Having lost the best player in franchise history, the Clippers are seeking another run at the playoffs.
Over the last few years, we’ve become accustomed to the Los Angeles Clippers shooting themselves in the foot. A perennial 50-win team, the Clippers – under the tutelage of coach-come-executive Doc Rivers – have always found ways to squander their chances of contending for a title. Blake Griffin got injured in the playoffs two seasons in a row. Rivers made one knee-jerk move after another in an attempt to fill a gaping hole at small forward. Most famously, the Clippers surrendered a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets in the 2015 Western Conference semi-finals.
In a sense, then, the Clippers met expectations by failing to meet expectations in 2016-17. Although Los Angeles finished with a 51-31 record, Griffin and Chris Paul both missed significant time with injuries, Rivers threw his trademark temper tantrums, and the team fell to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. A season that began with optimism ended, inevitably, in disappointment.
As I wrote back in May, Los Angeles faced a daunting offseason. Paul and Griffin were free agents, and the Clippers had an opportunity – by letting either or both go – to either re-up with the old squad or drastically change their roster. Paul, of course, made that decision for them. The future Hall-of-Famer requested a sign-and-trade to join the Houston Rockets, and just like that, the Lob City era was over in Los Angeles.
The roster turnover precipitated by Paul’s decision requires a comprehensive list:
The Clippers are lucky Paul wanted to join a team without cap space. Forced into a sign-and-trade, the Rockets coughed up a haul of Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, and a 2018 first round pick. It would be absurd to suggest Los Angeles took back equal value – Chris Paul is a bona fide megastar – but they got enough to stay relevant. Beverley is one of the best backcourt defenders in the NBA and Williams is still instant offense off the bench. Harrell and Dekker both project as rotation players with room to grow.
Paul aside, the Clippers lost a lot. JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford combined for 27.3 points per game last season. Redick’s shooting threat opened up loads of space for his fellow starters. Crawford, meanwhile, anchored an otherwise lackluster bench unit for five years. Even Luc Mbah a Moute emerged as a significant contributor last season, guarding opposing wings at a near-elite level.
That said, the Clippers did the best they could with the hand they were dealt (or dealt themselves). About a week after the Paul deal, Doc and his staff completed a sign-and-trade to snag Danilo Gallinari from Denver. Gallinari is a borderline top-50 player who can get buckets from anywhere on the court. Last season, he scored 18.2 points on just 11.9 shots per game by drawing tons of fouls and canning 38.9 percent of his threes. Defensively, the Italian has obvious athletic limitations, but his 6’10” size allows him to at least toggle between forward positions.
In the backcourt, the Clippers finally coaxed Milos Teodosic into the NBA. A legend of the European game, the 30-year-old Serb is a pass-first point guard who will immediately replace a portion of Paul’s playmaking. His combined stat line from the Clippers’ first two preseason games tells the whole story about his game: 4 points, 13(!) assists.
Most importantly, the team managed to keep Griffin on an enormous five year, $171 million contract. Griffin is now the face of the Clippers franchise and the roster’s only offensive superstar. His injury woes over the last few seasons should give Clippers fans pause, but he was always going to command a max contract.
Griffin should become the team’s offensive hub without Paul, and it’s a role in which he has the skillset to thrive. Over the last three years, Griffin’s assist percentage has hovered around 25, a mammoth number for a big man. Although he’s lost the elite athleticism of his younger self, he’s still one of the more skilled 6’10” players in the league. Look for the Clippers to run 4-5 pick-and-rolls and also feature Griffin at the elbow.
Unfortunately, those looks won’t be enough to sustain the Clippers’ past offensive success. Losing Paul hurts no matter what. That said, Williams is a like-for-like replacement for Crawford, and Gallinari will replace Mbah a Moute, who was a non-factor offensively. With Jordan’s rim-running ability, Gallinari and Beverley’s shooting, and some bench magic from Teodosic and Williams, the Clippers have top-10 offensive potential.
It all comes back to Griffin, though. If he can recapture his best form, he’s the superstar talent Los Angeles will need to get buckets at the end of the shot clock. If he can’t, Rivers will have a bunch of fun offensive talent to work with, but no true go-to player.
Defensively, the Clippers should stay solid, if unspectacular. They finished 12th in defensive rating last season, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions, but lost some key personnel. Luckily, Beverley is an attack dog of a point guard and will replace most of Paul’s defensive impact. Mbah a Moute, however, will be more difficult to replace, as the Clippers have no one who can guard the West’s bevy of wings. Austin Rivers is a solid backcourt defender who puts in good effort. Still, he’s 6’4,” which is too small to guard bigger forwards. And the bench – Teodosic, Williams, and Harrell especially – is comprised of offense-first players.
Altogether, the Clippers got worse, but not drastically so. A roster that was once shallow and top-heavy became deep and balanced. That matters little, though, when a player of Paul’s caliber leaves. If Griffin is clicking on offense and Jordan controls the paint on defense, the Clippers should push for 48 or more wins. More realistically, the team will battle some injuries and take time to mesh.
A 45-win season isn’t tough to imagine, and even in the West, that should be enough to make the playoffs. The days of championship hopes, however, are long gone. This team will be fun and refreshing; they just won’t be any better.
Final Prediction: 46-36, 7th in the West
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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