LOS ANGELES – Expectations are high for the Los Angeles Clippers this summer, and rightfully so.
Coming off their most successful season in team history, the Clippers re-signed Chris Paul for the next five years, hired Doc Rivers as their coach, acquired two sharpshooters in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick and solidified their bench by signing Darren Collison and re-signing Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins.
But is everything really all great with the Clippers? We’ll try to find out by examining five pressing questions for the Clippers before they start training camp in a couple of months.
1. How much of an impact will Rivers and his coaching staff really have on the Clippers?
Rivers is a massive upgrade over Vinny Del Negro in the coaching department, and his assistants, whom he hired and brought over from the Boston Celtics (Alvin Gentry, Kevin Eastman, Armond Hill, Tyronn Lue and J.P. Clark) are an upgrade as well. It’s hard to say how much of an impact their presence will have on a team that won 56 games and the Pacific Division title last year, but it’s certainly not a stretch to think the Clippers can win 60 games and claim the top seed in the West next season.
Rivers, however, doesn’t just want the Clippers to have regular-season success. They've had that already. He wants them to be in a position to make a run at a championship when the playoffs roll around. He has pointed to the 2010 Celtics, who struggled to win 50 games, finished fourth in the East and nearly beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He wants the Clippers to advance to at least their first ever conference finals in his first season.
What Rivers has on his side is a recent championship ring as a head coach and the authority as the senior vice president of basketball operations to get every player on the team to listen and buy into his message. It’s something Del Negro, in a lame-duck position as a coach the past two seasons, never had, and there's no doubt it hurt the team when the Clippers could have used a more assertive leader.
It’s no secret that the Clippers were looking to deal Jordan to Boston for Garnett in a deal connected with the Rivers transaction. It wasn’t the first time that trade was proposed. It nearly happened before the trade deadline about five months earlier.
Rivers made a point to reach out to Jordan when he was hired as the coach, and it looks like Jordan will be the Clippers’ starting center going into this season. It’s not terrible news for a team on the rise to have an athletic 24-year-old center who has yet to scratch his potential returning to the team, but if the Clippers are to be serious contenders this season, Jordan will have to start scratching that potential sooner rather than later.
Jordan shot a dreadful 38 percent from the free throw line last season, and that mark didn’t improve at all during the postseason when he was forced to sit at the end of close games. Jordan will never be a great free throw shooter, but the Clippers will need him to get above 50 percent if they are to depend on him come playoff time.
3. What is the Clippers' biggest weakness right now?
The Clippers’ frontcourt depth at the moment is nonexistent. A quick look at their two-deep shows that Griffin doesn’t even have a backup at power forward and Hollins is Jordan’s only backup at center, and we just established how dependable Jordan, who averaged 24 minutes per game last season, can be.
The Clippers are in the market to sign a couple of big men at the moment to back up Griffin and Jordan, but they are over the salary cap and can only offer players veteran's minimum deals. Maybe they’ll come across a steal before training camp like Matt Barnes, but that doesn’t happen too often.
There’s a chance the Clippers could re-sign Lamar Odom to back up the four and five spots and maybe add Antawn Jamison as well. That would at least give them some flexibility and scoring punch in the frontcourt that they don’t have at the moment.
4. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin signed five-year extensions over the past two summers, but can we expect them to be teammates over the course of their deals?
It used to be unthinkable for one, let alone two franchise players to commit five years of their prime to the Clippers, but that’s exactly what Paul and Griffin have done, and unless the Clippers royally mess things up (I’ll spare you a played-out Clippers joke here), Paul and Griffin should be the cornerstones of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Of course, there was talk, albeit fleeting, about Griffin being traded for Dwight Howard this offseason, but that didn’t last long. Could Griffin’s name come up again if the Clippers don’t win this season? It’s possible but highly unlikely, according to a team source, who said Clippers owner Donald Sterling would never trade Griffin and credits him for beginning the team’s turnaround.
There had been whispers that Griffin and Paul weren’t as close as advertised last season, but both players knocked down those rumors. Griffin recently flew to Las Vegas with Paul to watch the Clippers in the NBA Summer League and Paul said he and Griffin talk and text about the team “all day, every day.”
5. Are the Clippers a championship team as currently constructed?
Probably not. They’re good enough to win the Pacific Division again and get to the Western Conference finals for the first time, but they’ll have to add another piece if they hope to get past Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the West and certainly if they want to get past Miami in the NBA Finals. The Clippers struggled with all three teams last season, going 0-6 against them after Nov. 19. The Clippers have made some improvements, but time will tell if they have improved enough to get over that hump and become one of the top three teams in the NBA.