Coming off a third straight season of 55-plus regular-season wins, Doc Rivers’s Los Angeles Clippers face unprecedented expectations. Stacked with arguably the deepest roster in franchise history, Rivers will be tasked with leading his club over the proverbial hump after a second-round playoff implosion that saw the Clippers’ season end earlier than anyone — especially those in that locker room — had anticipated.
After adding the steadying presence of Paul Pierce’s veteran leadership to a locker room that needs it and him, the Clippers are fresh out of excuses entering the 2015-16 campaign. The clock is officially ticking on the Big Three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and after everything that transpired with Jordan’s free agency this summer, you can be certain the spotlight will be on those three every single night.
What Happened Last Season
Record: 56 wins, 26 losses
Season Result: Lost 4-3 to Houston Rockets, Western Conference Semis
Doc Rivers got a firsthand taste of what life is like as the front office decision-maker, and it’s safe to say that he may have underestimated the work that’s actually involved. “I didn’t do my job enough,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski during the offseason. “You can’t take it for granted. You can’t leave it for anybody else. Sometimes you’ve got to get your hands dirty.”
The offseason additions of Jordan Farmar (two years, $4 million) and Spencer Hawes (four years, $23 million) didn’t work, and neither made it a full 365 days on the roster. Playing Paul and Griffin both well over 35 minutes per game, Rivers put all of his eggs into one basket and trusted his stars to carry a flawed team. While that’s a recipe that can breed success over an 82-game schedule, those issues will be exploited in a seven-game playoff series. The Clippers lacked a real backup behind their two frontcourt stars and nothing that resembled an answer at the small-forward spot, and both were critical reasons why the team ultimately fell apart.
After advancing past the San Antonio Spurs in emphatic fashion in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, the Clippers became a sexy pick to finally win that elusive NBA championship. When Los Angeles took what appeared to be a commanding 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets in the second round and looked to be on the verge of doing something special, Chef James Harden got to cooking and the Rockets completed a furious comeback that left the Clippers with nothing but questions when the team thought they had all of the answers. Entering an offseason of uncertainty with Jordan an unrestricted free agent, rumors of distress between key players and little flexibility to upgrade the roster, the Clippers were at a legitimate crossroads.
What Happened This Summer
Key Additions: C DeAndre Jordan (re-signed, UFA), SF Paul Pierce (signed, UFA), G/F Lance Stephenson (trade), F Josh Smith (signed, UFA), F/C Chuck Hayes (signed, UFA), F Wes Johnson (signed, UFA), G Austin Rivers (re-signed, UFA), C Cole Aldrich (signed, UFA).
Key Subtractions: F Matt Barnes (trade), F/C Spencer Hawes (trade), F/C Glen Davis (UFA).
Tasked with one giant to-do this offseason due to both priority and perceived lack of flexibility, the Clippers’ only job was to not allow to Jordan walk out that door in free agency. Everyone knew of the issues that were brewing between Jordan and the Clippers’ two marquee stars in Paul and Griffin, but nobody wanted to admit it or do anything about it.
Instead, the team ignored it and hoped it’d go away, and it almost blew the doors off of everything Doc Rivers and Co. are trying to build in Los Angeles. With Jordan known to be seeking a bigger role, brighter spotlight and to be placed front and center, the Dallas Mavericks’ offer — sold by team pitchman Chandler Parsons — certainly appeared to be an attractive one. So good, in fact, that Jordan gave Mark Cuban’s team a verbal commitment during the unofficial free-agent signing period, and everyone was led to believe that Lil’ Wayne’s “Go DJ” would be making a rowdy revival at the American Airlines Center. That, of course, is not exactly how it went down.
After Jordan had second thoughts about leaving the Clippers and expressed those to the appropriate parties, it didn’t take long for Rivers to swoop in and reel Jordan back into the fold. Like most kids going through that maturation process and in a position of power for the first time in their life, Jordan just wanted to feel wanted by those who he wanted the most. Those who don’t believe in the psychology of emotion should ask Jordan about that very topic.
While that process was ongoing, the Clippers managed to solidify the wing with the additions of Pierce and Johnson, and just days after Jordan decided to return to L.A., the team decided to take a gamble on Stephenson’s upside at the expense of Hawes’s terrible contract. Put another way: The Clippers began the offseason with no certainty about Jordan’s future and seemingly no way to meaningfully improve the roster, and by the end of the process wound up grading out with near Straight A’s on every analyst’s offseason report card.
Key Player: DeAndre Jordan, Center
PG: C. Paul, A. Rivers, P. Prigioni
SG: J. Redick, J. Crawford, L. Stephenson, C. Wilcox
SF: P. Pierce, W. Johnson
PF: B. Griffin, J. Smith, B. Dawsen
C: D. Jordan, C. Aldrich, C. Hayes
You could really pick a number of players on this roster to fit here, but we’ll focus on Jordan for what should be obvious reasoning. Establishing career-highs virtually across the board last season, Jordan will be looking for more responsibility in his first season as a max contract player.
After shooting an eye-popping 71 percent from the field, Jordan will be hoping to average more than the 6.5 shots he saw last season. Despite first averaging 6.0 shots per game during the 2012-13 season and playing in every game since, he’s seen his average output rise just half of a shot over the last three seasons. With more mouths to feed than ever on a club that’ll play every game in a pressure cooker, getting the big man more involved will be easier said than done. Doc Rivers has already called for him to be more unselfish, but it’s going to require more than words alone for Jordan’s role increase to be more than just an offseason talking point.
Even if Jordan does get a couple of extra shots per game, don’t expect the Clippers to start playing through DJ. This is still Paul’s team, and Griffin is still going to lead the Clippers in scoring on a near-nightly basis. Jordan’s most major and specific value will be as this team’s defensive anchor, but don’t be surprised if the club looks to force it to him a little more than we’re used to when the season first begins. Whether that style of play holds up for very long is another discussion entirely.
After an offseason where just about everyone involved was given a reality check, an increased sense of urgency could very well be the Clippers’ best friend. Now with the firm understanding that nothing lasts forever, Paul, Griffin and Jordan should all be fully motivated — albeit for different reasons — to go as far as they possibly can in the 2016 postseason.
The team was able to retain Jamal Crawford rather than use him as a trade chip this offseason, the club added Stephenson for scraps and convinced Pierce to take the mini mid-level in order to chase another ring. Armed with two of the game’s top 15 players, depth they only could’ve dreamt about previously and a freshly motivated Jordan inside, the Clippers should have the expectation bar set high — right around 60 wins.
It’s time for Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Rivers to deliver. They’ll never have a better shot.
Prediction: Advance to Western Conference Finals