Sep 13, 2011, 2:54 PM EDT
This is the latest installment of our “when the lockout ends” series. To see the other teams we have done, follow this link. Don’t worry, we’ll get to your team soon enough.
Last season in Los Angeles: The Clippers became what Brazil is to international soccer — everyone’s second favorite team. Blake Griffin changed the energy around the franchise and this young, athletic team became one of the most fun to watch in the league. People on the East Coast stayed up to see who Griffin would dunk on next. For once, everyone wanted to see the Clippers. However, they still were not all that good (32-50, missing the playoffs), in large part due to a dreadful start of the season. They were just three games better than the season before.
Since we last saw the Clippers: The Clippers traded away their first round draft pick this year to Cleveland to take Baron Davis off their hands… that pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall. Ouch, but frankly that was still a good trade (Mo Williams is a much better fit). The Clippers did draft Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie out of Georgia, but they are not immediate impact guys. Aside that, the Clippers didn’t make any major moves, but they may once the lockout ends — there were a lot of Clippers trade rumors around the draft and you can expect them to be active once the lockout is lifted.
When the lockout ends, the Clippers need to… get a small forward and learn to play better defense (I’m looking at you, Griffin). And the second part of that matters a lot more than the first.
With Griffin, the Clippers finally have a true franchise player. A guy they can build around. Put him on the front line with DeAndre Jordan and you have the most athletic big man combo in the NBA. It’s a dunk-a-palooza.
But if the Clippers are going to make the playoffs those guys have to anchor the defense in the paint much better. Last season the Clippers were 18th in the NBA 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Sit close to the floor and you noticed the Clippers were quiet — poor communication on defense — and they tended to over-help, exposing new openings that teams exploited.
Griffin was the prime example — he was a solid individual defender (opponents shot just 30 percent when isolated against him) but his help defense was at times terrible. A lot of times. He would overcommit, while at other times he seemed listless and just waiting to get back on offense.
Griffin looked to me like a guy trying to stay out of foul trouble, he was a guy who let the opposing offense set the tone (and get positions they wanted) then reacted to it. He struggled to pick the right angles on defense. That has to change. Griffin clearly has the physical tools to be disruptive on defense, and as the season wore on we started to see more of that — but he has to make a leap this season and bring his teammates with him.
It’s really a team defensive issue for the Clippers — they need someone who can be a better perimeter defender and lock guys down, then be more mature in their help decisions. Particularly Jordan, who needs to be the rim protector on this team (he also over-helped). It’s part of being a young team, but this more than anything is what will help the Clippers make the leap next season.
With that they need one more perimeter player, too — a small forward. Mo Williams is a much better fit at the point for the Clippers than Baron Davis, he’s a calming and steady influence. Eric Gordon is positioned for a breakout year as a two guard (one who has the ball in his hands a lot), especially if he can learn to finish better in the lane. We have no doubt that Griffin, Jordan and Chris Kaman form a formidable front line.
But the Clippers need a three. Al-Farouq Aminu showed some promise as a rookie, but he is not what the Clippers need now and he is not the defensive presence and shooter they crave to make this all work.
The Clippers have assets to trade — Chris Kaman, Minnesota’s unprotected first round pick next year — and cap room. Andre Iguodala’s name came up and while no deal was worked out, you know that is still on the back burner. When other teams see the new salary cap there may be threes out there teams need to shed. There also are good free agent options the Clippers can consider such as Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier and Caron Butler — none of those are long-term answers with a young team but would provide veteran leadership and a few years of quality play. And defense. To me, Butler seems a great get if his knee is back after last season, and he would be affordable.
Bottom line, the Clippers should be a playoff team in the West next season. That has to be the goal. No doubt a full season of Mo Williams helps, and we expect big things from Griffin and Gordon. Under the current front office you can bet one way or another they will fill that hole at the three.
But it all comes back to defense. This team will score more next season, but if it can’t stop anyone… well, it will still be the Clippers we all know and love.