The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
There’s an old cliche about the definition of insanity. They say it’s doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s been attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Ben Franklin.
I’m not really sure where the saying started, but I know where I’m going with it: Los Angeles Clippers head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers is, by very definition, an insane person.
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Every summer, he opens a revolving door for NBA journeymen, and every year the result is the same. If there were a Hall of Fame for guys who have bounced around the league over the past few years, it would just be the list of dudes Rivers has signed and discarded since taking over the Clippers in 2013:
• Cole Aldrich
• Lou Amundsun
• Matt Barnes
• Darren Collison
• Glen Davis
• Chris Douglas-Roberts
• Jared Dudley
• Jordan Farmar
• Danny Granger
• Jeff Green
• Spencer Hawes
• Chuck Hayes
• Ryan Hollins
• Stephen Jackson
• Antawn Jamison
• Dahntay Jones
• Byron Mullens
• Pablo Prigioni
• Nate Robinson
• Josh Smith
• Lance Stephenson
• Hedo Turkoglu
• Sasha Vujacic
• Ekpe Udoh
Look at that list. It’s tremendous. I think that’s literally every veteran who’s changed teams at some point in the last four years. Seriously, if you’re an NBA journeyman looking for work, and Rivers hasn’t offered you a job, I’m pretty sure your phone is broken. Otherwise, you’d be on the Clippers right now.
This year’s crop of new Clippers features Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights. I mean, c’mon, you couldn’t come up with a more journeymen-y foursome than that bunch.
Yet, the excitement around the Clips will remain the same. As he did on the Vertical Pod with Woj, Rivers will sell us on the idea that the distraction of Donald Sterling led to a blown 15-point lead in Game 5 and an eventual six-game loss to the Thunder in the 2014 Western Conference semifinals.
In the same breath, Rivers offered this excuse for blowing a 3-1 lead to the Rockets in the same series a year later: “I feel like we were the better team, but you’ve got to give them credit — they beat us.”
(And you wonder why, as Howard Beck wrote, “Everyone in the NBA Hates the Los Angeles Clippers.”)
Then, there’s this past season, when “within a five-minute span” Rivers learned of season-ending injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, which isn’t so much an excuse as it is the reason the Clippers lost their first-round series to the Blazers. Still, in his conversation with Adrian Wojnarowski this summer, Rivers rationalized, “They were putting us in the Finals,” as if a healthy Paul and Griffin were merely a Stephen Curry knee injury away from beating the Warriors and Thunder for West supremacy.
“It’s just like we can’t get out of our own way, but we’re right there,” he said. “We’ve put together a pretty good team. Our bench last year was third in the league in scoring, first after Christmas. That’s a little misleading, because that’s all we were playing. Once Blake went down, we had to play our bench a ton. So, I thought we were built and ready to take a step, and again we were not allowed to do it.”
For the record, the Clippers indeed led the league in bench scoring after Christmas last season, scoring 41.8 points per game, according to NBA.com/stats. Of course, their bench also allowed 43.5 points per contest over that same span — good for second-to-last in the league. So, yeah, not great.
But part of me wants to believe Rivers when he says the Clippers have been snakebitten. After all, the Donald Sterling drama was a distraction in 2014. They should’ve beaten the Rockets in 2015. And they might’ve challenged a hobbled Warriors team if not for injuries to a pair of perennial All-Stars in 2016.
And part of me wonders if I’m also insane for believing a core of Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford — as talented a quintet as anybody but the Warriors can roll out — could actually contend, if healthy, if everybody gets along, if all the breaks go their way this time around.
Then, again, Chris Paul turns 32 this season. He’s played 27,725 minutes — 30,351 if you count the playoffs. In recent memory, Jason Kidd and Tony Parker quarterbacked their teams to titles with that many miles on their treads, but they each had another all-time great on their rosters in 2011 and 2014.
Can Griffin be that all-time great? He’s finished top-10 in MVP voting on three occasions, including a third-place finish in 2013-14, before the whole Sterling fiasco unraveled. Last season was not one of his finer performances, since he tore his left quadriceps, missed some more time for breaking his hand on a team employee’s face, and then aggravated the aforementioned left quad injury. Yikes.
Yet, there’s reason to believe in Griffin. In limited action, he averaged 21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists last season — numbers matched only by Kevin Durant (28.2-8.2-5.0). If Griffin can expand upon extremely limited sample sizes that have, as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor notes, seen him excel as a spot-up 3-point shooter and a pick-and-roll ball-handler, there are dimensions he can add to his game that’d launch him to the same power forward stratosphere as Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
And then there’s DeAndre Jordan, whose fatal free-throw shooting flaw may be more of a flesh wound this season. The NBA expanded its rules against Hack-a-Shaq tactics, curbing away-from-the-play fouls in the final two minutes of each quarter, rather than just the fourth, creating an additional six minutes of potentially effective Jordan per game. And don’t forget the constant tease that a 28-year-old center, who attempted 98.8 percent of his shots last year inside of 8 feet, will expand his range.
It takes a real stretch of the imagination to believe Paul will play to his peak at age 32, Griffin can take another leap and Jordan will be anything more than a dominant force around the rim, all without incident in the same season, and that’d be fine if their supporting cast could make up the difference.
But they can’t. Redick is as good a shooter as there is, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a Yahoo Sports colleague. They’re good with him. Crawford won his third Sixth Man of the Year honor in 2015-16, but there’s no way he deserved it, not when the Clippers were almost seven points better per 100 possessions with him off the court last season. And their next-best player might be a 39-year-old Paul Pierce, who shot 36.3 percent last year. Austin Rivers isn’t bad; he’s not exactly good, either. They’ve got a pair of rookies with potential — Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone — who Doc won’t ever play, as is his custom. The rest of them, while a professional bunch, are journeymen, a dime a dozen.
So, why should we expect anything other than the same result the Clippers have suffered each of the previous five seasons? Because Durant’s departure from the Thunder and Duncan’s retirement from the Spurs are the first two of many such breaks that could pave the way for the franchise’s first-ever conference finals appearance? And maybe they could challenge the Warriors, so long as distractions off the court, feuds on it and health problems all over the place plague someone else for a change.
Now, I’m just being crazy.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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