Oct 16, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT
Last season: The Clippers finished the regular season with a franchise best 56 wins, good enough for the fourth seed in the West and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs over the Memphis Grizzlies.
L.A. went up two games to none in the series, before Memphis came back to win the series in six. Vinny Del Negro wasn’t fired, because his contract was up at season’s end. But he wasn’t offered a new contract, either, and the way the Clippers exited the postseason was viewed as the reason why.
Chris Paul re-upped with a max contract as expected, but not before he was reportedly “angry” over the organization letting it leak that he was the one who forced the parting of ways with Del Negro — something we all knew, and didn’t need anyone on the inside to confirm publicly. All ended well, however, as the Clippers were able to pry Doc Rivers from the Celtics to patrol the sidelines this season.
Last season’s signature highlight: In the last moment before things fell apart in the playoffs, Chris Paul’s game-winner at the Game 2 buzzer sent the Clippers back to Memphis with a 2-0 lead in the series.
Key player changes: The Clippers turned over much of their bench from a season ago, which included trading the young and talented Eric Bledsoe to the Suns. But they’ve appeared to upgrade significantly overall, bolstering the team’s reserve unit for a longer postseason run this time around.
- IN: J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired in the three-team trade that sent Bledsoe to Phoenix. Darren Collison, who had success backing up Paul in their days together in New Orleans was signed in free agency, as was former Bobcats big man Byron Mullens. Antawn Jamison was signed to a one-year free agent contract, as well. Reggie Bullock was selected with the 25th overall pick in this summer’s draft. Lou Amundson is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal.
- OUT: Bledsoe via trade, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf via free agency, Lamar Odom via … (we’ll leave that alone), and Grant Hill via retirement.
Keys to the Clippers season:
1) DeAndre Jordan, defensive anchor: Doc Rivers has appointed Jordan as the one to singlehandedly transform the defensive unit by becoming its backbone. So far, Jordan is happily embracing that responsibility. During the preseason, Jordan is active, engaged, and energized on the defensive end of the floor — he’s talking nonstop, calling out the other team’s plays followed by how his guys are to adjust, and playing with a fire rarely seen in NBA big men consistently over the course of an 82-game season.
That’s going to be the question with Jordan — is he willing to sustain the effort? With Rivers as his head coach, it’s a safe bet that the answer might be “yes.” And if that’s the case, the Clippers will be an extremely difficult matchup all season long.
2) Creating chemistry: The Clippers have a lot of new pieces to fit together, along with a new (although well-respected and experienced) head coach trying to put them all into place. Some minor injuries have prevented Rivers from truly seeing what he has all at once, and keep in mind, there are guys who may be asked to play smaller yet more important roles this year than they have in seasons past. There haven’t been any issues with it in the preseason, of course, but Rivers knows there could be bumps in the road in that department in the future.
“I don’t know if you can have a chemistry test until you go through adversity, to be honest,” Rivers said before the Clippers faced the Suns during the preseason in Phoenix. “Every team in the league right now is getting along. Once the season starts and rotations are set, the amount of touches you get and all that stuff, then you’ll find out how much we all get along. I think we get along great, but no one knows [yet].”
3) Increased output from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul: Paul is the best point guard in the game, but he may need to increase his production for the Clippers to reach new heights. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 assists per game, but is capable of so much more offensively. Now granted, he has plenty of talent surrounding him, and if the ball movement is there and guys do what they’re supposed to, it may work out just fine. But Paul is a killer out there in terms of his competitiveness, and it may not be a bad idea to unleash that on the rest of the league a little more often this season.
As for Griffin, it’s hard to believe he’s entering just his fourth full season. He’s already a beast to deal with down low, but he could use a little more finesse to his game to avoid foul trouble and be able to create offense for himself a little bit more easily. He’s still developing, and if he can make some subtle changes to the way he plays around the basket (think less Anthony Mason and more Karl Malone), his averages of 18 and 8 could see a significant increase.
Why you should watch: Doc Rivers is known for his defensive coaching ability, and the Clippers were 15th out of 16 teams in terms of defensive efficiency in the playoffs. After the first two games against Memphis, they couldn’t slow them consistently or get stops when it mattered. Whether or not the transformation will occur defensively is going to be intriguing, to say the least.
Prediction: The top six teams in the West are all fairly close in terms of overall talent and projected ability to come out atop the Conference standings. But I’ll go ahead and buy into the preseason hype surrounding DeAndre Jordan, and Doc Rivers’ ability to make sure he sustains it all year long. Defense and consistent outside shooting were the major deficiencies this Clippers team was facing, and those needs appear to have been met during the offseason. A 60-win campaign is not out of reach if things fall into place, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals — at minimum — seems to be where the Clippers should land this season.
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