With a reportedly healthy team and the strongest supporting cast they’ve had under Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers are perhaps more equipped than ever to finally challenge the Golden State Warriors for both the Pacific Division and, more importantly, the Western Conference crown. The only problem, of course, is that the Warriors look better than ever as well.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without rehashing the obvious, Rivers and the rest of the front office hadn’t done a great job of surrounding their talented starting lineup with the right combination of players over these past few seasons. While titles clearly aren’t won over the summer and these Clippers have given us every reason to hold off any premature celebration, some praise is in order for the work the front office was able to do in recent months. They didn’t have a ton of cap space or flexibility, but they did a solid job of adding promising prospects like Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone, re-signing their own free agents and mixing in a few veteran additions who should be able to bolster their rotation.
Some may have expected the Clippers to seriously consider changes to the core with so many potential free agents next summer (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have early termination clauses and J.J. Redick will be unrestricted), but few can fault the organization for wanting at least one more attempt at getting over the hump given all the talent this roster features. It may, somewhat naturally, generate a “now or never” mentality among this team, but that sense of urgency shouldn’t have a negative impact on such a veteran group.
We’ll see if the combination of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alan Anderson (who should move over to the three) can finally be the answer at small forward since the team has been in search of an upgrade at that position for several seasons. Matt Barnes, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and others have tried to provide the balance they desire on the wing, but the Clippers still needed a multi-functional player (a floor-spacer, slasher and versatile defender) to help alleviate some of the wear-and-tear on the other starters. This coaching staff has done a much better job of monitoring the overall playing time of the roster, but the actual workload of guys like Paul, Griffin and even Redick is of more concern in the grand scheme of things. An 82-game regular season should provide plenty of opportunities to keep the main guys sharp while allowing the supporting cast to do a bit of the heavy lifting along the way, and these Clippers finally seem equipped to do just that.
Basketball Insiders previews the L.A. Clippers’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Clippers had a rough 2015-16 regular season as Blake Griffin suffered multiple injuries, one of which he brought upon himself in the well-documented incident involving a former team employee. Then, in the postseason, Griffin and Chris Paul both went down with injuries, which ultimately led to a first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. After swinging and missing on Kevin Durant in free agency, team president and head coach Doc Rivers decided to give this core another chance at winning it all and strengthened the supporting cast by bringing in veterans like Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson in addition to re-signing Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Luc Mbah a Moute. The team should be a top-level offensive team once again and solid defensively, but that may not be enough considering the already dominant Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant this offseason. You never know what can happen, and the Clippers have arguably as good a shot as anyone at upsetting Golden State, but the Warriors are and should be the heavy favorites in the Western Conference.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It seems unfathomable that the All-Star duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals. But after playoff collapses, various injuries and plenty of inconsistency, it is legitimate to wonder how much longer the team’s front office will allow this to go on without a major shake up. Two events from this past summer may help the Clippers’ road out West. The first being All-Star forward Kevin Durant’s free agency defection to Golden State, which lowered Oklahoma City’s ceiling in the short-term. The second was the retirement of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in San Antonio. These events present a window of opportunity for Los Angeles to take advantage of before younger cores such as Portland and Utah are truly ready to take the next step.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
If you thought the Oklahoma City Thunder had it bad last season, wait until Doc Rivers has to continuously answer questions related to the future of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul since both can be free agents next summer. Despite the fact that Rivers has already publicly stated that he believes he will retain them both, that won’t stop the tea leaves from being read, especially since the Clippers are returning pretty much the same core. In the NBA, teams have a shelf life, and if Paul and company aren’t able to do something significant this season, there may be some fallout. Notice that, to this point, I haven’t said anything about what will happen during the season? There’s good reason. Everyone knows that, in terms of talent, the Clippers are right up there with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. They are one of three teams out West that have a shot of winning the conference, so let’s not pretend otherwise. I don’t know if these guys will win the title, but I do know that they’re the second-best team in the Pacific Division and, so long as they stay healthy, no worse than third in the conference. Let’s also give Doc some credit for some sneaky good acquisition; Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson, Raymond Felton and Brandon Bass should be able to help these guys. So, as usual, I like the Clippers.
2nd Place — Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
It’s no secret that the Clippers are as loaded with talent as any team outside of the Bay Area, and they once again start a season with a roster stacked with studs. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all are elite at their positions, while the ageless Jamal Crawford still pours in points as the league’s three-time Sixth Man of the Year. Adding Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights and Ray Felton only serve as whipped cream on this sundae, and rookies Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone could drastically outplay their draft positions too. So yeah, the Clippers are talented and well-coached, but so far that hasn’t translated to much deep postseason success. Maybe this is the year they break through?
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
I believe there’s a significant drop off after the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference. That means the Clippers have a very good shot at being a top-three team in the West as long as they can stay healthy. The only problem is that the Warriors – the clear-cut favorite to win it all this season – play in their division and there’s a pretty big gap between them and every other team in the West (and the whole league, if we’re being honest). That’s what happens when you take a 73-win team and add Kevin Durant to the mix. But if things don’t work out in Golden State due to injuries, chemistry issues or some other unexpected setback, the Clippers will be right there to pounce and try to win a title before their window closes – mainly due to their stars approaching free agency, but also because the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going anywhere and the Warriors have to figure things out eventually, right? There’s definitely a sense of urgency in Los Angeles, for quite a few reasons.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
This is an opportunity for Griffin to have a bit of a redemption story following a disappointing 2015-16 season of personal issues and unfortunate injuries. Griffin remains one of the league’s most talented offensive big men and best power forwards (in general) heading into a potential summer of free agency. If ever there were a time to continue proving why the Clippers would be absolutely foolish to let him wind up on another roster next season, that time is now for Griffin. He reportedly took just one week away from training following a bone marrow procedure back in April, and we fully expect to see Griffin at his most dynamic and dominant once he’s back at full strength.
He’s a well-rounded scorer – vastly superior to the high-flying version that entered the NBA – and is also one of the better passing and playmaking big men currently in the league. Griffin has clearly put everything together in terms of his skills, although he could provide a more consistent effort on the defensive end. With that said, these Clippers need him to also accept the challenge of being a playmaker and more assertive scorer down the stretch of games. A player with his wide array of tools should absolutely be utilized more in key junctures of the game.
Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan
Jordan is still the team’s only true rim protector and he will continue to be called upon to patrol the paint for the Clippers. Last year, Jordan had the NBA’s third-highest Real Plus/Minus Rating, fifth-best defensive rating (96.9), second-best defensive rebounding percentage (32.7) and sixth-most blocks per 48 minutes (3.3). Jordan’s athleticism also allows him to be effective when defending the pick-and-roll or guarding a player from 15 feet and beyond. Jordan was put in that position 34.7 percent of the time in 2015-16 and while he wasn’t quite as impactful as when defending the paint (36.6 percent), that was still more effective than contemporaries like Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Clint Capela among others.
Top Playmaker: Chris Paul
You can go ahead and label this under the “Captain Obvious” section, but the responsibilities haven’t changed for one of the league’s best floor generals. Whether you currently place him at the head of the class or somewhere near it, Paul is still in his prime as a playmaker and will be leaned upon somewhat heavily once again. It wouldn’t hurt to ask others to help lighten the load in terms of actual on-court duties, but the 12th-year point guard (yes, it feels crazy to type that) is coming off his third consecutive season of averaging a double-double (19.5 points and 10 assists last year). That’s the sixth time he’s done that in his career, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin
Paul may have the ball in his hands and be in position to come through in clutch moments a bit easier than Griffin, but make no mistake that this team needs their playmaking power forward to also embrace this role. Per NBA.com’s Clutch Stats for ‘15-16 (determined by the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less on either side), Griffin was actually more effective than Paul. In fact, unless the situation called for a three-point attempt (in which case Paul was actually very strong, shooting 44 percent in those instances), Griffin was considerably better as he shot 52.6 percent from the floor and 92.3 percent from the line compared to Paul’s 46 percent from the field and 82.9 percent from the line.
Not only does the 6’10 Griffin have the ability to score on most of his counterparts, he also clearly has the ability to generate offense for his teammates. Realizing “clutchness” is generally something that we bestow upon the person that makes (or misses) the final shot, but there is absolutely something to making the timely pass or acting as the decoy so that someone else can score a key bucket in a big moment. Beyond Griffin’s ability to handle the ball and the fact that he generally makes wise decisions when asserting himself, asking less of Paul in crunch-time situations along the way – or, at least, providing more balance to ward off predictability in those instances – could lead to more production from the future Hall-of-Fame point guard when it counts the most.
The Unheralded Player: J.J. Redick
Redick’s contributions go beyond the obvious counting numbers and can sometimes go unnoticed since much of the focus is often directed to his star teammates. Redick obviously spaces the floor as a shooter from the perimeter (hitting 43.7 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per contest in 2015-16), but he is also highly effective coming off screens from inside the arc and plays the two-man game remarkably well whether paired with a fellow playmaking guard or one of their bigs. He also, while lacking the “lockdown defender” label other swingmen may have, has routinely done a positive job or at least made things difficult for Western Conference scoring threats like James Harden and Klay Thompson. It’s not said enough, but Redick is absolutely vital to the Clippers’ success.
Best New Addition: Marreese Speights
Speights may not have been one of the top players in Oakland, but his contributions were absolutely a part of what made the Warriors such a well-oiled machine over these last couple years. Adding a big man with such scoring versatility to this mix is key enough, but taking a contributor from a Pacific Division rival in the process is never a bad thing either. Alongside fellow veteran big man Brandon Bass, Speights adds a certain frontcourt flexibility the Clippers haven’t had (and have been desperately searching for) over the last few seasons. Not only can those guys can hit the mid-range jumper, Speights also shot 38.7 percent on his 62 three-point attempts last season and can generally be relied upon from the charity stripe (79.1 percent for his career). You obviously shouldn’t anticipate Speights usurping Jordan in the rotation in any way, but his experience and ability to space the floor could certainly come in handy in both short-clock and late-game offensive situations when Rivers might otherwise have concerns about using Jordan as a part of the action.
– Jabari Davis
WHO WE LIKE
1. Chris Paul
Contributing to a potential sense of urgency surrounding this team is the fact that Paul is 31 years old, dealt with injuries at the worst times over the last few years and is heading into what could conceivably be his final season with the Clippers. They have to find a way to limit his usage along the way, as the objective must be to remain as fresh as possible for April and May. Even if that means limiting some of his regular-season productivity, the Clippers would much prefer to enter the postseason with as close to their full bevy of stars as possible.
Regardless of how much others have developed and grown as players, Paul remains the straw that stirs the drink in L.A. It still appears that this team will only go as far as he leads them. That’s specifically why the added roster depth and flexibility should help this year. With a returning Austin Rivers and the addition of veteran point guard Raymond Felton this summer, this team has no excuse but to monitor Paul along the way.
2. The Shooters
Last season, the Clippers ranked eighth in the NBA with 9.4 three-point makes per contest and sixth overall in three-point percentage (36 percent). Outside of Jordan and Brandon Bass, just about everyone on the roster can conceivably spread the floor out to the three-point line, which creates even more potential matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
They may not ultimately shoot them with quite the frequency as the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers, but with Redick (47.5 percent from deep last year), Paul (37.1 percent), Crawford (34 percent), Speights (38.7 percent) all in the mix, the Clippers will likely rank somewhere near the top-five in most three-point categories once again in 2016-17. Don’t be shocked to see this roster flexibility and shooting around the perimeter lead to even more lobs and easier set-up opportunities for Jordan and Griffin due to cross-matches and defenses being on their collective heels against the Clippers.
3. DeAndre Jordan
Unlike some of the other bigs around the league, the shift in play hasn’t caused a negative impact on Jordan’s game. If anything, coupled with his continued dedication to improve, it has led us to appreciate his agility and athleticism that much more as the former 35th overall pick has developed into one of the game’s best defensive centers. After previous summers were filled with drama and worrying about his future, Jordan is now coming off a successful stint with Team USA as a member of the gold medal winning group. Whether it’s simply because of the maintained conditioning or from actual lessons learned while playing with Team USA, these Clippers need Jordan to be at his very best and most efficient on both sides of the court once again this season. We’ve seen Jordan put up huge numbers in games where he’s the sole post option, so it would be nice to see this group find a way for him to be even more effective when playing alongside Griffin as well.
4. Supporting Cast
A strong supporting cast has always been key to a team’s prolonged success and this unit needs consistent production throughout the season from guys like Crawford, Bass, Speights, Rivers and Felton if they are going to stand a chance to dethrone the back-to-back Western Conference champion Warriors. That doesn’t mean each of those guys need to be incredible on a nightly basis, but they’ll need to find the right combination of contributors with some consistency. For as much as this team has been woefully top-heavy (outside of three-time Sixth Man of the Year in Crawford, who must have felt like ‘a man alone’ on some nights) for the bulk of this group’s run, this is probably the deepest and most complete the roster has been.
Last year’s failed attempt to take a flyer on both Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith obviously didn’t work, but this year’s mix of free agent additions have far less of a “boom or bust” feel, as each have proven to be effective members of relatively successful rotations in the past. This team still needs to come together as a unit, but if the top nine or 10 guys can stay relatively healthy or find a way to balance things out when rest or time away is warranted, then it really could be a special rotation.
– Jabari Davis
SALARY CAP 101
The Clippers were one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. Instead, they used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Wesley Johnson and $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception on Luc Mbah a Moute. Either move triggered a hard cap for the team at $117.3 million. The Clippers also re-signed Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, while adding veterans like Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Marreese Speights on minimum contracts. Now with 15 guaranteed contracts, the Clippers are at $114.7 million in payroll.
Next summer is a crucial time for the Clippers, as both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can opt out of their contracts. So too can Johnson and Mbah a Moute, while Paul Pierce’s $3.7 million is only $1.1 million guaranteed. The Clippers could get to almost $30 million in spending power, under a $102 million cap projection, but that’s without their two All-Stars. While J.J. Redick, Paul and Blake are eligible to have their contracts restructured and extended, the Clippers do not have the necessary cap room. Providing they make the playoffs this season, the Clippers will send their 2017 first-round pick to the Toronto Raptors.
– Eric Pincus
Even though their high-powered offense and potential rotation depth will likely be their greatest strengths this year, it should be noted that the Clippers were an above-average defensive unit last season. They held the NBA’s fifth-best scoring margin (+4.1), while ranking 10th in team blocks and ninth in team steals. Offensively, their bigs are versatile enough to attack on the break or in secondary transition, in or around the post and above the rim. Their guards and swingmen can get into the teeth of the defense with either the two-man game or penetration and can obviously do damage from the perimeter. They may not be the perfect mix, but they have enough star power at just about every position and facet. Although no one within the locker room will want to focus on the uncertain future of this core group (or be singularly motivated by it), the reality of that situation can intrinsically cause a “now or never” mindset.
– Jabari Davis
Defending the rim when Jordan isn’t on the court will always remain a concern, but the main issue with this team in 2015-16 was the fact that they simply didn’t rebound very well. They were missing Griffin for a good portion of the year, but that doesn’t excuse being 28th overall in total offensive rebounding and 16th overall in total defensive rebounding. Griffin hasn’t been a rebounding terror since his first couple years in the league, but if he can pay even slightly more attention to that aspect of his game while the rest of the group dedicates to team rebounding, it could make a significant difference this season. They were surprisingly mediocre (26th overall) in fast-break efficiency last year, which likely means they settled for more outside shots than you would anticipate from a team with big men that can finish at the rim so well. With Griffin back and moving forward, that’s another area they could improve upon.
– Jabari Davis
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Clippers compete at a high level while keeping everyone healthy for a playoff run?
The biggest question with this group is the same one they’ve faced over the past four or five seasons. Their 2016 playoff run was limited by injuries to Griffin (quad) and Paul (hand), 2015 featured Paul’s hamstring issues, and 2014 was marred by a total team collapse versus the Rockets that was also accompanied by issues with Paul’s hamstring and thumb. These aren’t necessarily excuses for this group, as injuries are always going to be the great equalizer when it comes to professional sports, but it is clear the team needed to at least consider limiting their exposure at times.
Austin Rivers and Ray Felton might not be the guys that you expect to lead a team to a title, but they can absolutely help balance things out and even be called upon for spot duty (combined) in the event the staff wants to rest Paul – utilizing an approach made popular by the rival San Antonio Spurs. Speights and Bass might not cause you to go running to the jeweler to size up the rings, but they’ve both been around the game for awhile and can also provide coverage (beyond alleviation throughout) in the event the staff wants to also do the same with the big men. They have all the depth and talent you could ask for and while championships simply aren’t won on paper – especially when you have a juggernaut within your division – this really could be the best chance the Clippers are going to have with this current core group.
– Jabari Davis
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