Los Angeles Clippers: 6 Steps the Team Must Take to Be Playoff Bound in 2012

Ehran Khan@@ekhansworldContributor IIIAugust 17, 2011

Los Angeles Clippers: 6 Steps the Team Must Take to Be Playoff Bound in 2012

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are coming off an up and down season that saw them finish with a rather misleading overall record of 32-50.

    At first blush, it seemed like a typical Clips campaign. They lost 50 games for the 19th time in their 27 seasons in L.A., good for a 13th place finish in the Western Conference and a hopeless 14 games out of the playoffs.

    Upon closer inspection though, the Clippers are nearer to a postseason berth than you might think. After getting off to a horrendous 5-21 start, the young Clips finally seemed to jell and righted the ship, going an impressive 14-7 over the next six weeks.

    Their final undoing came at the hands of a murderous February schedule. They played 12 of their 14 February contests on the road, enduring a grueling 11-game road trip along the way. The two games they hosted did not provide much respite either, as they came against the Bulls and the Celtics.

    Oh, and to top it all off, they played that stretch without their leading scorer at the time and second-best player, Eric Gordon. 

    Despite a 2-12 February sending them toward yet another losing season, this young Clippers squad did not tank the rest of the season away. They soldiered on gallantly, finishing out the rest of their schedule with a respectable11-10 record.

    Tack on injuries and youth to that unfavorable stretch of schedule, and you have a recipe for a record that looks worse than it actually is. Fourteen times the Clippers trotted out three rookies in their starting lineup, and in 13 games they started five guys who could all still have been in college.

    Their two veteran leaders, Baron Davis and Chris Kaman missed 65 out of 140 possible games and started only 50 times combined. Eric Gordon missed 26 games right when the team had gotten on a roll. That's 91 games missed for three of the top four guys on the team.

    With all the obstacles thrown at the Clippers last year, 32 wins (their most in four seasons) could be considered an achievement. This exciting young squad is poised to take the leap to the next level.

    Here are six steps the team must take before it can realize its playoff aspirations.

1. Cut Down on Turnovers

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    It's quite simple. The Clippers simply did not take care of the basketball last season.

    They finished 29th in the NBA in turnovers, handing it over to their opposition more than 16 times per game. And in terms of turnover percentage, they were tied with Minnesota for dead last in the league, coughing up the ball on a whopping 26.2 percent of their total possessions.

    The Clippers had five players on their roster ranking among the 40 most turnover prone in the league on a per-game basis. Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe, the two players slated to handle the point guard duties for the Clippers this upcoming season, were both in the bottom seven of the NBA in terms of turnovers per 48 minutes.

    If the team can cut back on their turnovers, even to the middle of the NBA pack, they can gain 2.5 possessions per game, which would have netted them an additional 2.6 points per game at their scoring rate last year.

    When you take into account the extra points the Clippers' opponents scored off of their mistakes and the fact that they were outscored on average by 3.2 points per game, you really start to see what a difference turnovers made for the Clips last season. 

2. Improve Perimeter Game on Both Sides of the Ball

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    Between the athleticism of their big men (Both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were in the top five in the NBA in dunks last season) and the dribble penetration skills of their guards, the Clippers did some serious damage around the rim on offense.

    That led to teams packing the paint against them, forcing them into more long range shots, a glaring weakness in the Clippers' offensive attack.

    The Clips ranked next to last in the league on long two-point jumpers (shots taken between 16 and 23 feet from the rim).

    Chief among the reasons for the Clippers' shoddy performance from the perimeter was Baron Davis. Davis hit less than a third of his long twos and stubbornly chucked up 3.5 three-pointers a game, despite connecting on less than 30 percent of them.

    Blake Griffin also had difficulty when forced to shoot from the outside. Opponents laid off of him in an attempt to entice Blake into taking long two-point jumpers. Griffin acquiesced more than three times a game, hitting less than a third of his long twos.

    The Clippers' success from beyond the three-point line was not much better, as they were just 25th in the league at shooting triples. Only one player on the team, Brian Cook, shot better than 40 percent from downtown, and that was on a scant 80 attempts. 

    The Clippers' rookies should be expected improve their outside shooting over the offseason. Trading Davis for long-range gunner Mo Williams (career 39 percent three-point shooter) should boost percentages as well.

    And don't forget Eric Gordon, whose normally excellent outside shooting was derailed last year by a prolonged slump to begin the season and a severe wrist injury down the stretch.

    On the other side of the ball, the Clippers have to do a better job of defending the three-point shot. They were 25th in the NBA in three-point field goals allowed and 20th in opposing three-point percentage. 

    Gordon will be at a perpetual disadvantage in challenging shots due to his height, but if he keeps on hounding opposing guards, they will never be comfortable going up for a shot.

    An increased role for Aminu and his impressive length will help to close-out on shooters, and if Williams shows a bit more interest on defense than the man he replaced, the Clippers will be better at defending the three in 2012.

3. Control the Free-Throw Line

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    The Clippers did a great job getting to the free-throw line last season. Blake Griffin's athletic supremacy in the paint and Eric Gordon's bullish strength on his forays to the rim fueled the Clippers to the fourth most free-throw attempts in the league.

    What they did when they got there was another story. 

    The Clips finished 29th in the NBA in free throw percentage, nearly three whole percentage points behind the next best team. Only Orlando, dragged under by Dwight Howard, was worse from the charity stripe. You gotta make the freebies. 

    In particular, Blake Griffin needs to improve on his 64 percent free-throw shooting, especially since he gets to the line nearly nine times a game. And for all of DeAndre Jordan's assets, his 45 percent free-throw percentage makes even Howard look like Dirk Nowitzki by comparison.

    While the Clippers were near tops in the league at getting to the line, they failed to hold an advantage over their opponents at the stripe. Only five NBA teams put their opponents on the free-throw line more frequently than the Clippers, and the difference in free-throw percentage meant that L.A.'s opponents hit 1.5 more free throws per game.

    Improving from the foul line while showing more discipline on defense will go a long ways toward winning games for the Clippers. 

4. Improve Offensive Efficiency

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    Despite being one of just three teams to boast a pair of 22 point-per-game scorers, the Clippers were just 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency. 

    Their gaudy turnover numbers significantly decreased their number of possessions, and their woeful shooting from the perimeter as well as the free throw line limited their scoring too.

    However, all the pieces are in place for this team to become an offensive juggernaut.

    The Clippers get to the line at a high clip and shoot a lot of three-pointers, making them candidates to be darlings of the offensive efficiency metric. All they need to do is perform at a higher level.

    Young guys putting in hours at the gym will lead to higher success rates from the charity stripe and beyond the three-point line. The Clips already have two gifted scorers, and adding Mo Williams and a healthy Chris Kaman to the mix equates to four starters with a penchant for putting the ball in the basket.

    Experience and cohesion, two things the Clips lacked in 2011, will inevitably lead to fewer turnovers, more possessions and a higher offensive output in 2012. Don't expect a D'Antoni-like spike in scoring, but don't be surprised at how easily the Clippers put points up on the board this season.

5. Become Road Warriors

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    You can't expect a playoff berth without proving yourself away from home. Last season the league's top 12 road records were owned by playoff teams. All 16 teams who qualified for the postseason were in the top 19 in winning away from their own building. 

    Road success can be a predictor of postseason success as well. At least, that was the case in 2011, where the teams with the two top road records, Dallas and Miami, squared off in the NBA Finals.

    The Clippers could be found, predictably, at the other end of the spectrum. They boasted a fine 23-18 record at home, but only five teams in the league won less than nine times on the road, the total the Clips reached a season ago.

    A young team is expected to fall into chaos away from home, and the NBA schedule-makers saddling the Clippers with a brutal 11-game road trip last February did not help matters.

    As the youth on this squad matures, they will perform better away from the friendly confines of Staples Center. Even improving to 15 road victories may be enough for the Clippers to sneak into the playoffs as an 8-seed.

6. Upgrade the Small Forward Spot

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    The weak link in the Clippers lineup is at the small forward position. The Clippers have three former All-Stars and another soon-to-be All-Star taking care of the other positions.

    Last year was a pretty lame one for Clipper small forwards. Nobody who manned the 3-spot managed to post even a double-digit PER (a PER of 15.0 designates a league-average player). That tells you that the Clips were basically playing four-on-five out there most of the time. 

    Most are hoping improvement comes from within. The Clippers selected Al-Farouq Aminu with the eighth overall selection of the 2010 draft, hoping to groom the "tweener" forward into a solid 3.

    To that end, Aminu did finish with the highest PER (9.6) of the four players who primarily played small forward for the Clippers last year. A significant step forward is expected from Aminu as he embarks upon his second NBA campaign, and if he is up to the task, the Clippers need look no further to cure their small forward ailment.

    The drawback, however, is that Aminu may not be ready to contribute significantly at the small forward position in 2012. In fact, he may never grow into that role.

    Aminu's length and rebounding prowess made him more suitable to playing power forward in college, and many fear he will never develop the requisite perimeter shooting and ballhandling skills to excel as a small forward in the NBA.

    If that scenario is the one that indeed plays out, Clippers management may need to act quickly in order to "win now" if they deem the squad ready to make the jump to contender status.

    Signing a veteran small forward with some grit, toughness and playoff experience would help the team's cause, and bring some more stability and leadership into the locker room. Free agent swingmen Tayshaun Prince, Grant Hill, Caron Butler or Shane Battier would fit the bill nicely in that role.

    The Clippers also have the assets necessary to swing a big trade. They have a couple recent first-round draft picks they can part with in the aforementioned Aminu as well as Eric Bledsoe (18th overall pick in 2010).

    In addition, they can move a couple expiring contracts in Chris Kaman and Randy Foye. Plus, they can sweeten any deal with one of the best assets available on the market, Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft choice.

    With some significant pieces, the Clippers can easily put together a package for a borderline star like Andre Iguodala from the Sixers or either Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler if Denver is peddling one or the other.

    Any way you slice it, the small forward position must be upgraded if the Clippers want to make a serious run at and through the playoffs.