No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers There is not a more beleaguered coach in the league than Vinny Del Negro. During a particularly trying spell last season in which the Clippers went 7-12 bridging February and March, some pundit on a daily basis was calling for Del Negro's head on a platter, and it even seemed as though the players were fed up, too. But then something happened. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Co., won six in a row to right the ship, and they closed out the final 19 regular-season games with a 14-5 record. They produced one of the most remarkable comebacks in playoff history in Game 1 on the Memphis Grizzlies' floor and then won there again in Game 7 despite Paul and Griffin being badly banged up. Sure, the Clips were easy pickings for the rolling San Antonio Spurs in the second round, but Del Negro -- for better or worse -- kept his job. The Clippers, who won 40 games for the first time since 2006-07 despite playing just 66 games and at least that many for just the sixth time in Clippers franchise history, look to have the pieces in place to build upon that this season.
The Clippers hope Blake Griffin is healthy and can expand his offensive game, which would make him and Chris Paul an even more formidable combo.
This season's games Dec. 5: @Clippers
Jan. 9: @Clippers
March 26: vs. Clippers
What's changed? First off, the Clippers hope the knee injury Griffin sustained in July working out with Team USA is a non-issue when training camp opens (as well as Paul's surgically repaired thumb). It might also serve as another signal for Griffin to find less violent ways to play the game and score the basketball. The All-Star power forward is widely criticized for possessing little offensive prowess outside of catching lobs and punishing defenders on his way to a posterizing dunk. Even so, Griffin has averaged a double-double in each of his first two seasons, averaging at least 20 points in both. He averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds last season, so if he does develop a true low-post game, the 6-foot-10, 251-pounder will be downright scary if not indefensible. The Clippers believe they've enhanced their roster, starting with the return of veteran guard Chauncey Billups, who missed 46 games last season with an Achilles injury. Grant Hill is one of several new additions. The 39-year-old was brought on board for his heady defense and his steady head. They also signed sharpshooter Jamal Crawford to replace Randy Foye and Mo Williams. The wild card acquisition was taking Lamar Odom off the Mavs' hands. The Clips will pay Odom his full $8.2 million and they hope to get a rejuvenated effort out of one of the league's most versatile forwards.
How the Mavs match up No one can seriously claim they match up well with CP3, but as with the Nuggets' Ty Lawson and the Spurs' Tony Parker, Dallas can now at least shadow Paul with the youth and quickness of Darren Collison, as well as O.J. Mayo. L.A.'s backcourt could be dynamic with Paul fresh off winning the gold medal, Billups returning, Eric Bledsoe healthy again and Crawford popping 3s off the bench. The front court will also be a load. Mavs center Chris Kaman will likely be assigned to Griffin, just as Brendan Haywood was last season, allowing Dirk Nowitzki to handle the mostly negligible offensive threat of Clips center DeAndre Jordan. Sturdy defender Elton Brand will be a welcome addition to take turns on Griffin as well as Odom, whom Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson has predicted a big season for in his return to his cherished L.A. And then there's still the toughness of Caron Butler, who played in the postseason with a broken wrist, and the declining but still dangerous mid-range game of old man Hill. At least Shawn Marion knows he won't have to tackle Paul this time around. All-in-all, the Mavs possess more speed and athleticism on the perimeter to play with the Clips, but this looks to be a very difficult matchup, particularly in a seven-game playoff series.