The Los Angeles Clippers will head into next season as a championship contender and one of the NBA’s most complete teams. But they’re far from perfect, with blemishes that could prevent them from winning it all next spring.
Here’s a look at where the Clippers may have a few weak links and what may hold them back from getting over the hump and hoisting a championship trophy in 2014-15.
What works well?
Before analyzing the key aspects that are wrong with the Clippers, it’s first a good idea to highlight all that they do so well. The team is overflowing with talent, but three people stand out as integral pieces above the rest, beginning with two of the world’s 10 best players: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
At 29 years old and entering his 10th season, Paul is inarguably the best point guard on the planet. His name deserves mention beside some of the best at that position in basketball history, too. Having him run Los Angeles’ offense is a blessing, and the team finished with the league’s best offense last season.
He crushes pick-and-rolls with a sublime ability to read the defense, always make the correct decision and punishes any mistakes made by the other team. If he’s left open for a mid-range jumper, chances are it’s going in. If he has a lane to the basket, he’s bowling into the paint and either drawing a help defender, getting to the free-throw line or finishing at the rim.
Paul's tenacity is unparalleled, and when he’s aggressively looking to score by himself as opposed to getting teammates involved (nobody gets his guys going like Paul), the Clippers are an unsolvable puzzle.
Pay too much attention to Paul, though, and feel the wrath of Griffin, a still-improving power forward who plays basketball like an ox who's mastered classical ballet. Griffin is bruising and nimble, can handle the ball, pass, rebound and create his own shot at will. For opponents, it’s tougher to imagine a more frightening nightmare beside Paul than Griffin.
At the helm of it all is head coach Doc Rivers, who’s one of the five best coaches in the NBA. Those three make a devastating trio, and putting almost any components around them will result in a dangerous basketball team.
The Clippers have talented pieces at several positions (DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford), but they also have a few weaknesses related to their lack of depth. Two areas in question stand out the most.
Size does matter
First, the Clippers don’t have a backup center to spell Jordan when the franchise big man is either in foul trouble or simply needs to rest. It’s been a problem for years, and instead of addressing it this summer, Rivers used his non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes, a seven-footer who can shoot threes and help spread the floor for Griffin and Jordan. But he is a subpar defender who can’t protect the rim or anchor a secondary unit.
The Clippers already killed teams on offense last season. In the clutch (the last five minutes of a game where the scoring difference is five points or less), they averaged 117.8 points per 100 possessions, an absurd figure only bested by the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers. On defense (still in the clutch), they were slightly below league average, smack dab between the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers at 16th overall.
Another shot-blocking big would help, and, ironically enough, the Clippers sort of obtained one when they traded Jared Dudley to the Milwaukee Bucks for seven-footer Miroslav Raduljica and Carlos Delfino, but both players were waived. There’s still the possibility of grabbing Emeka Okafor, Ekpe Udoh or even Greg Oden (though recent off-court troubles may signal the end of his career), but all that’s in place right now is Glen Davis, an “undersized” power forward.
Los Angeles needs another large body who can crash the glass. He’ll be supremely useful in the playoffs.
Too much of an average thing
Another spot of weakness is actually a place where the Clippers have too many overlapping pieces: on the wing. Between Crawford, Redick, Matt Barnes, Reggie Bullock and rookie C.J. Wilcox, Los Angeles has no strong individual defenders—apart from the aging Barnes, but he’s 34 years old and can’t really stretch the floor like those other options.
During last year’s postseason, the Clippers averaged 18.7 drives per game (defined by SportVU as “any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks”), which was last among all playoff teams. Apart from Paul and sometimes Darren Collison, they had nobody on the perimeter who could make plays off the dribble and break the defense down.
Crawford is a fantastic ball-handler who can still get his own shot whenever he wants, but having him launch contested threes and difficult jumpers off the dribble while everyone else stands around isn’t an efficient plan of attack.
It’s difficult to criticize a draft pick that comes so late in the first round, but Rivers’ decision to take Wilcox was questionable. He duplicates what’s already in place (three-point shooting) without adding any potent athleticism. Making matters worse, he turns 24 years old in December. Bullock didn’t play much in his rookie season last year, and it feels inevitable that one of the two gets traded sooner rather than later.
Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Ray Allen are all possible signings in the coming weeks, but only Douglas-Roberts comes close to having a chance at addressing this problem. Here's Yahoo NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski on the likelihood Turkoglu comes aboard:
Once a tremendously versatile and productive offensive player, Turkoglu's talent has declined significantly but he remains a serviceable veteran in limited minutes.
No basketball team is perfect, but when ending your season with anything less than a championship reads as a major disappointment, minor weaknesses become significant and dark. The Clippers are a very good basketball team, and they’ll most likely once again have a top-three offense and a defense that’s better than league average.
But they don’t quite have enough depth in the frontcourt, or enough varying skill on the wing. Additions can be made, and the Clippers still have two open roster spots to offer veteran minimum-level contracts. But from where they sit now, what did them in last season could be problems once again.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.