So, now it’s on the players.
Currently, Clipper fans don’t have to hate themselves, as they probably did at times, for paying to see a team owned by Donald Sterling. NBA fans, as we often did, don’t have to hate ourselves anymore while enjoying those late night, must-watch Clipper broadcasts on League Pass. The players don’t have to cringe anymore when Sterling goes meandering around the locker room. Doc Rivers won’t have to question his own ethics anymore. It’s over.
(Shelly Sterling needs to go, to be sure, but it’s over.)
What we have left, finally, is ball. Ball run by the league’s best point guard, one of its best coaches, and one of the NBA’s best players. Plays run by a supporting cast that is to be envied. Work run in the toughest conference in NBA history, one the Los Angeles Clippers have as good a chance as any at getting out of this spring, possibly representing the Western Conference in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Such an idea was an uneasy prospect for the NBA and its fans for decades, because even though presenting a Conference championship trophy is a relatively new phenomenon, it would still include one Donald T. Sterling at the other end of the handoff. At the next stage, the thought of Sterling at center court, accepting a Lawrence O’Brien trophy alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Doc Rivers was even more nauseating, but this is what the NBA (and the media that covered it, myself included) allowed.
Somehow, Sterling was removed from the league and from the Clippers’ media guide with relative alacrity, a credit to both the league’s new commissioner, and common sense. New owner Steve Ballmer works with an open checkbook, and while that won’t do much for the 15 on the roster (Sterling actually did compete and pay fair salaries over the last decade or so), it will do wonders for the coaches, employees, scouts, and various other personnel that had to fight for every penny. Fears will be lifted, and the team will be better prepared.
Which means, again, that this will be on the players. Contributors like J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes can’t help that they were injured last year, and Rivers couldn’t help his team’s failure to fill that final rotation spot last season, but excuses have to be out the window. Chris Paul’s game figures to age well, but he turns 30 in May. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Barnes are even older. DeAndre Jordan is in a contract year in anticipation of a summer that will feature scads of teams with maximum cap space. Blake Griffin is very, very good. It has to happen now.
The Clippers worked their way into the league’s best offense last season even with again types like Hedo Turkoglu, Antawn Jamison, Stephen Jackson, Sasha Vujacic, and Danny Granger taking up space on the wing. The defense surprisingly held nearly as steady despite the coaching upgrade and influence of Doc Rivers, and Jordan will once again have to turn in a mindful campaign on that end. Griffin needs to continue to surprise offensively, thinking on the fly and not relying on pet moves, and for the second straight season Chris Paul will have to deign to give up the damn ball. Not every score has to come off of one of his assists, or one of his gorgeous floaters or mid-range shots.
The trick is that we’re dealing with the Western conference. The Clippers could roar to the top seed, and it wouldn’t (and certainly shouldn’t) be termed an upset if the squad was upended by any number of Western opponents in the second or even first round. The conference is that good, and the quality of play is that high. The only disappointment in last year’s second round ouster at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder was in how the Clippers looked – clearly, they were ready for the season, and the Sterling saga, to end. It understandably drained them.
That was also a second round matchup against a higher seed working with the league’s MVP on its side. Such is life in this conference.
A conference that the Clippers could make their own, in 2014-15.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
I love this team. I hate this guy.
Did the summer help at all?
This has nothing to do with Chris Paul’s inside-out dribble, but eliminating Donald Sterling from the picture was a massive victory for the community, the NBA, its corporate sponsors, the Clippers, basketball fans, and good taste in general. As soon as NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and forced a sale of the team, it seemed obvious that the embattled longtime Clipper owner would utilize both legalese and his own blowhard ego to initiate a series of court movements that would last for months, not weeks, and likely into the 2014-15 NBA season. Even though the NBA (a private league) was well within its legal rights, it didn’t mean that Sterling couldn’t have dragged this out.
Not only was Sterling the epitome of skeevy, he was skinflint in ways that went beyond looking at a ranking of Clipper player salaries. Scouts and other personnel weren’t paid during the game-less summer months. Extensive data tracking was not a priority, because priorities often cost money. Employees can now relax, safe from fears about having to collect guaranteed pay and court costs run up in the face of an owner that loved to go to court. Players and coaches can live with themselves. The impact cannot be overstated.
In terms of pure basketball personnel, the team moved perilously close to the luxury tax’s actual hard salary cap, but such is the price of business when you’re shooting for a ring. The squad lost Darren Collison, who enjoyed a bounce-back year of sorts during his one campaign in Los Angeles, but Jordan Farmar’s outside touch will act as a nice replacement. Spencer Hawes will be a nice addition at either forward or center, and though he did shoot well from outside the arc last season, one has to worry and wonder if this was a one-year phenomenon. Hawes can’t be too shot happy on this team.
Glen Davis was retained, and rookie C.J. Wilcox will probably be ignored in the same fashion that sophomore Reggie Bullock was last season. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Epke Udoh were fine pickups for the price.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Hawes will have an impact, especially if he keeps up the 45 percent shooting from behind the three-point arc that he offered in 27 games with the Cavaliers last season, but Farmar’s role will be huge.
The Clippers don’t hope that the former Laker guard will have to take on a huge role, but Chris Paul’s history suggests that he will. CP3 missed 20 games last season, 12 the year before and six the year before that. He’s a physical guard, and while Paul may not be dashing toward the rim Allen Iverson-style, Paul takes his fair share of hits.
Farmar is solid enough. He has his troubles with his midrange game but he did manage to pull off a 43 percent mark from three-point range last season in the same building last season. It’s true that the offense ran well through Blake Griffin’s hands (not to diminish Darren Collison’s abilities, but he was off the ball) in Paul’s absence this year, but that doesn’t mean Farmar isn’t going to have to step up in a huge way.
This could be a very thin rotation. Hawes and Farmar are going to be counted on to back up the team’s 2.5-most important positions, Jamal Crawford is going to have to sustain his Sixth Man of the Year-ways in an efficient manner, and Chris Douglas-Roberts and Epke Udoh truly are going to have to provide solid if slim minutes on a championship contender.
The 35 minutes per game that DeAndre Jordan played last season is a lot for a center in the modern era, but because he has cut back on his fouling and seems no worse for wear, he should be able to hold up. One has to hope that Matt Barnes won’t wear himself out too much on the defensive end, because he’s often the man left chasing after shooters when Crawford and J.J. Redick’s screen and roll defense proves to be lacking – and there aren’t many wing defenders behind him ready for prime-time minutes.
On a team that could top 60 wins even in the withering West, this is nit-picking, but Los Angeles’ championship hopes not only rest on Paul, Griffin and Crawford continuing their brilliance, but for contributors like Douglas-Roberts, Farmar, Hawes, Udoh and Glen Davis not damaging the strength of the march.
Contributor with something to prove:
None of these men have much of significance to prove. What a wonderful place to be in.
Chris Paul has proven to be the NBA’s best point guard. Could he stand to stay a little healthier? Sure, but that’s what happens when you’re as great as he is at the size that he works at.
Blake Griffin has proven to be, at worst, the second-best power forward in the NBA. Are there things to his game on both offensive and defensive that need refining? Of course, but you’ll gladly take the other 95 percent.
DeAndre Jordan has proven to be a center that you can trust on both ends. The free throws could improve, the defense could take a step back, and he’s not exactly Kevin McHale in the low post – but 29 other teams would love to have him.
Jamal Crawford is lovable, J.J. Redick is a major threat when healthy, Jordan Farmar has found a niche, Matt Barnes is the straw that stirs the drink, and Glen Davis sops up minutes. This team needs solid play from Chris Douglas-Roberts and Epke Udoh, and Hawes needs to find his balance as a reserve big man, but by and large no member of this rotation is entering 2014-15 as someone with a career to turn around.
Potential breakout stud:
If the media narrative is right, and LeBron James struggles in relative terms in his first season in Cleveland, Blake Griffin could win his first NBA MVP.
Griffin was brilliant last season, but his MVP status was a bit overblown – he wasn’t in James and Kevin Durant’s league. His rebounding dipped for the fourth consecutive season, and outside of shooting more he didn’t make the giant strides that some scribes credited for.
He did shoot more, though. And he needs to shoot more this season. The Clippers need to ride Griffin’s gifts in the low post, triple-threat, and screen and roll game (the last of which they smartly went away from slightly in 2013-14) and turn this guy into the 26 or 27-point per game scorer (I know per game stats are daft, but whatever) that turns the votes in his favor. Improving his free throw percentage, as he did last year to 71 percent, will also help.
Championship. Crazy Steve Ballmer celebration that your mom will click on to view. Some goofy Funny or Die video with the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy.
If everything falls apart:
Injuries could lead to a disappointing regular season record, as anything can happen between now and spring. If the Clippers fall in the first three rounds of the playoffs, though, it will be hard to blame this squad’s roster unless there is a marked, obvious screw-up. The West is just that good.
Kelly Dwyer’s best guess at a record:
Second in the West, 59-23. Also, Donald Sterling is gone, which is super sweet.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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