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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Los Angeles Clippers

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The Clippers' prime smiles in spite of Sterling (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

The Los Angeles Clippers could finish the season with the most wins in the Western Conference, and you’re just fine if you’re completely freaked out about this.

Regarding the Clippers as winners, or merely a good team? It’s nothing new. We’ve had years to prepare for this – from the team’s initial run as League Pass darlings during 2000-01 to the Elton Brand-led spree in 2006, followed up by the franchise-altering trade that brought Chris Paul to Los Angeles just after the lockout in 2011. The Clippers as contenders? It’s not a novelty.

The knowledge, though, that reminds you that owner Donald Sterling doesn’t deserve a winner? That a cretin like Donald Sterling could be the man to take the Lawrence O’Brien trophy from soon-to-be commissioner Adam Silver next June? That this could be the team that knocks off the champion Miami Heat? That this logo will be what defines Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s career? That’s unsettling. Donald Sterling is the worst. We all should be rooting against this team.

We can’t, though, because Paul is so brilliant, and the team is so rife with likable, talented people. There really isn’t a bad egg in this bunch; and if you don’t believe that, consider the Sixth Man of the Year-work of Jamal Crawford, who had to sit and watch as the team went out and signed J.J. Redick to take over part of his role. You heard nary a peep from Jamal, because he’s a pro, and because he’s a swell guy. Chris Paul might be a little irascible, but you’ll forget that the moment DeAndre Jordan smiles into the camera.

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Russell Westbrook’s initial absence from the Oklahoma City lineup, and his possible slow and unsteady return as he works through the first major injury of his career, is opening Los Angeles’ window. The team could pounce quickly and run up the best record in the conference while the Thunder circle the wagons, due mainly to increased depth and the competent planning of one Glenn “Doc” Rivers. It’s a little cruel to stomp on the departed, and Chicago had their own free agent additions in hand when they made the jump, but you’re just fine to consider the change in appearance that the Bulls made in 2010-11 when (rookie!) head coach Tom Thibodeau jumped from Rivers’ staff to take over for Vinny Del Negro. Clipper fans should anticipate the same sort of jump this season.

This is assuming Paul can stay healthy, which is no sure thing. Throughout his career, CP3 has battled all manner of leg-related illness, and it’s true that he both literally and figuratively takes games off. Paul isn’t lazy, but he will skim through certain games while struggling with injury, on top of the contests he actually sits out of, and the Clippers cannot really rely on a healthy and productive 82-strong from this guy.

Which is fine, because he’s a once-in-a-generation point guard, and the key cog in a team that could threaten to win 60 games. Paired with the similarly dogged Rivers, Paul will be right at home. It’s true that the drop-off between Paul and reserve Darren Collison will rank as one of the NBA’s steepest, but that’s something you put up with for the right to hold Chris Paul in your arms from October until May.

(Or June, even.)

From there, the team seems thick enough to compete. Jordan’s defensive woes aren’t exaggerated, but a consistent coaching scheme could work wonders for the big man. Rivers’ offense in Boston never ranked highly, but you couldn’t blame the format’s effort, and the constant movement will also work wonders for players like Redick, Matt Barnes, and especially Blake Griffin. Griffin’s low post game is nearly underrated at this point, but it is safe to say that treating him as some clear-out power forward – some unholy amalgamation of Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins in their late 30s – wasn’t working. Blake needs movement, and that’s what Rivers is here for.

He’s here for that, amongst many other things. Some will argue that a coaching presence is worth a cheap three or four wins per year, and that the men in suits really don’t really sway things.

I’d argue that … well, just watch the Clippers this year.

Projected record: 59-23

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Doc Rivers explains "Ubuntu" to an unwitting Blake Griffin (Getty Images)

Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

[Related: 2013-14 NBA season predictions]

Tune into the Clippers for … an offense that should incinerate the opposition.

In the first year of the Chris Paul era, the Clippers became a precise offensive machine, scoring an average of 105.2 points per 100 possessions -- the fourth-best mark in the NBA, according to NBA.com’s stat tool -- and ranking among the NBA's top seven teams in points scored per possession on isolation, spot-up, screen, cut and pick-and-roll plays, per Synergy Sports Technology. It’s not easy to improve on performance like that, but CP3, Blake Griffin and company had a heck of an encore in store; behind another year of seasoning for Griffin, the addition of ace reserves Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, and Paul once again masterfully manipulating defenses, the Clippers managed to wring even more out of every possession.

L.A. averaged 107.7 points-per-100 by NBA.com’s numbers and moved from sixth in the league to fourth in Synergy’s overall points-per-play stats; that improvement, combined with an opportunistic, turnover-creating defense, led the Clips to a franchise-record 56 wins, the first division title in franchise history and a clear leg up on in-house rivals, the Lakers. And yet, for the second straight year, their season ended in disappointment after an injury, as a high-ankle-sprain-hobbled Griffin got gobbled up and slammed by Zach Randolph, center DeAndre Jordan got schooled by Marc Gasol, and Paul got virtually no help from the rest of the roster over the final four games of a first-round loss to the Grizzlies.

Any major dude will tell you that the Clippers will need to take a big step forward defensively to get unstuck and become a top title contender -- it's why Jordan (who averaged 3.4 blocks in 23 minutes per preseason game and spent most of the last month barking on defense) might be their most important player. But after watching the supporting cast fall short last spring and watching Vinny Del Negro fail to come up with enough of a Plan B to keep his team alive, the Clippers also needed a fresh bit of ingenuity and playmaking, too. Enter Doc Rivers, who (despite below-average offensive efficiency numbers) often drew plaudits for his out-of-timeout and end-game whiteboard skills with the Celtics, and the wing combination of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, two excellent spot-up shooters, deft passers, sharp off-ball movers and smart cookies who add long-range firepower and options to the Clipper attack.

Dudley and Redick stationed beyond the arc on the opposite side of Paul-Griffin/Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls or Griffin post-ups that draw double-teams (despite cries that he has no post game, an out-of-date criticism) will force defenses to pick their poison, preventing them from loading up on any one thing and giving Paul even more room to probe, which should terrify opposing coaches. Forcing defenders to stick closer to their men off the ball rather than sagging to help should help Rivers coax more production out of the few areas where the Clipper offense has been middling, including post-ups, off-ball cuts and dribble handoffs, without sacrificing the near-peerless efficiency Paul and company have developed elsewhere. There should be fireworks virtually every time the Clippers have the ball every night, and they should be more sustainable against good competition than they were at times last year.

I’m not sure the bench -- still led by Crawford and Barnes, but juggled at the point (Darren Collison stepping in for Eric Bledsoe and Chauncey Billups) and up front (Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison taking over for Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf) -- will be better than last year, and despite Doc’s entreaties, I’m going to need to see “DeAndre Jordan: Defensive Player of the Year Candidate” before I buy it. But I tend to agree with Zach Lowe and Kevin Pelton that the Clippers have a real shot to post the NBA’s best offense this season. It might not be enough to keep them playing into mid-June by itself, but it’ll be enough to keep me glued to their games through the fall and winter.

[Related: Clippers' summer of success nearly thrown into chaos by owner]

Honorable mentions: How many fights Ryan Hollins gets into fights this year; whether Mullens jumps in for him; how long the Clippers keep the weird “smelling” thing going.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

The arrivals of Doc Rivers and assorted role players figure to vault the Clippers to a new level of competitiveness, one where they may end up as one of the handful of true contenders in the NBA. For that to happen, though, they’re going to need a career-best season from center DeAndre Jordan, a player best known for the most explosive dunk of 2012-13. Ideally, Jordan would mature into a high-level rim protector and rebounder, an uber-athletic role player not dependent on scoring to affect games.

It’s not apparent that Jordan is ready for such a leap. In theory, the same was expected of him in the past two seasons, and he has yet to manage more than 24 minutes per game in either postseason. There’s a sense that Jordan isn’t yet a dependable player inside, that his contributions are not consistent enough to warrant the full trust of his coaches. That could be an undue expectation for a 25-year-old, but the Clippers need him to step up if they’re to challenge for the West crown.

If Jordan can’t fill that role, the Clippers are likely to get desperate and pursue all potential employees. Given their assets on-hand, this hypothetical player would likely be a current free agent veteran able to play limited minutes, not a potential game-changer. Despite all their high-profile moves and the optimism on hand, it’s entirely possible that the Clips’ fortunes depend on a young center typically used to occupying a secondary role. Yet, for a team to achieve what Rivers, Chris Paul, and other veterans want to, guys like Jordan need to step up.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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