The top of the Western Conference is absolutely stacked this year, even more so than usual.
The Golden State Warriors are coming off an all-time great 67-win championship season and have retained their top nine minute-getters from that squad. The San Antonio Spurs lost some depth, but absolutely made up for it and more by acquiring LaMarcus Aldridge and snatching veteran David West for the veteran’s minimum. The Oklahoma City Thunder are getting over their key injuries, which was the only thing holding them back from title contention last season. The Houston Rockets acquired Ty Lawson to give the team a second creator next to James Harden.
And yet, the Los Angeles Clippers might have had the best offseason of all the West powers.
The Clippers have been a consistently very good team since 2011, but the squad has a great chance at taking the proverbial next step in 2015-16. So let’s go through Los Angeles’ recent playoff history, how their acquisitions make the team different this year and why it’s the most equipped it has ever been for an NBA championship.
The Clippers’ Playoff History
When the Clippers traded for Chris Paul right before the 2011-12 season, they immediately entered the playoff discussion and signaled a shift in the franchise’s losing culture. Since that year, Los Angeles has made the postseason all four years and have lost in the first round once and the Western Conference Semifinals three times.
Are these four seasons of first- and second-round playoff losses anything to be ashamed of? Considering the team’s makeup and the fact that it plays in the stacked Western Conference, not at all.
The team has had a nice one-two punch with Paul and Blake Griffin throughout the four years, but problems have littered the rest of the roster.
The 2011-12 team had decent depth, but its rotation was filled with past-their-prime veterans such as Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, Reggie Evans and Randy Foye. The third scoring option in the starting lineup was Butler, which was not a good sign. That team was destined for an early playoff exit, which it suffered in Round 2 to the powerhouse Spurs.
In 2012-13, the Clippers’ defense took a step forward as new small forward Matt Barnes got the majority of minutes over the starting Butler. Jamal Crawford also replaced Mo Williams as the team’s sixth man extraordinaire. The team still lacked a strong third option and its overall firepower off the bench was nonexistent outside of Crawford and Eric Bledsoe. A seven-game first-round exit to the Memphis Grizzlies saw Griffin play poorly due to an ankle injury, and raw center DeAndre Jordan (3.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 45.5 percent shooting in the series) simply wasn’t ready to face Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
2013-14 looked promising, as new head coach Doc Rivers replaced Vinny Del Negro and Jordan took a leap to the star level of play to form a legitimate Big Three with Paul and Griffin. J.J. Redick came in during the offseason via trade and provided a huge scoring lift to the starting lineup when healthy. Darren Collison replaced Bledsoe as the backup point guard, but there wasn’t much help from frontcourt bench players besides forward Jared Dudley. In the playoffs, a rousing second-round battle with the talented Oklahoma City Thunder saw the Clippers nearly win Game 5 and take a 3-2 series lead. However, they squandered the win away and lost in six games:
And you probably know the gist of the Clippers’ 2014-15 season. Their Paul-Redick-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan unit was the best starting lineup in the league, but without Collison and Dudley giving Crawford help in the second unit, Los Angeles had virtually no depth and ran out of gas in the second round after taking a 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets.
No one was more affected by the poor depth more than Griffin. Playing 39.8 minutes per game during the playoffs and getting tons of touches, he shot 55.6 percent from the field in the first three quarters of contests but wore down and regressed to 35.1 percent in the fourth quarter and overtime.
You probably noticed a theme throughout the past four years of Clippers history: depth problems ruining the team’s great star power. So what do the Clippers go out and do this summer? Get a boatload of depth, of course.
Early on, things were looking terrible for the Clips when the Dallas Mavericks agreed to a deal with DeAndre Jordan, leaving a gaping hole in the team’s frontcourt rotation. Redick gave the team’s offseason an “F” grade at that point.
But then, there was the infamous incident with Jordan changing his mind and deciding to return to Los Angeles. The squad, represented by owner Steve Ballmer, head coach Doc Rivers, Paul, Griffin and Paul Pierce, stayed at Jordan’s house in Houston until they could officially sign a contract at midnight:
Don't agree with the furniture layout but I'm not an interior designer. pic.twitter.com/23PNgQB88z
— Blake Griffin (@blakegriffin32) July 9, 2015
So the Clippers had Jordan back, easing fears that the team might have to give 35 minutes per game to someone like JaVale McGee. But they also got Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Chuck Hayes, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Branden Dawson, and ultimate wild cards Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith to add to the bench group.
The only meaningful rotation member the team lost was losing starting forward Matt Barnes, who’s now with the Memphis Grizzlies.
How the Acquisitions Fit
Barnes was a nice fit in the starting lineup, but he’s replaceable. He was a streaky three-point shooter and decent defender who knew his role but was clearly the least impactful member of the Clippers’ top unit.
Presumably, Pierce will take his spot in the starting lineup. He’s a certified clutch assassin who’s a clear upgrade over Barnes as a spot-up shooter. On defense, his lack of quickness limits his effectiveness on the ball, but he’s a capable team defender.
As for the bench, it won’t be fully dependent on Crawford’s playmaking and scoring abilities anymore. Stephenson was an All-Star snub with the Indiana Pacers two seasons ago as an ace slasher/passer/rebounder/defender, and the swingman should be eager to bounce back after a nightmarish 2014-15 campaign with the Charlotte Hornets.
Smith provides something that’s rarely been seen from the Clippers bench in the past four years: versatility. The athletic big man can play with Griffin or Jordan because he can both finish inside and shoot (don’t laugh, he made 27 threes on 38 percent shooting in the playoffs). Some other vital services he offers are excellent defense, passing and ball-handling for a big. Regarding his defense, Smith held his opponents to just 41.8 percent shooting last season.
Watch him set up former Houston Rockets teammate Dwight Howard for numerous alley-oops versus the Mavericks in their first-round playoff series. Smith had nine assists in the second half of Game 2:
Can you imagine all the hook-ups he’ll have with Jordan and Griffin, the co-mayors of Lob City?
Admittedly, there’s a lot of risk-reward potential with both Stephenson and Smith. They’ve both been key contributors for title contenders in the past two seasons, but neither can be characterized as consistent locker-room personalities, and both have been erratic decision-makers throughout their careers.
But remember — these guys are now both key bench contributors, not starters. Even if Stephenson and Smith struggle to play to their potential with the second unit, it’s still a much more ideal situation than relying on Austin Rivers, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Spencer Hawes for key minutes, something Los Angeles was forced to do in last year’s postseason.
And despite that poor depth, the Clippers were still oh-so-close to making the Western Conference Finals, ironically falling short due to a Smith-led Rockets comeback in Game 6:
Johnson and Aldrich are guys who can come in for 12 to 14 minutes per game and focus mainly on defense. Both are former lottery picks who’ve failed to become the all-around contributors that many hoped they would be, but have potential as role players.
Johnson, for one, is actually a very good three-point shooter when he gets open, which has been a struggle since he’s never played for a team that has won more than 27 games. Last season with the Lakers, he made 77-of-199 (38.7 percent) catch-and-shoot attempts from distance and 37-of-87 (42.5 percent) when he was wide open. Expect plenty of those clean looks to come for Johnson when surrounded by the Clippers’ offensive talent.
Aldrich will make his mark as the designated rebounder for the Clippers’ second unit with his 12.0 boards per 36 minutes throughout his career. He’s a capable rim protector and a 78 percent free throw shooter since entering the NBA.
Prigioni, Hayes, Tskitishvili and Dawson project as end-of-the-benchers, if they make the final roster. Prigioni has the best chance of making an impact with hard-nosed defense and heady play in third-string point-guard minutes.
Overall Makeup of this Clippers Team
When taking into account game complementarity, Los Angeles may have the best Big Three in the NBA with Paul, Griffin and Jordan.
You have the best all-around point guard in the league in Paul creating for himself and teammates at an elite level and playing great defense. Griffin isn’t particularly good on defense, but his remarkable offensive versatility and athleticism at power forward makes him a matchup nightmare. Jordan isn’t skilled at all offensively, but he’s a beastly pick-and-roll finisher off Paul and Griffin passes, and he’s one of the best rebounders and rim protectors in the NBA.
Pierce and especially Redick are perfect as floor spacers playing with the Big Three and will make opponents pay for keying in on Paul and Griffin.
I believe the Clippers will once again have the top starting unit in the NBA, although Cleveland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio will have something to say about that.
The main concern with Los Angeles’ starting lineup, however, is defense on the wing. Against big, skilled perimeter players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, Rivers may have to give Johnson or Stephenson some run with the top group in Pierce’s place. Los Angeles won’t lock down those offensive stars, and Stephenson is especially inconsistent, but he and Johnson can help the team cut its losses by using their energy and athleticism to at least bother those stars.
And I see no reason why the bench can’t be much better than it was last year. Crawford, Hawes, Davis and Rivers were the first (and pretty much the only) four off the bench in 2014-15, and they combined to shoot just 40.9 percent from the field with an aggregate box plus-minus of negative-7.8.
A core reserve group of Prigioni, Rivers, Crawford, Stephenson, Johnson, Smith and Aldrich gives the team a few more legitimate NBA players off its bench. Even if some of the new additions don’t turn out perfectly (like Smith or Stephenson), the sheer presence of more playable guys will keep the starters fresh.
Speaking of which, here’s my proposed rotation for the Clippers during the regular season:
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they picked a bad year to revamp their bench. The top of the West should be stacked in 2015-16, with five squads (Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston and the Clippers) who have a strong chance to win the conference. All of those teams should be just as good, if not better, than they were last year, which can’t be ignored.
But if you’re letting Doc Rivers’s team fall to the bottom of that group of five because of its past playoff failures, you’re making a mistake. This is a different group of players.
The team’s starting lineup, which replaces Barnes with Pierce, is still a world-beating five-man unit with great players who complement each other well. And the bench is, at best, extremely dangerous and, at worst, still considerably better and deeper than it was last season.
Over the summer, the Clippers acquired the pieces they needed to win an NBA championship. Now it’s time to put them together.