The Clippers were as close to a first-round exit in 2015 as they were to a Western Conference finals date with the Warriors, playing a pair of seven-game series against the Spurs and Rockets in the first two rounds of the playoffs. When all was said and done, their season ended no better than it had the previous three seasons.
If you’re looking at the glass as half full, they were a Chris Paul hamstring pull away from reaching new heights as an organization in the first year under new owner Steve Ballmer. They’ve returned a core that includes a pair of perennial MVP candidates and a somewhat surprising Defensive Player of the Year contender, and they’ve reconstructed what was an abysmal bench with no cap space to spend.
And if you’re looking at the glass as half empty, Paul is now north of 30 years old, and we’re entering year five of the Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan triumvirate with nothing more than a trio of conference semifinals appearances to show for it. They’ve also added three strong personalities to an already volatile team chemistry experiment that nearly blew up in GM/coach Doc Rivers’ face over the summer.
That cup could runneth over with championship champagne come June, if all goes according to plan. That is, if Rivers can work Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and a handful of newcomers into a roster that won 56 games despite having the NBA’s second-worst bench last season, the Clippers are contenders again.
Or they could just as easily self-destruct and spill it all over their new uniforms. The real pressure won’t heat up until the Clippers reach the second round for the fourth time in five years, and it’ll all probably boil down to another seven-game series.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
We blew a 3-1 series edge and a 19-point, second-half lead at home in Game 6 of the West semis against the Rockets. Is that bad?
Did the summer help at all?
Well, it was nearly disastrous. In mid-June, Rivers traded Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes to the Charlotte Hornets for Lance Stephenson — owner of the league’s worst win score in 2014-15 (minus-0.9) — and then Jordan agreed to a max contract with the Dallas Mavericks. The Clippers had no center and no salary cap space to replace Jordan. Their title hopes, for all intents and purposes, were cooked.
Then, Jordan Snapchatted his apprehension to Doc’s youngest son, Spencer, sparking The Great Emoji War of 2015 and a hostage situation that resulted in the Third Team All-NBA center reneging on his deal with Dallas to return to L.A. — Stockholm syndrome be damned. And, yes, that was every bit as crazy as it sounds.
Jordan’s return the moment the NBA’s moratorium was lifted made the Clippers contenders again, which is nice for those of us who love watching great basketball, since the Mavericks wouldn’t have been nearly as good with him. It remains to be seen whether the issues that led Jordan to Dallas in the first place — namely, a beef with Paul and a chance to be an offense’s focal point — will linger into the season.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Then again, the feud didn’t derail last season, and Jordan’s return flight helped land veteran Paul Pierce with their midlevel exception, along with Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson, Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni on minimum contracts. That’s a whole lot better than the reserve group that was outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions last season, despite the presence of two-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.
Meanwhile, they lost only Glen Davis from the core that finished last season, so yeah, the Clippers did all right for themselves with what little they had to spend.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Jordan was kind of an acquisition when you consider he left L.A. for about a week, but his situation has been discussed ad nauseam and only returned the Clippers to normal. And while Smith or Stephenson could end up being the better player for them this season, it’s Pierce who will help Rivers take the Clips to another level.
He may turn 38 next week, but Pierce has a firm understanding of what Doc is trying to accomplish and what it takes to get there from their days together in Boston. And the Truth also happens to still be one of the game’s best clutch performers. He came within a fraction of an inch and a fraction of a second of making game-tying or game-winning shots in each of the final four games of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Even in his advanced age, Pierce enjoyed tremendous success playing as a stretch four in the playoffs for the Washington Wizards this past spring, and he should be able to replicate that old-man game in his hometown, so long as those Gumbi legs of his stand up to the pounding of an 18th season. And just imagine the trash-talking possibilities now that Pierce shares a zip code with Kobe Bryant — with whom he split NBA Finals MVP honors in their two title-series meetings in 2008 and 2010.
It’s hard to imagine a middling defense with two of the league’s five First Team All-Defensive players manning a pair of the most pivotal positions, but even Jordan and Paul couldn’t prevent the Clippers from allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions.
Making matters worse, Rivers traded their best agitator (Barnes) for a player whose indifference relegated him to the end of Charlotte’s bench last season (Stephenson).
Most of the Clippers’ newcomers aren’t without defensive talent — particularly Smith, who made an All-Defensive team in 2010 — but how much they’ll impact the bottom line remains in question. They allowed an average of 118 points in their four playoff losses to Houston last season, and haven’t done much to plug those holes.
Contributor with something to prove:
Still just 29 years old, Smith signed for the veteran minimum, in part because the Detroit Pistons are still paying him $5.4 million to not play basketball for them this season, but also because there isn’t much of a market for a stretch forward whose stretching involves attempting midrange jumpers and 3-pointers at a horrific rate.
But Smith was a monster for the Rockets that ousted these Clippers and reached the Western Conference finals last season. He was still attempting an alarming number of jump shots in the playoffs, and 11 seasons of historical data tell us he won’t start making 38 percent of his 3’s over an extended period of time, but his greatest impact in Houston came as the uber-athletic finisher and defender around the rim that everybody imagined when he was coming into his own on the Atlanta Hawks.
If that guy shows up in L.A., and Griffin smacks Smith upside the head every time he jacks an ill-advised shot, then he should help the Clippers’ defense and allow Rivers to mix and match lineups in a way he didn’t have the personnel to do in 2014-15.
Potential breakout stud:
We’re only a year removed from Stephenson being the breakout stud for the Pacers during their back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference finals. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists and led the NBA in triple-doubles for a 56-win team in Indiana, landing a three-year, $27 million free-agent contract from Charlotte.
Then, he reverted to being the kid whose concerns plagued him since high school.
After converting 35 percent of his 3-pointers in 2013-14, he submitted arguably the worst shooting season in league history, making just 17.1 percent of his 105 long-distance attempts, which should be interesting alongside Smith. And without Paul George, David West and George Hill to space the floor, Stephenson’s playmaking skills went to waste on a Hornets team that ranked dead last in 3-point shooting.
Between Rivers’ cache, a veteran team in contention and an NBA player’s pride — if that’s something Stephenson has left — this is a shot at redemption for a player who seemed irredeemable at points last season. He was ill suited for a starring role in Charlotte, and just about everyone recognizes that, especially Doc, who plans to use Stephenson as the playmaking wing he was in Indiana, according to the L.A. Times.
“Lance is not a great shooter," Rivers said. "He's going to be a streaky guy. That's who he is. I don't look at Lance as a scorer; I look at Lance as a guy to create plays, and I think he'll do that for us."
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention J.J. Redick, whose NBA career has far exceeded expectations. He was ridiculously efficient for the Clippers last season, shooting 43.7 percent on 458 3-point attempts, so his pairing with Pierce should help offset Smith and Stephenson’s shooting woes. Since Redick is an established 31-year-old veteran, he’s not exactly “breakout stud” material, but he’s nevertheless an underrated contributor who’s now appeared in the playoffs in each of his nine NBA seasons.
Doc’s bizarre chemistry experiment settles into synergy; Paul edges Griffin for that elusive MVP honor; Jordan earns Defensive Player of the Year honors; the Clippers win their first NBA championship; Pierce rides into the sunset with his second ring; and Ballmer unleashes a victory dance the likes we haven’t seen since Mark Madsen.
If everything falls apart:
Doc’s promise to get DeAndre more involved in the offense is an empty one; the team’s love-fest over chicken fingers at Jordan’s house this summer was a sham; the 27,806 minutes on Paul’s knees and hamstrings result in an underwhelming season; Smith and Stephenson miss as many 3’s as DeAndre does free throws; and the script is flipped — with the Clippers going on the road to San Antonio as a sixth seed for Game 7 and losing to the Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
59-23, second in the West.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 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
- - - - - - -