The Clippers present a fan with the only memento Donald Sterling would pay for (Getty Images)For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the rock-steady haha just kidding Los Angeles Clippers.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
Few NBA players guarantee a level of team-wise competency as well as Chris Paul. It's true that he's had several fabulous helpers to move his various Hornets and Clipper teams along through the years, and that he's missed the playoffs or been bounced from the first round a few times, but remember we're talking about "competence." The kinds of records that can result from one all-world talent, leading a series of cast-offs.
The Los Angeles Clippers, as currently constructed, are no mere collection of cast-offs. Though Blake Griffin has his significant mitigating factors, he remains a superb scorer and rebounder that can dominate for long stretches given the right matchup. In center DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have another excellent finisher and rebounder that can also block the shots that Griffin can't get to. In Jamal Crawford and Chauncey Billups, the team has a pair of undersized scorers that can fill the holes in one's head with the bumps in another. Caron Butler is solid. Grant Hill will be around. Eric Bledsoe could be ready to unleash hell off the bench. Matt Barnes just cut baseline, while you weren't looking.
So what is it that worries us about this team? That leaves us wondering if the hype is properly-placed; not just in the context of the team's standing amongst the Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder, but removed from thoughts of the league-wide standings?
Paul's health, always, and coach Vinny Del Negro. That's what gets in the way.
VDN's curious coaching patterns and absence of a go-to peg to hang from on either end often make these Clippers one of the more frustrating watches in the NBA. The team appeared to routinely tune him out last season, which in itself would seem a fine line of thinking until you remember that it is excruciatingly hard to get all five players on the same page at once with the ball in your hands and varying agendas to counter. This season figures to go just as poorly, if not turn worse, as Del Negro enters 2012-13 with just one year left on his contract, and a litany of would-be replacements either stewing in front of the TV (Stan Van Gundy), or already on the Clipper bench (Robert Pack, already under contract).
Then there's Paul, who is no gimp and certainly not one to shirk away from playing through pain, but a repeat offender in terms of injuries because of the way his aggressive style mixes things up, and the continued pounding on those knees of his. With Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Billups and hopefully Bledsoe around the Clippers won't be at a loss for ball handlers should Paul miss his typical (including the shortened 2011-12 season, pro-rated) 10 games, but they will be missing CP3's game-tilting effectiveness and production.
These are the worrying aspects. From there, you're left to marvel at Paul's brilliance while the league's best point guard (shut up, Rajon. Can it, Mikhail) pulls the game along by a string and leads his squad to win after win.
Griffin figures to be fully healthy as he recovers from a tear in his knee suffered in mid-July during Olympic training, but the setback likely cost Blake dearly in the on-court reps and practice time needed to move ahead as an all-around star. Remember, Griffin's entire 2009-10 season was spent on the sidelines, and any chance he had at working out with Clipper employees during the offseason following his rookie campaign was shut out due to the lockout. Griffin probably — and smartly, considering the fatigue that was sure to set in — took it easy following his team's second round loss and the meet-up with Team USA in July, and lost yet another chance to round things into shape, or work on the various aspects of his game that need help against the best of the best.
His ascension is crucial, as the Clippers will be battling a series of teams featuring at least two game-changers at worse in the starting lineup; especially when the fall-off between the Thunder's top two and their third-best player (Serge Ibaka) and Griffin and whoever you think is the Clippers' third-best player is not even worth comparing at this point.
This is why the Clippers went after so much depth, especially on the wing, during the offseason. Hamstrung by the eight-figure deals given to Paul and Jordan (Griffin's extension won't kick in until 2013-14), the team had to work with trade exceptions and minimum deals in order to create that rotation. In another coach's hands, the presence of these similarly styled (in ways) vets like Odom, Hill, Barnes, and Butler could work. In Del Negro's? He'll have to surprise us.
His whole team will, frankly, in the shadow of a Laker team that is bound to grow taller as the Clippers' Staples Center roommates grow more accustomed to their respective All-Star faces. It's why the Clippers, as ever, have so much to prove.
Projected record: 54-28
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, duh. You don't need much in the way of statistical evidence to support the contention that it's a good idea to pair the best pure point guard in the game with one of the two or three best young power forwards in the game -- Kevin Love now seems to be the consensus pick, and as we've covered, LaMarcus Aldridge has an opportunity to strengthen his argument this year -- but we'll offer some anyway, because math is fun.
The Clips made their first postseason appearance in six years behind All-NBA turns from Paul (19.8 points, 9.1 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game on 47.8/37.1/86.1 shooting splits en route to the league's second-best Player Efficiency Rating) and Griffin (20.7 points on 54.9 percent shooting -- including a crazy 73.7 percent mark at the rim -- plus 10.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, No. 8 in PER). As you'd expect with Paul at the controls, they were excellent at orchestrating in multiple facets of the half-court offense; according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-tracking data, they ranked among the NBA's top seven teams in points scored per possession on isolation, spot-up, screen, cut and pick-and-roll plays, whether finished by the ball-handler or the roll man.
While they lagged a bit in transition and on post-ups, neither figures to be too much of a problem going forward. Paul's predilection toward slow-down ball and half-court precision mitigates the importance of getting fast-break baskets, and while Griffin's hardly refined in the post, he's also hardly a finished product after just two NBA seasons; he's shown several developing moves (up-and-unders, baseline spins, drop-steps) and an improved-enough stroke (37 percent from between 16 and 23 feet away last year, which isn't great, but is better than the 33 percent he shot as a rookie) to suggest that he'll get better from the block as his career progresses. Besides, neither shortcoming prevented the Clips from regularly getting buckets last season; they featured the league's fourth most efficient offense, scoring an average of 105.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
Los Angeles does have some cause for concern on offense. After parting ways with guards Mo Williams (38.9 percent from 3-point land, 36.4 percent in the postseason), Randy Foye (38.6 percent, 43.8 percent) and Nick Young (35.3 percent, a team-leading 51.5 percent) over the summer, floor spacing could be an issue. The Clippers will need a bounce-back year from offseason acquisition Jamal Crawford, who sputtered his way to a 38.4 percent mark from the floor in a dead-end season with Portland; his play off the ball will be especially critical if 36-year-old Chauncey Billups struggles in his (apparently ahead of schedule) return from a torn left Achilles tendon. That big-man rotation behind Griffin and spring-heeled center DeAndre Jordan still doesn't look too imposing, especially if Lamar Odom's as done as he looked last season, and free-throwing shooting could once again be a season-long bugaboo.
But while all those factors could jump up and bite the Clippers at some point this season, it seems unlikely that any of them, even in combination, will be able to prevent L.A. from fielding a top-10 offense borne simply out of the brilliance of their two signature stars. After a full season, offseason and training camp together, their chemistry should only improve; with Paul coming off a strong performance running the show for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and Griffin reportedly back to 100 percent after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, they should again form an inside-out tandem capable of carrying the Clips deep into the postseason in a crowded Western Conference.
What Should Make You Scared: The chance that all those offseason imports could chafe in new, reduced roles, and that the team sort of implodes. On paper, the Clippers appear to have become one of the league's deepest teams on the wing over the summer, adding a handful of veterans -- Crawford, Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Willie Green -- who have played significant roles on contending teams in the past. But remember: You don't just get to plug each guy's career averages and percentages into the lineup and add it all up to a final score. Players have to accept roles and responsibilities, and fit into a team structure.
After last year's epic flameout, Odom's very much a wild card and open question, but considering the only other reserve power forward, second-year big man Trey Thompkins, is still struggling to come back from a bone bruise in his left knee, coach Vinny Del Negro could be relying upon the former Sixth Man of the Year to play a key role as a backup big off the bench. If he again proves unworthy of the minutes despite (allegedly) coming into the season with a clearer head than he had in Dallas last year, will Del Negro yank him in favor of playing smaller more frequently? If he does, will Odom once again check out and leave a team thought to be a Western Conference perilously thin up front?
The minutes-crunch should be even more pronounced at the two and three spots. Consider the fact that Crawford played just under 28 minutes and averaged 12.3 field goal attempts per game for the Trail Blazers last season. Hill also got 28 minutes a night in Phoenix, averaging just over nine shots per contest. Neither Barnes (23 minutes) nor Green (17 minutes) got starter's minutes, but they were still regular-season rotation pieces. Before tearing his Achilles, Billups was the Clippers' starting shooting guard, getting 30 minutes a game and taking 11-plus shots per game; Caron Butler, whose playing time and attempts were about the same as Chauncey's, will once again enter the season as the starter at the three. When everyone's healthy -- and, again, it sounds like Billups could be back by about a month into the season -- you've got 96 nightly minutes to divvy up among six guys accustomed to playing steady minutes. Figuring out how to juggle those minutes, manage the rotation and find the right combination would be a difficult problem for any coach.
Complicating matters even further, "the right combination" will likely translate as "whatever combination results in Eric Bledsoe playing more often." The Clippers were 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with the second-year guard on the floor during the regular season, according to NBA.com's stat tool; during a two-round playoff run in which he was L.A.'s third-best player, that number went up to a staggering 14.7 points-per-100. And here's the rub -- the Clips were especially good, albeit in limited minutes, when he shared the floor with Paul. Lineups in which that pairing appeared scored an average of 111.4 points per 100 possessions and allowed 93.5-per-100 in 76 regular-season minutes; the offensive efficiency going up (118.5-per-100) and the defensive efficiency staying right around level (93.7-per-100) in 82 postseason minutes.
The sample size is small, but anything that gets arguably your two best guards on the floor at the same time and has produced preliminary results like that absolutely merits further exploration. If VDN goes to that pairing again at the expense of veterans like Crawford and Billups, and it bears fruit, things could go sideways quickly, and what appears to be a talented, deep team could fall prey to the kind of locker-room discord and back-biting that sinks once-promising ships.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
When they acquired Chris Paul last December, the Clippers instantaneously morphed from a promising young team into one of the league's handful of clubs with a serious chance at inflicting major postseason damage. That's the power of a superstar, particularly one like Paul. No player in the league manages a possession better, changing speeds and claiming territory on the court to suit his needs and put his teammates in spots to succeed. He's a game-changing player even when he's not near his best.
Nevertheless, the Clippers did not see that kind of success in 2011-12. Their first-round series against Memphis was a major disappointment, often degrading into a chippy, foul-filled contest when we'd been promised a compelling contrast in styles. In the next round, the Spurs simply overwhelmed Los Angeles, suggesting that the hopes and dreams of Clipper Nation were a little premature.
However, that doesn't mean that kind of success won't come soon. This offseason, the Clips loaded up on proven veterans capable of excelling as role players, indicating that they're focused on building a playoff power as soon as possible. If Paul stays healthy and Blake Griffin continues his progression from highlight superstar to truly dependable post option, then the Clippers have a legitimate shot of challenging the Thunder and Lakers for the Western Conference crown. In a best-case scenario, with Lamar Odom staying in shape and DeAndre Jordan looking more like a defensive linchpin, this roster can compete.
The problem, of course, is that rosters don't always play as they project. In the case of the Clippers, they might not have the right man at the helm to turn talent into tangible success. Vinny Del Negro simply does not look like the kind of coach who guides teams to conference titles, let alone championships. The Clippers, even with a supposed identity as a serious, professional playoff contender, have a fairly big barrier keeping them from achieving those goals in the real world. They see themselves as something they may not be able to become.