Just when you thought arguably the craziest offseason in NBA history couldn’t get any zanier, the Clippers pulled the trigger and traded for Chris Paul.
As Blake Griffin eloquently put it, “It’s going to be lob city!”
But hold on. From a skeptical and subjective standpoint, there has to be some hesitation before completely jumping into La-La Land and calling the Clippers contenders. We’ve all seen this before; the Clippers are always on the brink of something, only to have something else go wrong.
So can the recent run of excellence – signing Caron Butler, re-signing DeAndre Jordan, picking up Chauncey Billups (arguably the most underrated move of the offseason), and trading for Chris Paul – mean the Clippers are finally breaking their supposed curse? Are the basketball gods actually allowing a Donald Sterling-owned team to prosper and enjoy the fruits of basketball success? what can we expect from them this season?
Well, let’s see some games first. As things currently stand, the Clippers look like a lock for the playoffs. They have two top-15 players in Paul and Griffin (could be top-10 if depending who you ask), one of the game’s top young defensive centers in Jordan, arguably the best combination of back-up point guards ever (Billups, Williams, Bledsoe), and some decent wing players (Butler, Gomes, Foye).
And that’s before they sign “free agent X” as their third big man (although Brian Cook is a potential cheap option and Gomes actually plays better as a stretch power forward) or “free agent Y” as the team’s true shooting guard (because Butler and Billups aren’t real shooting guards).
In terms of pure talent, there are few teams in the West ahead of them. The Thunder and Mavericks are the only two teams that are locks to be better than the Clippers. The Spurs and Lakers, with all of their veteran experience, will most of the experience-related setbacks that might undermine the Clippers. The Grizzlies, fresh off their magical playoff run, are looking to make a jump into the West’s elite, and will be neck and neck with the ClipShow (yes, I took that from the Lakers). That would put the Clippers as the fifth or sixth best team in the West, which seems about right.
On paper, this team is a fringe-contender. They definitely can and should be a top-10 team in the league (considering the East only has a few elite teams). Paul makes everyone around him better. He’s been carrying a New Orleans team with subpar parts for quite some time now. I can only imagine what he can do with a talented supporting cast featuring athletic big men and good shooters. Expect a tightly-run offense with impeccable efficiency. That’s what Paul does. There are just a few holes the Clippers need to address first before we can classify them as the creme de la creme of the West.
Their biggest need is a back-up big man, preferably a center. Cook is a decent option, but you’d want him as your fourth or fifth big, not your third. Craig Smith and/or Ike Diogu could be brought back, but both are undersized fours and wouldn’t address the team’s need for size. If anything Gomes can play 10-12 minutes per night behind Blake, filling up all 48 minutes at the 4. They need a 7-footer to give Jordan a 15-20 minute break at the very least.
The other glaring deficiency is the shooting guard position. For all intents and purposes, Foye is the team’s only “true” shooting guard. It seems Billups and Butler will be makeshift shooting guards (an interesting experiment), and Bledsoe and Williams have shown the capability to play some 2-guard in a pinch. But in a perfect world, the Clippers sign (or trade for) a decent wing that can play some 2 and 3.
The result of not having a shooting guard is what’s the scariest prospect … look at who the Clippers are relying on for perimeter defense. Butler and Billups are both over 30 and have seen better days (and are only going downhill from here), yet are the team’s “defensive-stoppers.” Paul is one of the top defenders at his position, but has a bum knee and has lost some of his quickness. Gomes, Foye, Williams and Bledsoe aren’t necessarily better defensive options either.
Who’s going to guard Kobe? What about LeBron and Wade? Butler can’t guard everyone. He’s going to need to pick up some of the offensive load now that Gordon is gone (which will take a toll on his defensive effort) and as his body ages, he’ll need more rest. While the Clippers appear to have a stacked team offensively – capable of raining down 3-pointers, running teams into the ground and pick-and-rolling teams into oblivion – the defense end is a question mark.
While there’s no doubt that the team has improved with the addition of Paul (especially offensively — I can’t wait to see those infamous Paul-Griffin alley-oops), the defense seems to have taken a slight hit. This, of course, has nothing to do with Paul, but more to do with the addition of the aging Billups and Butler (and taking away some of the team’s better defenders … especially Gordon).
Vinny Del Negro has a daunting task in front of him. The Clippers are expected to make the Clippers. They’re expected to at least challenge for home court. Del Negro has two superstars at his disposal now; you’re lucky to have one in this league. He’s going to need to change up the offense by adding more pick-and-rolls opportunities for Paul and Griffin, creating more open shot attempts for their plethora of shooters and incorporating more off-ball movement (arguably the Clippers biggest offensive weakness last year). The defense will need to make up for the team’s age and lack of size on the perimeter; we may see some variation of a zone.
The pressure is on. The Clippers have gone all in. They want to win now. And they can. They don’t have to make the Finals, but making the playoffs and having a competitive first round series are a must. No doubt about it. Maybe even a semifinals appearance too. There will be growing pains as a new cast of teammates adjust to each other, but they’ll have to quickly learn and adapt if they want to survive the brutal West.
They didn’t say goodbye to Gordon, Kaman, Aminu and the Minnesota pick to waste two years. They’re not only at risk of losing Paul, but they’re more importantly at risk of losing Griffin. The Clippers have always been a team of the future. They have the talent. They made the right move in acquiring Paul. They can finally escape the Lakers’ shadow and stop being that “other” L.A. team. There are no more excuses.
The time is now.