Clippers: Summer’s early winner, but questions loom

July 7, 2013

We’re 6+ days into free agency, and most of the big chips have fallen. Dwight Howard to Houston, Chris Paul to stay in L.A., Al Jefferson to Charlotte, Josh Smith to Detroit, Andre Iguodala to Golden State and Paul Millsap to Atlanta. Four notable pieces still on the market include Brandon Jennings, restricted and likely to stay in Milwaukee; Monta Ellis, probably headed to Denver or Atlanta; Nikola Pekovic, restricted but likely out of Minnesota; and Andrew Bynum, who knows.

Below, I take a look at my ‘winner’ of free agency through 6 days.

The Los Angeles Clippers

L.A. was known for its deep bench last year, boasting the likes of Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Grant Hill. At 40.1 points per game, L.A.’s bench trailed only Dallas and Denver in scoring, and Crawford finished the runner-up in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year voting.

But a postseason bench is not 12 guys deep. Hill played in 1 game in the team’s 6-game opening-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Ryan Hollins and Willie Green averaged less than 7.5 minutes per and did not appear in every game. DeAndre Jordan’s inability to make free throws saw him to the bench in crunch-time minutes, and Lamar Odom, and his 11.0 PER, was ineffective all season.

Six days into free agency, the Clippers have turned Caron Butler and Bledsoe into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, re-signed Matt Barnes and acquired Darren Collison, an ex-UCLA product, for pennies on the dollar. L.A. drafted sharpshooter Reggie Bullock at No. 25 overall. Oh, and they extended arguably the top free agent in this year’s class, Chris Paul, for 5 years, and traded for a championship coach in Doc Rivers, who brings instant credibility, and an offensive system, to Staples.

Concern: Lack of frontcourt depth

My concern with this team, as they flirt with luxury tax territory, is frontcourt depth, especially after a playoff series where they were bullied by the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph; in that series, Gasol and Randolph averaged a combined 38.1 points and 15.5 rebounds. Right now, with Turiaf and Hollins unrestricted free agents — though ones, according to Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times, they’re interested in re-signing — the only NBA-caliber bigs on this roster are Griffin and Jordan, the latter of whom cannot play down the stretch and is owed an immovable $22.4 million through 2014-15.

Doc could always move Blake to the 5 and play Barnes or Dudley, 6’7″, at the 4. Both are strong individual defenders. And, then there’s also the rest of the summer. L.A. flirted with Carl Landry, whom eventually agreed to a 4-year, $27-million deal with Sacramento, one that L.A.’s cap flexibility, or lack thereof, would not have permitted. Rivers just needs to fill a 19.7-minutes-per-game slot opened by Odom’s likely departure, whether that’s more minutes to Blake, DeAndre, both or other faces.

Improvement: 3-point shooting

In last year’s postseason, L.A. shot a measly 30.4% from 3. L.A. loses an OK 3-point shooter in Butler and an improving one in Bledsoe, but Dudley (40.5% career) and Redick (39%) are improvements. Redick’s averaged double-figure scoring numbers each of the last 3 seasons, including 15.1 in 50 games in Orlando before his trade last season. Dudley’s also been in double figures each of the past 3 years, and has never shot below 45.9% from the field in his 6-year career.

Bullock shot 44% from 3 last year at UNC, and possesses great size, 6’7″, for a hybrid guard-forward. Barnes is 33% from deep throughout his career, but is especially efficient in the corners.

Bottom line: More weapons for CP3, Blake

The spacing provided by these shooters should open Blake post-ups and CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls, L.A.’s bread-and-butter source of offense. With Paul, Blake, Jordan, Redick, Dudley, Collison, Barnes, Crawford and Green, L.A.’s as good 1-9 as any team in the league. All 9 of those guys are capable of double-digit scoring nights any game.

With Collison, a former teammate of Paul’s in New Orleans, L.A. has a very capable backup point. Collison may not have Bledsoe’s ceiling, but he’s averaged double figures all 4 seasons of his career and only 25. After a disappointing season in Dallas, you can bet on consistent energy from Collison. Should Doc decide to go this route, Collison’s very effective in 2-Lopoint-guard lineups — in 2011-12, Indiana’s most efficient lineup to play at least 100 minutes together featured Collison and combo guard George Hill in the backcourt.

Now, if the Clippers can sure up their frontcourt, I’ll put them right next to San Antonio.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

February 15, 2013

This almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s still remarkable to think about: after the Dwight Howard trade, did anyone honestly imagine the Clippers, not the Lakers, would be, hands down, Southern California’s best basketball team? I mean, heading into this season, Vinny Del Negro had no job security, Chauncey Billups was battling back from his torn Achilles, suffered in February 2012, and L.A. had to integrate 7 new free agent contributors. Headed into Thursday’s game against the Lakers, the Clippers are 38-17, leading the Pacific Division by 6 games, finally getting healthy and all but locked into the No. 3 seed.

L.A.’s +6.4 points differential is 3rd in the NBA, even ahead of Miami’s +6.3 mark. Balance is key: the Clippers possess the league’s 10th-ranked scoring offense, 100 points per game, and the 4th-best defense, 93.6 per game. Their roster boasts 2 All Star starters, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a fringe snub in likely Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.

At 40.3 points per game, Del Negro has the league’s 3rd-highest scoring bench, and on any given night has the potential to go 12 deep — 13 Clippers’ players have appeared in at least 6 games. Oh, and now they’re all finally getting healthy — only Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan have played in all 55 games this season. (Willie Green started 49 games this season, but now that Billups has returned from injury, he’s been relegated to not playing at all.)

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Paul, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is likely to return, and, unlike his L.A. counterpart Howard, has ducked the distracting speculation of his impending status. In spite of Kyrie Irving’s ascendance, Paul still has to be considered the league’s best 1-guard; his play warrants MVP consideration, though LeBron James is a runaway favorite to win the award. Paul’s 26.53 PER is 3rd-best in the NBA, trailing only LeBron and Kevin Durant. Paul’s averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 assists in a career-low 33 minutes per game, and his fundamentals — career-high in free throw percentage and career-low in turnovers — are still (scarily, I might add) improving. (Paul recently missed a 9-game stretch due to a bruised right kneecap; the Clippers finished 3-6 in those games, with only 2 of the opponents likely playoff teams.)

Blake Griffin’s development from a highlight dunker to a franchise offensive talent is also worth noting. Griffin, 23 and in only his 3rd full season, has the NBA’s 10th-best PER, tops among all Western Conference bigs not named Tim Duncan. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career, 32.5, but still averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 boards on 54% shooting. His free throw percentage, 66%, is still less than desirable, but nearly a 14-point improvement over 2011-12. His mid-range jumper continues to improve, posing a challenge for opposing defenses: guard him closely to see him blow by you and dunk in your face, or let him settle for a face-up jumper, which he’s also likely to drop in your grill.

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At the other frontcourt spot, Jordan continues to disappoint despite a solid start to the season. The 24-year-old center is still a strong interior presence defensively, with sheer athleticism and an ability to finish around the rim. Jordan’s shooting 60% from the field, though he’s not at all an offensive threat outside of 5 feet, and his sub-43% FT shooting means he’s a liability on the floor in close games. Free agent acquisitions Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf are capable reserves who can rebound and defend, but Lamar Odom, and his team-low 38.7 FG percentage, has seen his struggles from Dallas last year continue in a new uniform.

At the 3, Caron Butler is a bit of a wash at about 10 points per game, but reserve Matt Barnes has been surprisingly effective off the bench, averaging 10.4 points per himself, the highest mark of his 10-year NBA career. Between the two (and veteran Grant Hill), Del Negro has a core group of veterans who can hit outside shots and defend (look no further than Hill’s shutdown 4th quarter defense of Carmelo Anthony from Sunday), which is more important than more isolation scorers, especially on a team that already has Griffin, Paul and Crawford.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

In the backcourt, the Clippers carry 4 more guys — Crawford, Green, Billups and Bledsoe — with scoring chops and playoff experience. (Amazingly, all 13 players to log minutes for L.A. this year have played postseason basketball.) Crawford is normally paired with Paul in the big moments, as his 17 points per game trails only Griffin. The ball often sticks in Crawford’s hands, but his 43% FG percentage is more than 2 points above his career average, and his one-on-one isolation skills are easily the best on this team.

Billups is one of the most important pieces to this puzzle. His veteran leadership (just watch guys flock to him during timeouts and huddles) and 3-point shooting will be important factors in the playoffs. Bledsoe, the team’s 2-guard of the future, is a fireball of energy off the bench; to put his athleticism into context, he’s 6’1″ and averages 0.9 blocks per game in 21.2 minutes. His 19.0 PER is 3rd best on the team, behind Paul and Griffin, and he’s averaging career-highs in every major statistical category besides assists. Shooting-wise, his FG percentage is up 6 points over last year, his FT percentage 16 and 3-point percentage 23.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — DETROIT PISTONS

Financially, the Clippers are about where should be expected, with $45.3 million on the books for 2013-14 before Chris Paul’s (projected) max deal this summer. L.A.’s stuck with Butler’s $8 million per through next season and probably regretting Jordan’s roughly $11 million per through 2014-15. Crawford’s signed for cheap next year ($5.25 million), as is Bledsoe ($2.6 million) and Hill ($2.1 million). The Clippers will more than likely sign a few ring-chasing veterans for minimum deals again this offseason. (Whether Billups retires is a story worth keeping an eye on.)

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — DENVER NUGGETS

But back to this year. Del Negro’s team is likely to square off with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in Round 2. The Clippers are 2-0 against the Spurs, the same team that swept L.A. out of the playoffs last year, this season, but 0-2 against OKC. Whether the Clippers can get through both of these teams and then Miami is what ultimately lies in their championship path.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


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