the All-Star break protected the restricted area 4.7 percent better than they had with Jordan on the court prior to the break. Jordan was the leading rebounder in the NBA, had the second most blocks total, and the third highest blocks per game in the league.

Jordan isn't one of the best centers in the NBA across the board. He's not going to be someone you run a lot of post plays for and he's still a nightmare at the free throw line.

But nobody rebounded like him last season and he's turned himself into someone who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Things like that matter, especially in the development of someone who is such a deadly weapon in the pick-and-roll with a point guard like Chris Paul.

It stands to reason that the league's top offense needs to make defensive improvement its top priority. Barnes may not be a great shooter or offensive player, but he's a strong on-ball defender and rebounder. You can do much worse.

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And that's ultimately what Rivers and Clippers management has to decide. Is it worth whatever assets the Clippers would have to fork over in a trade (draft picks, young players like Bullock) in order to attempt to upgrade from Barnes defensively?

Unless there's a player who is clearly superior defensively and is available, the Clippers might be better off giving Bullock and Dudley chances alongside Barnes and hoping that the internal improvement elsewhere picks up any slack.

The Clippers may appear to be one piece away on paper, but there is plenty of room on championship teams for solid role players. So long as Barnes can stave off decline, Dudley can revert to the mean and Bullock can improve, the Clippers should have multiple options to employ at small forward. This is a team that can contend just the way they are.  

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