Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Los Angeles Clippers have managed something truly remarkable. Despite locking down the best point guard on earth, bringing in a new coach with championship pedigree and negotiating two of the off-season’s smartest contracts (re-upping on Matt Barnes and snagging Darren Collison so cheap you have to wonder whether Donald Sterling had his family bound and gagged in a warehouse somewhere), the team is in much the same place they found themselves at the beginning of last season: pulling a bandwagon of Lob City fans through a field of highlights in what they hope is the direction of an NBA championship.
Last season’s first-round playoff exit—a four-game implosion that saw L.A. squander a 2–0 series lead to the Memphis Grizzlies—raised some serious questions about the Clippers’ viability as a contending team. For his part, Chris Paul answered by planting those concerns squarely on the shoulders of Blake Griffin. But reality is, of course, always a bit more complicated.
Additions: Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Doc Rivers (coach)
Departures: Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf
It must’ve been hell for the Clippers to part ways with Eric Bledsoe. The promising young point man was shipped to Phoenix alongside Caron Butler in the deal that brought Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick to L.A. (Butler was later shunted to the Bucks, taking his nickname and all subsequent jersey sales to Milwaukee).
Still, in Dudley and Redick, the Clips landed a pair of shooters who’ve hit 40.5 and 39 per cent, respectively, from behind the arc for their careers. Both will help stretch opposing defences and add even more scoring to an offence that already ranked fourth in the league in points per 100 possessions. Bargain free-agent acquisition Collison meanwhile, will pick up the minutes Bledsoe left waiting behind CP3. A solid-but-not-standout player, Collison thrived as Paul’s backup when both played for the Hornets. In the Clippers’ best-case scenario, he could break out much the same way Jarrett Jack has playing a similar role for the Warriors.
- The Clippers’ biggest off-season acquisition will set up shop off the court, with Doc Rivers replacing head coach Vinny Del Negro. Whether Rivers will make enough of an impact to justify the $21 million L.A. is set to pay him over the next three years (plus the first-round pick they sent to Boston in the deal) is anybody’s guess, but there are only four head coaches in the league with a ring and swapping the most-ridiculed coach in basketball (Del Negro) for one of them can’t hurt.
- Rivers’s track record in Boston suggests that his main contribution to the team will be on the defensive side of the ball. Despite L.A.’s fairly active off-season, he still won’t have much in the way of solid man-on-man defenders to work with, which makes the Clippers re-signing of Barnes particularly important. With Barnes on the court last season, Lob City allowed just 99 points per 100 opponent possessions, down from 103.1 with him on the bench. His length and defensive intelligence should earn him many of L.A.’s toughest perimeter one-on-ones, and his ability as a cutter will provide welcome variety on the offensive side of the ball.
- In the frontcourt, the Clippers are sporting more question marks than the Riddler’s jumpsuit. The most pressing seem to be those surrounding the development of starters Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. At 24, Griffin is already a three-time all-star and has made incremental improvements in his game, but his stilted and ineffective jump shooting, inconsistent defence and lack of reliable post moves are all cause for concern. Jordan, entering his sixth year in the league, still hasn’t come close to realizing the potential others have seen in his near-as-makes-no-difference seven-foot frame. With Rivers hoarsely barking at him, will this be the year he finally starts swatting everything that comes within spitting distance of the Clippers’ basket? Will there be a massive jump in Blake Griffin’s game that isn’t over a Kia? And just who are the Clippers planning to trot out when Griffin and Jordan need a breather (or, God forbid, if one of them is injured)? Jamison? Ryan Hollins?
Collison, for the reasons listed above. Piloting a bench unit with Barnes and the Shabbat Shalom-ing Jamal Crawford won’t hurt either. The Clips’ second-line destroyed the league last year and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same in 2013–14.
Quite decent. Lob City was a regular-season powerhouse last year, going 56-26, topping the Pacific Division and notching the best winning percentage in franchise history for the second season in a row. The Clippers should be as strong if not stronger this year. But they still don’t have the D to give the Thunder or Spurs a genuine run for their money and, with Andre Iguodala reinforcing a rising Golden State squad, their division crown is far from a lock.