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Saturday, May 4, 2013
Clippers look to get tougher over offseason

By Jovan Buha
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Clippers were still in shock Saturday.

They didn't expect to be out of the playoffs just two weeks after they started. Chris Paul didn't have any plans on his calendar until after June. He doesn't know how he's going to spend the rest of his summer now. He's still trying to process how to explain to his son, Little Chris, that the season is over.

But that's the harsh reality after another early playoff exit.

Despite setting a franchise record for wins (56) and securing their first Pacific Division championship, among various other season accolades, the Clippers couldn't manage to get any further in the playoffs this season than they did last season. If anything, they regressed, losing in the first round instead of the semifinals.

Without a doubt, the Clippers' top priority this offseason is re-signing Paul, and rightfully so. He's their franchise player, a superstar and arguably the best point guard in the league. With Blake Griffin already locked up until 2017, the Clippers hope to preserve their All-Star duo for at least the next half-decade.

Yet having Paul and Griffin alone won't get the Clippers to the Western Conference finals and beyond. It didn't even get them out of the first round this season, even after taking a 2-0 series lead against a team they had beaten in last year's playoffs and won the season series against, 3-1.

For the Clippers to take the next step as a franchise and endure longer postseason runs, they need to add younger and better-fitting pieces.

The Memphis Grizzlies exposed L.A.'s lack of big man depth behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and made the Clippers look old and slow on the perimeter. The Clippers also need to get a little tougher, as the Grizzlies pushed them around, controlling the paint, the boards and the series.

When asked at the Clippers' exit interviews if they needed to add toughness over the offseason, Matt Barnes said: "Yeah, definitely. I think that was exploited this series. We have a lot of talent, but we do need to [get tougher]. With our two bigs (Griffin and Jordan), I think people point a lot of fingers at them because they're young. But it's a learning experience. I'm 11 years in this and I'm still learning. We have to do a better job as a team."

Barnes is set to be a free agent, as well as Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Willie Green, Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins and, of course, Paul. It's unclear who's coming back, but the Clippers have stated they want to retain most of their core.

A California native, Barnes has expressed interest in possibly returning. He was one of L.A.'s toughest players this season, often defending the opponent's best perimeter scorer and playing power forward in small ball lineups against bigger players. A known hothead, Barnes ranked 14th in the league in technical fouls, racking up 10, and constantly provided energy and tenacity off the bench.

"Toughness is a mentality," Barnes said. "I think there are things you can do to toughen yourself up. It comes with experience and knowing the game and tricks to the game. It's not necessarily sticking your chest out and saying I'm tough. It's about learning the ins and outs of the game as you spend years in the game."

For the playoffs, Barnes averaged 11.8 points, highlighted by his 30-point, 10-rebound performance in Game 6. Besides Paul, Griffin and Barnes, only Jamal Crawford (10.8 points) averaged in double figures, and those four -- along with Eric Bledsoe, in brief stints -- seemed to be the only guys to have a positive impact on the series.

The renowned depth the Clippers spoke about all season was overmatched and ultimately disappeared during the postseason. Their 3-point shooting went cold (30.4 percent), they stopped forcing turnovers (their steals decreased from 9.6 in the regular season to 5.2 in the series) and no one averaged more than Jordan's pedestrian 6.3 rebounds.

With only four of the Clippers' key rotation players under 30 years old -- Paul (if he re-signs), Griffin, Jordan and Bledsoe -- it might be a point of emphasis to infuse some youth into the roster. They'll try to keep Paul and Barnes, and maybe Billups and Odom, and then look at the draft and free-agent market for younger and more athletic players.

Overall, this promises to be a long and reflective offseason for the Clippers -- one that figures to be very telling of the franchise's direction the next decade -- and they seem to know it.

As a few different players said, there are no more moral victories. With the current roster, it's championship or bust. The 2012-13 Clippers ended up busting.

At his exit interview, Paul was asked if the Clippers could build a championship team with their current roster. He shook his head and said, "I don't know. This right here is unacceptable, though. We lost in the first round."