The Clippers entered the 2015-16 season in much the same way they entered the previous campaign, with an ideal that sustains as unnervingly familiar. The team did not want to waste yet another year of Chris Paul’s brilliance, working alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in their respective primes, as its series of aging helpers moved closer and closer to 40.
What a waste it was. Los Angeles bleated its way toward 53 wins in a Western Conference that saw Golden State and San Antonio combine for 140 victories, before bowing out in the first round against an upstart Portland Trail Blazers squad. That disappointment came after a summer spent stewing in the wake of a blown attempt at making the Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, with a soon-to-be deadened Houston Rockets squad somehow ending the Clips’ 2014-15 regular and postseason work after finding themselves down 3-1 to Los Angeles in the second round.
It’s too easy a swipe, but sometimes the obvious can derail. Blake Griffin’s altercation with a former team manager in the wee hours of a dinner outing gone wrong set too strong a tone for things. Already out with a bum quadriceps, Griffin needlessly decided to punch with his shooting hand during the brouhaha; costing himself 47 regular season games in total between the quad setback, a broken right hand and a deserved suspension. Apologies on top of apologies won’t make the misstep go away, especially when reviewing his underwhelming 15-point, 8.8-rebound turn in the postseason.
Griffin shot 37.7 percent in four games against the Blazers before his quadriceps injury returned to pull him from the playoffs. Paul, after nearly two full seasons of perfect health, fractured his right hand in a freak in-game accident and was also lost for the final two games of the first round.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
All is not lost, though. Not with that triptych still in place and Doc Rivers (“getting past the second round is such a [expletive] goal”) still smarting.
After two years of waste, at the absolute worst time(s), the fact that we’re still considering the Clippers as formidable in spite of the internally developed Sturm und Drang is cheery enough.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
Los Angeles summers tend to blend together, after a while. There’s the occasional spot of rain, forcing freeway drivers to move their cars as if a blizzard just hit. Santa Ana winds come in again and again, and there is the odd bout of heatstroke; but by and large the days and nights from July through September remain about the same.
The Clippers, under Doc Rivers, have adapted wonderfully to this.
Once again, the Clippers were capped out and held back from significant upkeep due to myriad salary cap restrictions. Once again, Doc decided to splurge as best he could on the familiar. And, as stated above, it’s a credit to Rivers’ ability as a coach and the potential of his All-Stars that we’re not completely writing off the Clips in the wake of a fourth consecutive offseason spent lusting after players that looked awfully handsome all the way back in 2009.
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
The Clippers did as they do in the draft, selecting Brice Johnson out of North Carolina to sit on the end of the bench for just about all of his rookie season. Greybeard Paul Pierce decided to return for one final season, while center Cole Aldrich had to leave for Minnesota when the Clippers could not compete financially for his services without owning his Bird Rights. Josh Smith, who mostly disappointed save for the odd contribution whilst defending the rim, did not return.
Jamal Crawford, an underwhelming pick as last season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award winner, will be back with a massive three-year, $42 million deal to cling to. The 36-year old remains a mensch of the highest order, but it’s more than likely that contract will look like a reach even this year, much less in 2017-18 when he’s due to make over $14.2 million (the third year is only partially guaranteed).
Desperate to retain depth, the team committed to Austin Rivers to the tune of three years (the final is a player option) and $35 million. These are overpays even in the days of the enhanced salary cap, make no mistake, but the Clippers had little choice in the matter. The team would have been bereft of options to sign players to even approximate Crawford and Rivers’ contributions had they let both walk. Such is life with a top-heavy, star-laden roster. Boo, bloody, hoo.
From there? The regulars. Here they come.
Marreese Speights, a wonderful man with a wonderful offensive touch, at one year and the league minimum. Alan Anderson, aged 34 this season, for the same. Brandon Bass, shockingly an ex-Celtic, at similar rates. Dorell Wright, ditto. Raymond Felton, who alternates years both good and terrible, for 2016-17 at the league’s minimum salary.
As always, the line is still blurred. Do the Clippers function this way because this is how they have to work, or because this is how they like to work?
Potential breakout stud:
These are the Clippers. They boast three studs, you know where they’re coming from and what they’re about to do to the NBA some 50-odd times per season, and the team hasn’t had a surprise since, well … y’know.
Due to these limitations, your best bet might be a guy who supplied his initial work at the fin de siècle. Paul Pierce, aged 39 this season and about to enter his 19th (and final) year, might be this team’s best chance at a breakout wrinkle.
Anything has to be better than last season, when Pierce supplied the only single-digit scoring campaign of his Hall of Fame career (6.1 points, on 36 percent shooting) with a 2-12 shooting performance in the postseason. Badly falling back on a team that was so desperate for swingman help that it started Luc Mbah a Moute at small forward for long stretches until Blake Griffin’s injuries thankfully put an end to that practice.
“Superstars can’t be role players,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers declared. “Actually, they can be if they want to be, but fans don’t want to see that.
“Paul had an awful year and he knows that. He doesn’t want to go out like that, and I respect that totally.”
If Pierce can even approximate his turn as a Washington Wizard from a year and a half ago, he’ll give the Clippers minutes that they badly need to sop up. There is still a legitimate chance that The Truth could outplay fellow Clipper small forward Wesley Johnson, who works a decade younger, prior to sending his career out on the right note.
Same as we’ve sung for years: Los Angeles gets hot at the right time, and takes four of seven games from an outsized opponent in the second, third or even fourth (!) round of the playoffs.
The West, with a presumed step back from the San Antonio Spurs and Kevin Durant’s move from Oklahoma City to Golden State, seems chock full of parity once you get past the defending Western champion Warriors. The Clippers, should the simulation go according to plan from October through April, will be in the thick of that.
The hope is that everyone stays healthy, if not for the duration of the regular season then for the right times once April and May hit. From there Doc Rivers could pull off his best Rick Carlisle impersonation with the role players, and we could finally see a Clipper team working larger than the sum of its disparate parts.
If everything falls apart:
The wheels could finally fall off Chris Paul. Blake Griffin could stand revealed as a Wild Boy, as the drumbeat leading up to his unrestricted free agency turn in 2017 thumps louder and louder. The rim protection falls off significantly with Aldrich and Josh Smith being replaced by Dr. Speights, the swingmen fail to contribute, while the ungodly drop off between CP3 and his bench replacements sustains from 2015-16 to 2016-17; even with the seemingly solid Raymond Felton on board.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
55-27, tied for second in the West.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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
– – – – – – –