The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
2016-17 finish: 51-31, lost in the first round
• Offensive rating: 110.3 (4th)
• Defensive rating: 105.8 (13th)
Additions: Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Willie Reed, Montrezl Harrell, Sindarius Thornwell, Jawun Evans
Subtractions: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson
Did the summer help at all?
In the words of the philosopher Pootie Tang: I’ve got to say the nay-no, my brother.
Look, the Clippers bounced back about as well as you can expect from losing the All-World orchestrator of everything they’ve done for the past half-dozen years, as well as their starting shooting guard and small forward, longtime sixth man and primary backup point guard. No, they didn’t get equal value for Paul. But getting the Houston Rockets to send back an elite defensive point guard (Beverley), an excellent second-unit scorer (Williams), a quality developmental combo forward (Dekker) and a solid backup center (Harrell) represents an awfully strong haul, especially considering the pennies-on-the-dollar return that several other teams got for their outgoing perennial All-Stars this summer. And if you’ve got to lose one All-Star playmaker, there are worse ways to rebound than by committing to retain your other one, which the Clippers did by backing up the Brinks truck to keep power forward Blake Griffin in L.A. for the next half-decade.
Adding Euroleague superstar Teodosic, one of the world’s most gifted and audacious passers, ought to ensure the Clippers remain residents of Lob City in Paul’s absence. Gallinari, acquired in a three-team deal, could be the small forward the Clippers lacked throughout the entire CP3 era, a damn good shooter, scorer and initiator when he’s not injured and/or punching dudes in the face. Reed’s a solid rebounder, shot-blocker and energetic reserve, and adds depth behind All-Star DeAndre Jordan. There are real players here, ones who can shoot and pass and score and defend, and there looks to be more depth than any Clippers team has had since coach Doc Rivers came aboard.
As good and disruptive a one-on-one defender as CP3 is, a unit spearheaded by Jordan and Beverley should be at least as good as the one that finished 13th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession last year. And over the past few years, when he’s been healthy and tasked with operating as a point forward in Paul’s stead, Griffin has often looked like about as close a thing to LeBron as there is outside Northeast Ohio — a combination of brute force, grace and vision capable of unlocking a more egalitarian version of L.A.’s attack. The continuity that had been the Clippers’ calling card went out the window in a major way, but amid the unknowns left in its wake is some cause for optimism.
There’s also, of course, cause for concern.
As understandable as re-upping Griffin was for a franchise desperate to retain relevance after losing Paul, Clipper fans would be within their rights to feel queasy about the risks inherent in committing a full-boat five-year, $173 million max deal to a player who hasn’t played more than 67 games in the last three years, and whose medical history includes a long list of leg injuries. Longstanding concerns about how two more interior-bound bigs like Griffin and Jordan would fare without Paul were a bit overblown last year — Blake-DJ-no CP3 lineups outscored opponents by a healthy 4.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data — but replicating that success over a full season, with so much turnover and so many new pieces being integrated, feels like a big ask.
That’ll be especially true if Gallinari — 6-foot-10, with multiple injuries in his rearview mirror too, and likely better suited as a small-ball power forward than a full-time small forward — struggles to mesh with Griffin and Jordan on the defensive end. If the Clips struggle with their expected starting frontcourt, or when they go small with Blake at the five, who mans the three spot? Dekker, too, looks like more of a combo forward. Wesley Johnson, while serviceable, isn’t a viable big-minutes answer. Do the Clips downsize and slot Austin Rivers at the three, with some combination of Williams, Beverley and Teodosic in the backcourt? How do those lineups avoid hemorrhaging points?
You don’t get better by losing Chris Paul. Still, if everything goes right and everyone stays healthy, you can squint and see the Clippers winning about 60 percent of their games and making the playoffs, with Griffin emerging as an MVP candidate.
That’s the thing, though. Does everything ever go right for the Clippers?
Best-case scenario: Griffin storms the league as an unquestioned No. 1 option. Jordan continues providing All-NBA-caliber defense and pick-and-roll finishing. Gallinari proves capable of holding his own on the wing. Beverley and Teodosic become the NBA’s most beloved two-man power trip at the point. Austin Rivers proves, once and for all, that He Is Good. The Clippers win 50-plus and Blake finishes in the top five in MVP voting. This time, the injury luck finally breaks their way, as they upset Paul, Harden and the Rockets in the conference semifinals in one of the great exorcisms in recent NBA history before pursuing another one against the Warriors.
If everything falls apart: Griffin, Gallinari and Beverley all miss significant time due to injury. The Beverley-Teodosic-Williams-Rivers contingent can’t muster a reasonable approximation of the playmaking and punch provided by Paul, Redick and Crawford. There’s not enough shooting to space the floor, allowing defenses to pinch down and choke off Jordan in the pick-and-roll game. Rivers can’t find the right rotational balance with a roster skewed too heavily toward combo guards and combo forwards, and the Clips get chewed up every time a good swingman comes into town. L.A. falls below .500, falling out of the West’s top eight for the first time since 2011 as Jordan stares down his $24.1 million player option for 2018-19 and considers pulling up stakes once again.
Best guess at a record: 46-36
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 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 • LosAngelesClippers • 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