Eight questions for the offseason

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
6:47
AM PT

After a successful opening run, Lob City has officially closed its doors for summer construction. How it will look when it finally opens back up again in October is anybody’s guess, but it's clear this town needs to make a few changes before it can be considered a serious contender.

Here are eight key questions facing the Clippers this offseason.

1. What happens with Vinny Del Negro?

Del Negro's future has been a cloud lingering over the team since late March, when the Clippers lost three road games in three days. The coach was on the hottest of hot seats and looked as though he would lose his job with the team’s next loss. The Clippers then won six straight games, salvaging Del Negro’s job and their season.

Was the Clippers’ strong finish and first playoff series win in six years enough to save Del Negro’s job? Clippers general manager Neil Olshey wouldn’t discuss Del Negro’s job status during the team’s exit interviews, but he has until June 1 to decide whether to exercise the team option on Del Negro for next year. The bigger question may be which coach the team believes would appease Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, who will soon decide on their long-term futures. Are the Clippers better off sticking with Del Negro or making a run at one of the high-profile free-agent coaches like Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan, Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Van Gundy? The smart money is on the Clippers sticking with Del Negro for one more season.

2. Will Paul and Griffin be with the Clippers for the long haul?

When questions about Paul and Griffin come up, Clippers front-office types like Olshey and team president Andy Roeser always use the term “Clipper for life.” It used to be a tag only worn by their longtime play-by-play man Ralph Lawler. After all, who would voluntarily chose to play with the Clippers forever and for Donald Sterling if they could go elsewhere?

That culture, however, has slowly begun to change, and much of that shift in philosophy has a lot to do with the presence of Griffin and Paul. If both believe they can be the cornerstones of a successful franchise, there is a good chance they will stay with the Clippers. There is no doubt the Clippers will offer both players max deals. The only question is whether they can do enough to convince Paul and Griffin that they will do everything possible to surround them with the players needed to contend for a championship.

3. What does Griffin need to do to take his game to next level?

There are clearly two key elements to Griffin’s game he plans to work on in the offseason. He has to improve his free throw shooting, and he has to develop a more consistent midrange game. Although the midrange game is a work in progress and will take time to develop, there really is no excuse for Griffin to be so poor from the free throw line. He was a 64.2 percent free throw shooter in his rookie season and dropped to 52.1 percent from the free throw line this past season. Griffin said he watches film on Karl Malone all the time, and maybe he would be best served to study how Malone went from an average free throw shooter in his first two seasons in the league to consistently shooting about 70 percent from the free throw line. Chances are Griffin won’t get as many hard fouls if he is shooting at that clip from the charity stripe the rest of his career.

4. Will DeAndre Jordan develop an offensive game?

After the Clippers signed Jordan to a four-year, $43 million contract in the offseason, you would think the least they could expect from their starting center is to be offensively efficient enough to play in the fourth quarter. Jordan’s offensive limitations and inability to hit free throws, however, made him a liability at the end of games, and he was usually sitting at the end of the bench instead of being on the floor during crucial stretches of close games. If Jordan can develop any semblance of an offensive game (he averaged only 7.4 points last season) and improve his free throw shooting (he was a 52.5 percent free throw shooter last season), that would help him go a long way toward earning his big contract and would give the Clippers a potent one-two punch down low.

5. Will Chauncey Billups return?

Perhaps the biggest turning point in the Clippers’ season was when they lost Billups for the season in February with a torn left Achilles tendon. The Clippers were leading the Pacific Division and were the second-best team in the West with Billups in the backcourt with Paul. After he went down and was replaced by Randy Foye, the Clippers were a .500 team before finally getting hot toward the end of the season. Billups said he is not retiring and plans on coming back next season, and the Clippers certainly would like to have him back. There is a feeling that Billups has some unfinished business with the Clippers, and there’s no doubt Paul will do everything he can to persuade Billups, whom he called his “big brother” and “the best backcourt teammate I’ve ever had,” to make one more run with him and the Clippers next season.

6. Who will the Clippers make a run at?

When asked which needs the Clippers were looking to address in the offseason, Olshey and Del Negro said the Clippers would be in the market for a starting shooting guard and a stretch 4 who could help spread the floor with Griffin and Jordan. The Clippers likely will make a run at Ray Allen, who would be the perfect complement to Paul in the backcourt and would add championship experience and veteran leadership to a group that could always use more of that.

7. How will the Olympics help Paul and Griffin?

Technically they’re not on the team yet, but chances are both Paul and Griffin will be on Team USA this summer in London. That time together certainly will help the chemistry between both players. If they win the gold medal, it also would go a long way toward building that culture of winning they’ve talked about and bringing that over to the Clippers when they return from the Olympics. Paul said he grew up a lot during the Olympics four years ago, and a similar experience for Griffin likely would go a long way toward his development as a player and leader on the Clippers.

8. How much will this team benefit from a full offseason and training camp?

It’s doesn’t really matter who the coach is or who the players are, having a full offseason and training camp, not to mention ample practices during the season, will help everyone get on the same page this season. The Clippers were essentially put together over a one-week span before the start of last season when the Clippers acquired Paul, Billups and Caron Butler. As the season went along, they added Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin and Nick Young, and they welcomed back Eric Bledsoe from offseason surgery. It seemed the Clippers were adding new players to an already new roster every week and were never fully able to jell. Having that time will only help Lob City become a more functional and cohesive municipality at the start of next season.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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