What's Keeping Title from Los Angeles Clippers' Grasp?

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What's Keeping Title from Los Angeles Clippers' Grasp?
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New Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has always been the ambitious type, and his foray into professional basketball promises to be no different.

According to the Los Angeles Times' Everett Cook, he was recently asked by a long-time ticket holder how the next 26 seasons would differ from the last 26.

"I’ll boldly say that the Clippers will win many, many, many, many more Larrys in the next 26 than in the last 26!" Ballmer replied, referencing the Larry O'Brien Trophy awarded to NBA champions.

After describing his $2 billion purchase to reporters as, "an L.A. beachfront price," it reasons that the former Microsoft CEO is expecting big things. And with two All-Stars and a title-winning head coach leading the way, the optimism is well-founded.

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If anything, it's a bit surprising these Clippers haven't done even better since point guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin joined forces.

Since Paul joined the team for the 2011-12 campaign, Los Angeles has twice advanced to the conference semifinals—losing to the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 and to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. In 2013, the Memphis Grizzlies ousted the Clippers in a six-game opening-round series.

After having gone five seasons without a playoff appearance, the CP3 era has been a relative success.

The question is whether it's underachieved.

This is a club that has a way of eliciting optimism.

On the brink of last season's playoffs, Sheridan Hoops' Chris Sheridan wrote, "The Clippers have their weak points, but their offense can be spectacular. If it holds, the Clippers should start dusting off a shelf for their 2014 NBA championship trophy."

Instead, the franchise battled the Donald Sterling sideshow, even as it somehow managed to survive a seven-game, first-round marathon against the Golden State Warriors

The Thunder that followed were a battle-tested operation with two All-Stars of their own. While the Clippers were a deeper team in theory, Griffin and Paul were no match for their star counterparts.

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After a season in which he finished third in MVP voting, Griffin was solid against OKC—averaging 23.8 points and even exploding for 34 points in a Game 3 loss. But the man who finished first in that MVP voting was transcendent, averaging 33.2 points and 9.5 rebounds against the Clippers.

A similar story unfolded at point guard.

Paul's 22.5 points and 11.8 assists per game in the series were impressive. But the longer, hyper-athletic Westbrook responded with 27.8 points and 8.8 assists of his own. The matchup arguably resulted in a draw, but it was a draw the Clippers could ill-afford.

They needed someone to outplay his OKC rival, to control the game on both ends of the floor. 

That didn't happen.

This is a solid roster, but it doesn't have the defensive pedigree to outlast especially potent opposition. 

As CBSSports.com's Matt Moore wrote of last season's rotation, "They had a bevy of wing shooters but few who can create or defend, and they were perilously short on frontcourt defense."

Absent an arsenal of two-way role players, Los Angeles needs virtually flawless performances from its big names—which increasingly includes center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged just 6.7 points in those conference semifinals.

One historically bothersome factor has been health—not catastrophically damning injuries, but the kind of nagging wear and tear that have limited Paul and Griffin. Griffin battled a debilitating ankle injury in 2013 and a knee injury the year before that. Paul dealt with a groin strain in 2012 and hamstring issues last season.

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Though it's difficult to find a direct culprit for that kind of misfortune, it wouldn't be surprising for Rivers to watch minutes a bit more closely this season.

Even with the capable likes of Darren Collison around to spell Paul last season, the 29-year-old still played 35 minutes per game—up from the 33.4 minutes he averaged in 2012-13. For his part, Griffin played 35.8 minutes per contest a season ago, well above the 32.5 minutes he averaged the season before that.

The reigning champion Spurs remained fresh in 2014 on account of a radically egalitarian distribution of minutes. No one on San Antonio's roster played 30 or more minutes per game. Point guard Tony Parker led the way averaging just 29.4 minutes.

On paper, the Clippers have enough depth to approach that kind of equilibrium—especially with the acquisition of big man Spencer Hawes bolstering Rivers' interior rotation.

Beyond the management of playing time, the other consideration for Griffin is his playing style. Exploding to the basket with gravity-defying liftoff makes for brilliant highlights, but it also increases the risk that the 25-year-old will land awkwardly or otherwise succumb to injury-inducing collision. 

Harry How/Getty Images

A still-developing mid-range game could afford Griffin the luxury of adopting slightly more conservative tactics.

There's no science to categorically avoiding injury, but the Clippers need every advantage they can get.

This is a team that needs its superstars at full strength at season's end. It also needs to find its rhythm at the right time. The margin for error in a top-heavy Western Conference is slim.

It probably doesn't seem fair for Griffin and Paul to shoulder all the responsibility, not when pivotal contributors like Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick were equally responsible for last season's shortcomings. 

But there's nothing fair about the demands of a championship season. The Clippers were built to rely on two larger-than-life superstars, and Ballmer's high hopes ultimately rest with them. 

They'll have to stay healthy, and at times they'll have to outplay MVPs.

Those "Larrys" won't settle for anything less.

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