Since going up 3-1 against the Houston Rockets in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers have had some pretty bad luck. As if blowing the series lead and failing to make it to the Western Conference Finals (again) wasn’t bad enough, the Clippers had even less success last season, as injuries to both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin led to a first-round playoff exit.
With that said, the Clippers still finished last season with a top-five net rating despite Griffin missing 47 games. Even though the end result wasn’t what Doc Rivers and company were aiming for, there were a lot of positives and room to be optimistic about their lofty goals for this upcoming season.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
As mentioned above, Griffin missed 47 games with a quadriceps injury and a broken hand, with the latter injury being accompanied by off-court drama. While it was disappointing that the season was essentially a wash for the 27-year-old All-Star power forward, the team was still among the most competitive not only in their conference, but in the entire NBA.
Can you remember the last bad team Chris Paul played on? How about the last bad season he had? Paul continues to prove that he’s a once-in-a-generation talent, as he held the team together without a top-10ish talent in Griffin for the overwhelming majority of last season.
Despite posting a 27.1 usage rate (the second-highest of his career), Paul remained his usual efficient self, averaging 19.5 points and 10 assists per game with a shooting line of 46.2/37.1/89.6. He posted the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA behind Mike Conley, and placed in the top 10 in Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player.
As great as Paul’s individual stats look, it’s his impact on his teammates that makes him such an elite talent. Few teammates benefited more than Paul’s backcourt mate J.J. Redick, who in his third season with the Clippers posted a career-best (and league-leading) 47.5 three point percentage, and finished the season with the fifth-best net rating of all guards to log at least 25 minutes per game (Paul ranked sixth).
DeAndre Jordan also stepped up big in Griffin’s absence, posting a career-best 12.7 points per game, leading the NBA in both field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage. Jordan’s career year led to him being selected First-Team All-NBA and landed him his second straight All-Defensive First-Team selection as well.
And while head coach/president Doc Rivers missed on his big additions in Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson (they were released and traded, respectively, midseason) and Paul Pierce, he found value in journeymen Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute, who are both back this season.
While the Clippers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, considering both Paul (hand) and Griffin (quad) suffered season-ending injuries four games into the postseason, last year should still be viewed as a circumstantial success.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER?
Since the Clippers have so much money locked into Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Redick, the most drastic move that Rivers could have made this offseason was trading Griffin (or even Paul) to try and add more depth to the roster. Spoiler alert: there was no trade.
Instead, Rivers went the opposite route of his 2015 approach — which was get flashy names with a lot to prove — and opted to bring in proven veterans to provide his team with depth. No shade to Pablo Prigioni, but signing Raymond Felton gives Rivers a ball handler/facilitator who can handle big minutes and also play with the first unit if necessary. And while the team allowed Cole Aldrich to walk in free agency, they signed Brandon Bass and Marreese Speights for big-man depth.
Adding these three players, as well as Alan Anderson, makes this one of the deepest Clippers teams we’ve seen in recent memory. Considering they’ll also get Griffin back, they should be a lock to be seriously improved from last season.
KEY QUESTION: Can this team survive anything less than a Western Conference Finals trip?
That question might feel like a cop-out, but the Paul-Griffin-Jordan core has already been together for five seasons, and both Paul and Griffin are eligible to become free agents next season. With all of the questions facing Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, and the concern that if the team didn’t win it all Durant would be gone, could we see a similar situation in Los Angeles this year?
Paul will be 32 years old next summer, so this could be the last season he wants to spend with a team that he simply might not be able to get over the hump with. Combine that with the Goliath-like Golden State Warriors as their main competition, and we could be looking at the last season of “Lob City” in Los Angeles.
With Paul, Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers clearly have championship-level talent. Best-case scenario is they avoid any playoff meltdowns, their stars stay healthy and they find a reliable fifth starter/closer to go along with their core four players. While every team’s best-case scenario is winning a championship, it’s relatively realistic for this team, although a lot would have to break right.
Even though I commended the team for its accomplishments last season, a repeat of the 2015-16 campaign is probably the worst-case scenario. With a championship-or-bust mentality, anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance will be considered a bust, especially with teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder set to take a step back. And if the Clippers fail, they could be looking at a major shakeup next summer.