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Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul, right, celebrates his 3-point basket with Blake Griffin in the second half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sunday, April 17, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 115-95. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Los Angeles Clippers

Realistic goals for Clippers in 2016-17

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Contender.

It’s one of the most alluring words in sports, and for good reason. Being a “contender” or being “in the conversation” is a sort of badge of honor, one that suggests not being far away from the ultimate prize word: champion. It’s a badge that, in a dramatic shift from being an NBA punchline, the Los Angeles Clippers have worn for several years.

The Clippers have made the playoffs five straight times, won at least 60 percent of their games every season and boasted one of the best performing offenses in the league over that time. Chris Paul, despite getting older, is still the most brilliant floor general of our generation. Blake Griffin has gone from fun athlete to a versatile power forward the likes of which the NBA rarely sees. DeAndre Jordan began as a raw project center but, with time and patience, is now an All-NBA player.

Despite all that, the Clippers have little to show for it. They have yet to pass the second round. They famously blew their best chance in 2014-15 after failing to dispatch the Houston Rockets with a 3-1 series lead. Injuries to Paul and Griffin killed their chances last season, and the clock is ticking on CP3. Now, after all that, they will face the most stacked team the NBA has ever seen. It’s likely by this point that this era of Clippers basketball ends without a title.

Many people will consider that a failure. In fact, as each season passes, the voices from the back of the room get louder and louder in calling for LA to preeminently make big changes. In some ultimate sense, it has been a failure. The goal is a title, and the Clippers will most likely not get one this year.

That doesn’t mean this upcoming season is without purpose. There are two key things the Clippers can do this season to make it really meaningful.

1. Make the conference finals

This one is fairly simple. The Clippers should make challenging the Golden State Warriors for a trip to the Finals their reasonable objective. This season is probably their best chance.

The San Antonio Spurs have earned the benefit of the doubt 1000 fold, but Tim Duncan retiring presents them with a new challenge. The pairing of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge is fundamentally flawed defensively. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are slowly but surely on their way out as well. The Spurs are different now, and it’s unclear how they’ll look without TD:

The Clippers did indeed beat the Spurs in 2015, and that series win was no fluke. It was earned. Not only are the Spurs now without Duncan, the Clippers, like the Thunder last season, can athletically overpower them. If they clear the Spurs, they’re well on their way.

Their other major competition is the Memphis Grizzlies, who made a key addition in Chandler Parsons. Memphis and Los Angeles have held on to their cores for years, and after trading first-round exits, there is a small rivalry there. While Memphis made the flashy addition in Parsons, LA quietly made a few solid bench pickups like Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights. While not great, the Clippers finally have NBA depth now. There are established players who clearly have skills and fit in various ways. That’s going to be big for them in any playoff series.

Then there’s the Utah Jazz, a team that’s currently the front car of the hype train. Some people have them finishing very high, in both wins and seeding, even above a playoff regular like Memphis:

The Jazz are good. They’re well-constructed and well-coached, and they’ve added the right kind of talent to supplement their best players. They were pestered with health problems last season, but projected highly even then. They went 40-42 but had a Pythagorean win count of 46, per Basketball-Reference.

The Jazz are also still unproven. They’re a strong team, but are they really conference finals material? The talent level is high, but it’s hard for teams without a superstar to get that far without catching breaks. The Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies all have significant playoff experience and star power on their respective rosters.

Utah will no doubt be there soon, but this isn’t the year for them to go from sub-.500 to conference finalist. The Clippers have two likely threats to the semifinals.

Interestingly, while the Clippers’ title window is more closed than ever, their window to a chance at the conference finals is more open than ever. They have improved depth, major competitors are likely taking a step back and the rest of the conference besides Memphis is a bit of a mystery.

This is a big chance for the Clippers to purge their playoff demons, at least to some extent. A championship is obviously the aim, but individual expectations should be set individually. The Clippers’ season can be a success by simply making it to face the Warriors in the WCF.

2. Transition to Blake Griffin as the leader

Chris Paul is excellent. He’s the best floor general of this generation and in the top few point guards of all time. Amazing passer, underrated defender, fierce competitor, NBA icon, etc. If you want to hear about all the ways Chris Paul is amazing, Shane Young wrote about it. Twice.

Then there’s the other side of the Chris Paul conversation. The one that recognizes how good he is but also how his nature as a player leaves the Clippers in an imperfect place:

Blake Griffin has become a very special player with a variety of skills that go way beyond what people think of the standard “power forward.” He’s a great playmaker, and there’s reason to believe that he should start taking some of that load from CP.

Chief among them: Simply introducing more instances of Griffin playmaking makes the offense less predictable, and by extension, likely stronger. Versatility in the roster and within lineups is part of what has made the Warriors the prototype NBA franchise. The Clippers should force teams to account for both as potential initiators in the offense. That way, they’re that much more equipped to cause defensive breakdowns and handle whatever opposing teams throw at them.

Kevin O’Connor examined this idea in detail for The Ringer, explaining what will have to happen to turn Griffin being the lead dog from idea to reality:

Everyone, especially Chris Paul, would have to buy in. Paul is racing up the NBA’s all-time assists leaderboard, so would he accept a reduced distributing role? Coach Doc would have to do a lot of selling, and GM Doc would need to consider the implications, with both stars set to hit free agency in 2017. The pitch is simple though: The Clippers have run face-first into a postseason brick wall over the past five years; the time to experiment is now.

The Clippers are indeed running short on time. With a title looking hard to reach this year, this season is tough but also franchise-defining. The good news for LA is that it can’t fall much. It’s extremely unlikely having Paul take a step back would cause them to fall out of the playoffs, so at worst the Clippers fail to clear the second round again.

Stagnating again may ultimately result in the breakup of their core, so the question is whether to roll the dice for a sixth time or to really make changes. The Clippers have a lot riding on that choice. While Paul is great, his time is closer to over than it is to beginning. LA should see this season as a way to test just how good Griffin can be, despite the risks of experimenting.

While the Clippers stand in the shadow of arguably the most loaded team the NBA has ever seen, they can still find meaning in the season. Not the “but what if the Warriors get really injured or the chemistry doesn’t work” meaning, but the kind that’s unique to where they are as a franchise. The Clippers should focus on what they can accomplish with their own power.

The first thing is to face the Warriors in the conference finals. Just clear that hurdle, reverse that narrative, and get further than they have in the past. The second is make Blake Griffin the feature player to help transition the team to its next step.

Realistic goals for Clippers in 2016-17

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