The Lakers weren't the only LA team to bow out of the 2013 playoffs in an ugly fashion. After going up two games on the Grizzlies in the conference semifinals, the Clippers lost four straight, culminating in a very Joey-Crawford-flavored Game 6.
The Clippers come into this year with high hopes, buoyed by a revamped supporting cast and a new head coach in Doc Rivers. Here's my prediction for how they'll fare in the 2013-2014 regular season.
Prediction: Chris Paul will be a top-2 MVP candidate and the Clippers won't get past the Western Conference Semifinals
This all starts with an identity problem--and I don't mean the Cliff Paul thing.
Last week Blake Griffin announced that the Clippers are, once and for all, eschewing the ‘Lob City' nickname. It's a statement that attempts to distance the team from being a mere highlight machine, and more about defense and winning.
It's also a fairly meaningless statement, especially because that's who the team kinda sorta is already: the Clippers were one of the best defensive teams of last season -- in the bottom half of the league in terms of pace -- and won a franchise-best 57 games. The real issue is that despite having usurped the Los Angeles spotlight, the Clippers are still struggling to find a sense of self.
It may be a vague concept, but having a team identity remains important for any franchise looking to make a championship bid. Just as TV screenwriters need to have confidence in the dialogue they write for their characters, a coaching staff needs to know how to cast its players.
In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with continuing to run with the Lob City nickname. In the least, it was a way to sell tickets and T-shirts; at best, it was the perfect conceit to disarm and frustrate opponents.
Since arriving, new coach Doc Rivers has made an effort to establish Griffin, Chris Paul and center Deandre Jordan as his new big three. ESPN's J.A. Adande covered this, noting not only Jordan's lack of production so far but also Griffin's inability to claim this team as, at least, half his:
"Before there can be a big three there has to be a dynamic duo. Griffin has to be on the same plane as Paul, be That Guy, capable of winning a playoff game on his own if need be."
Griffin should come along in time, but the real issue is banking this team's success on Jordan, who is entering the third year of his four-year, $43 million contract.
While there are no rules surrounding who can be considered a big-three player, everything Jordan has shown us through five years leads me to think he's no foundational piece. His league-best 64% field-goal percentage last year was trumped by a league-worst 39% free-throw percentage, making him virtually unplayable at the end of games. In the end, he played just 24 minutes a game.
Oh, he also went 3-11 on shots from beyond 10 feet -- for the entire season.
Defensively, Rivers hopes to lean on Jordan a lot next year, going so far as to say that he could be DPOY material. Given Jordan's size and athleticism, you can understand Doc's optimism; yet, he remains a mediocre defender, both in the pick and roll and in the post, and poses no threat to fundamentally sound bigs like Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol. Last year, he averaged only 1.4 blocks a game. Though blocks aren't the only metric to judge how good a big man is defensively, that's far too low for a guy of his size and level of jumping ability.
A look around the league will only add to the notion that Jordan simply isn't that good, especially at his position. Here's a quick list of centers the Clippers would likely rather have:
Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Jonas Valanciunas, Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, Larry Sanders, Nikola Pekovic, Nikola Vucevic, Marc Gasol, and Boogie Cousins.
This is not to mention Kevin Garnett, who the Clippers originally tried to acquire with Doc Rivers in exchange for Deandre Jordan. I also left out guys who are looked at more as PFs like Timmy, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol and Al Horford, as well as the offensively superior Al Jefferson and the injury-riddled Andrews, Bogut and Bynum.
In fact, given that so few players are pure centers these days, Jordan might be one of the worst starters at his position.
While Blake Griffin battles to be 'that guy' on the court for his team -- and Deandre Jordan struggles to be on the court at all -- I envision Chris Paul having a career year.
The front office has surrounded Paul with ideal complementary role players. They traded for wings JJ Redick and Jared Dudley, signed veteran Antawn Jamison and drafted potential 3-and-D guy Reggie Bullock.
Redick and Dudley will not only make Paul's job easier on offense, where they're both excellent three-point shooters, but on defense, allowing him to focus on locking down his defender and getting in the passing lanes and creating turnovers. He shouldn't have any trouble being among the league leaders in steals next year.
But the Clippers still lack a reliable backup big man (or two). As of now, the only power forward/centers on the bench are Ryan Hollins, Byron Mullens and Jamison. That'll surely be an issue throughout the season, since Jordan's horrific foul shooting will continue to keep him off the floor, and in the playoffs unless it's addressed in a midseason trade.
Still, this is a team built to pick and roll and shoot its way to a lot of regular season wins. They'll get away with playing a lot of small ball, especially with their second unit, to make up for their lack of frontcourt depth.
In the playoffs, though? The rotation will be seriously trimmed, the shortcomings of players like Deandre Jordan will be easy to exploit, and playmaking maven Chris Paul will burn himself out again.
Paul has enough around him to will his team through one playoff series, but all it'll take is one unruly matchup to send LA back to the drawing board. The Clippers still aren't better than the Spurs, they still don't have what it takes to beat Memphis, and I'm not sure how they'd fare against a healthy Thunder -- not to mention the improved Rockets and Warriors -- in a seven-game series
- The Clippers will win the Pacific division (2 to 1)
- The Clippers will lead the league in three-point attempts (5 to 2)
- The Clippers will trade Willie Green and someone else for a big man before the trade deadline (3 to 1)
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.