Nineteen wins in 2008-09. Playoffs in 2009-10.
It's a bold prediction, especially for the Los Angeles Clippers. But if they're ever going to shrug off twenty-five years of Clipperdom and enter the exclusive world of NBA relevance, now is the best chance they've had in a while.
Why They're In
The Clippers had a talented roster last year, yet still nothing came of it. They've got even more talent this year, and there are three reasons they'll make the playoffs: Blake Griffin, Baron Davis will get his act together, and they can't possibly have as bad injury problems as last year.
The first reason is the most obvious: Blake Griffin has the potential to make a huge difference for this team. He replaces offensive machine Zach Randolph in the starting lineup, but Griffin has an arsenal of intangibles that should nicely complement his transcendent physical skills, dedication to crashing the boards, and ability to finish at the rim.
While Randolph had on and off-court issues, Griffin has all the makings of a character player. His presence in the locker room, and the attention that surrounds it, should give his teammates the confidence to defy the Clipper uniforms they wear and play quality basketball.
Last year was a breakout season for Eric Gordon at the 2 spot, and the combination of Griffin and Gordon provides a strong, dynamic core. They played well together in summer league, and could be this team's foundation for years to come.
These changes in the lineup and in the locker room should keep Baron Davis honest. As the quarterback of a struggling team last year, it became clear that by season's end he was licking the envelope on each game and dropping it at the nearest post office. His scoring average last year (14.9 points per game) was his lowest since his sophomore season in Charlotte nine years ago (13.8 PPG).
With Griffin stealing the spotlight, however, Davis again has the motivation to play elite basketball and become the Clippers' rock star again.
Finally, the Clips were ransacked by injuries last year. Chris Kaman only played in 31 games, and Zach Randolph only played in 39. Assuming they can keep their starters on the floor, they should put up some W's.
They have better depth this year, as well, and that should make a big difference. Sebastian Telfair provides a solid backup at the point as well—while he may not have lived up to the hype surrounding him when he was drafted, Telfair should be productive off the bench.
Craig Smith averaged just over ten points per game last year for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and should put some pressure on Griffin to produce. Second-year center DeAndre Jordan is progressing nicely as well.
So Who's Out?
Obviously if the Clippers make the playoffs, it squeezes out one team that made the postseason last year. If all of last year's playoff teams maintain their level of play, it will be nearly impossible for the Clippers to climb high enough to grab the eight seed.
So who's going to falter? It looks like either Houston, New Orleans, or Utah.
Houston is probably the best bet, being down two stars already by losing Ron Artest to free agency and Yao Ming to foot surgery. While they played well against the Lakers despite Ming and Tracy McGrady being out, we're not talking about winning just a few games—this is a question of having enough firepower to win 45+ games during the regular season.
Can T-Mac make that happen all by himself? Not likely.
New Orleans is a borderline pick, for sure. Despite all the trade talk it looks like they'll be bringing their core back in Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic.
But the Hornets have been missing an x-factor, some intangible piece that would turn this collection of talent into the top-tier team everyone expects them to be. Their meltdown in the playoffs was perhaps only a symptom, and if the cancer worsens next year they could fall to .500 and out of the postseason.
Utah controls its own destiny right now, with Carlos Boozer on the trade block. Bringing him back isn't crucial to the team's success, as they have the able Paul Millsap to fill his spot, but they must make sure to get good talent in return.
If they succeed, they can be back in the playoffs next year. If they don't, they'll slip a few games—they were the West's eight seed this year, but were only two games ahead of Phoenix for the last spot—and drop off the playoff radar.
And It's Only the Beginning
Led by Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, this is a team that is built to last. If they can live up to this potential and make the playoffs this year, pencil them in for the next several years.
This for a team that's never been able to do that. They've made the playoffs only four times in their 25-year tenure in Los Angeles, and only made the postseason in consecutive years once.
But never before have they had these tools. Mike Dunleavy has taken the Clippers to the playoffs before, and this may be his big shot to do it again.
And the Lakers won't be the only playoffs show in town anymore.