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Ball Don't Lie

Los Angeles Clippers 2011-12 Season Preview

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul (Getty Images)

Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.

Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.

This time? It's the Los Angeles Clippers.

Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful

You are well within your rights to look forward to 66 Los Angeles Clipper games as much as or even more than your favorite team. That the Clippers (with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups joining Blake Griffin and a cast of youngsters) are everyone's second favorite team is already assured. Whether or not they supersede the fandom you hold for your hometown or adopted favorite team is another story that might take all of 66 games to figure out. As always, we'd just like Blake and Paul to stay healthy.

You know why you're going to love this team. But after bashing around my own thoughts on loving a team led by one of the most despicable people in sports (to limit the designation, perhaps), I've struggled with just how much we can justify lauding a squad that is going to bring a creep like Donald Sterling unending revenue and plenty of good times. After reading Bomani Jones' thorough take on Sterling's awful behavior earlier on Friday, I feel as if I have no choice but to continue to bring the cold water.

This is a fantastic basketball team, so much so that Yahoo! Sports NBA editor Johnny Ludden had to ask me to clarify whether or not I meant the Clippers or Lakers when I wrote that "Los Angeles" would make the Western Conference finals next May. And though I meant the Lakers, the chance to revise the choice and hop on board the Clipper bandwagon was not only intriguing, it felt almost like a dereliction of duty not to. Lob City aside, was I acting as a poor analyst in thinking that the Lakers, and not the Clippers, would make it to the NBA's final four? Perhaps I should have just answered, "Los Angeles vs. Los Angeles."

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Blake Griffin (Getty Images)

Then there's the Sterling case, something that may not mitigate everything, but in our more frustrating moments it comes closest.

The reason to be cheerful, with those two sides tugging in opposite directions? It's the chance to follow a team in ways you only tend to see in movies. It is your duty to complain about Sterling's reign and David Stern's continued support of Sterling's ownership of the Clippers nearly as often as we cackle after pulling up yet another CP3-to-BG highlight. Sterling has to be more than a frustrating caveat as we both cover and follow this team, but that doesn't mean he has to take away from things.

There's room enough to be as vocal on either side, and that's something I'm looking forward to. I'm happy for the chance to be able to not just relegate Sterling's improprieties or dismiss them with the original snarky comment or once-a-year overwrought column (that's a reference to my own writing, and not the fabulous Bomani Jones).

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Sports are the toy department, I get that, but working as such with a team like the Clippers will make us better fans and smarter people. This is a man that should be discussed enough to make Stern feel uncomfortable with his presence in a league that should appeal to all tenants of life, so to speak.

Discussing Sterling's actions with the Clippers with the same fervor, volume, and (here's the tough part) consistency that we do Clipper player highlights will be a challenge. But if we could amp it up to a, say, 3-to-1 highlight-to-what an awful, awful person ratio? Then I think we're well on our way.

While he lines his pockets, it should be noted, with our League Pass dollars. Oh well. It's a start.

Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Los Angeles Clippers

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Larry Drew approves. (AP)

I'm so excited for you!

Hmm ... how rookies Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins fit into the mix, I guess? Not really too much to be excited about here.

Oh, right. And right. And right. And right. And right.

Yes, Chris Paul is a Clipper, Lob City is a meme, the world is full of possibilities, and if you didn't consider the Clippers a must-watch team last year, you probably should now. But while adding arguably the generation's best pure point guard to a young, athletic, talented team featuring one of the game's fastest rising stars will likely lead to plenty of emphatic highlights and remarkable plays this season, I'm also pretty excited to see what the natural freshman-to-sophomore progression could mean for Blake Griffin's all-around game.

The aerial onslaught of Griffin's rookie season will surely continue with CP3 tossing the alley-oops this year. But when the Clippers face top offenses that can put up points, they'll find their opportunities to run limited, which will make efficient operation in the half-court offense really important. Of course, Paul's a tactician in the half-court, skilled at probing defenses, finding paths to the rim and collapsing coverage to create open looks for his shooters. Sometimes, though, he'll need to just dump the ball into the post and let Griffin go to work.

As Hoopdata's Joe Treutlein wrote at DraftExpress last year, Blake already had some drop steps and spin moves at his disposal, though they were "still developing polish." (I think he spent some time polishing them this offseason.) With his strength, speed and quickness, Griffin was already a nightmare cover for slower bigs isolated on the wing. Continued development of his back-to-the-basket and face-up repertoire -- plus a steadier stroke from mid-range, where he shot just 34 percent as a rookie, according to StatsCube, and from the line, where he made only 64.2 percent of his freebies -- would make him damn near unsolvable down there.

In the Clips' two preseason games, we saw several little touches that can help make Blake a more complete all-around player -- stuff like that post footwork, the quick little pump-fake in the lane to blow past Andrew Bynum, and putting the lob in the right place for DeAndre Jordan to catch and finish on the break (although I'd suggest Griffin take it easy on calling his shot in the future). The prospect of him continuing to refine his game, expand his range and have Chris Paul setting the table for him ... well, it's enough to make grown men giddy.

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Jeff Van Gundy is not excited. (AP)

I'm so worried for you!

Amid all the printing of playoff tickets and "are the Clippers better than the Lakers?" talk, we seem to have overlooked the fact that behind Griffin and Jordan, Los Angeles' reserve bigs are Ryan Gomes, Brian Cook, the recently signed Reggie Evans and the aforementioned Thompkins.

Gomes is 6-foot-7 and, despite my love for him as a fellow Providence College alum, is not that good an NBA player. Cook is 6-foot-9, and while he is reportedly only 31, I could've sworn he is actually 57 years old. Also, he is not that good an NBA player. Thompkins offers better size than those two veterans at 6-foot-10, but he's a rookie and, while DraftExpress has described Thompkins as having "some intriguing qualities," as such cannot yet be considered to be that good an NBA player.

Evans is a good NBA player, in a very specific context, and signing him to a one-year, veteran minimum contract to provide rebounding and physicality off the bench makes a ton of sense. But Evans is 6-foot-8 (maybe) and not a very good defender. Unless the Clippers plan to bump the newly-paid Jordan from the 25.6 minutes per game he averaged last year up to somewhere around the 38 per game that Griffin played, they're going to need another center. One who's not, like, 6-foot-6. (Unless Chuck Hayes is still available. He's not? OK, then.)

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As Steve Perrin at Clips Nation and Nick Flynt at Clipperblog have noted, one still-available big man on the increasingly thin free-agent market who might make an awful lot of sense is Kyrylo Fesenko, a 7-foot-1, 280-plus-pound behemoth let go by the Utah Jazz who looks like a stiff on offense but clogs the lane and protects the rim really well on defense. The Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors are both reportedly interested in the 24-year-old Ukrainian; if he goes elsewhere, the pickings look slim. (Alexis Ajinca? Hamed Haddadi, whose qualifying offer was just rescinded by the Memphis Grizzlies, if he can get his visa situation squared away?)

If Neil Olshey and company feel comfortable enough in Thompkins as a spot five, the backup center slot isn't a monstrous regular season concern. But the Clippers are likely to meet up with some pretty grueling frontcourts in the Western Conference Playoffs -- it'd serve them well to stock the cupboard before they get there.

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Lawrence Frank, supplicant. (Getty Images)

I have no idea what to make of you!

Few coaches will be as happy to open their presents as Vinny Del Negro, who gets to unwrap a transcendent point guard and a surefire playoff team when the Clippers kick off the 2011-12 season against the Warriors in Oakland on Christmas night. Will he be like a frantic little kid who just rips and tears as fast as he can until he sees the gift he's had his eye on all fall, then running back to his room to play with it? Or will be like an adult, untying the ribbon, mentioning how nice the wrapping paper is and making sure to say thank you before taking it for a spin?

To whom much is given, much is expected, which is why there'll likely be a lot of pressure on Del Negro this season -- maybe not quite the same degree as what Erik Spoelstra got heading into last season with Miami, but maybe not too far off. And after two .500 seasons with the Chicago Bulls (which, after adding Carlos Boozer, Tom Thibodeau pushed to the best record in the NBA the season after Del Negro was fired) and a 30-win campaign with a very young Clippers team last season, the jury's still very much out on whether or not Del Negro can actually win as a head coach.

The early returns from his new charges have been positive -- Paul praised the way VDN reached out to him, Mo Williams and Chauncey Billups from the first day of their partnership, while Billups lauded the coach's "awesome basketball mind." But if this team -- expected to succeed, a rarity in Clipper history -- stumbles out of the gate, Del Negro could soon find himself watching someone else play with his toys.

Eric Freeman's Culture Club

The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: "Good Luck Chuck"

The Clippers have a reputation as a cursed franchise, what with their history of star players getting hurt and hopes being dashed. For the most part, though, they haven't existed with many expectations. Curse or not, the franchise hasn't seen many bitter disappointments in its history, if only because they've never had championship aspirations. This season, there are serious expectations, to the point where anything less than a conference finals appearance should be considered a disappointment. Will the fans allow themselves to get their hopes up and feel the joy of success? Or will they hold it at arms length until it turns real?

The execrable comedy "Good Luck Chuck" is centered on the idea that every woman who sleeps with Dane Cook's character finds her husband directly after she dates him. For Chuck, this isn't such a big deal: he keeps the sex casual and relationships unserious. That all changes, though, when he falls for a lovely penguin trainer played by Jessica Alba. For the first time in his life, Chuck starts to confront the possibility of losing someone who matters to him. He has to decide if the curse is real, or if he should take a leap of faith.

The Clippers find themselves in that same position now. The idea of a curse is fine when the team stands nothing to lose from it. But what now? How do you define a franchise that looks so great when we've come to expect nothing from them? Are they the same Clippers, or they have they entered a new era?

Also, Dane Cook is a total creep, and so is Donald Sterling. Synergy!

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