Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers entered this offseason with the hopeful yet precarious status of championship contenders. Not for the first time, the Clippers find themselves maxed out and with very few options to fix any of their glaring depth issues. However, due to their star talent and solid coaching, they are still poised to make a deep playoff run if they catch a break and remain healthy.
Starting Unit – Overall A
Chris Paul: A+
One of the most cerebral and well-liked players in the NBA, Paul doesn’t have the revolutionary numbers you would expect from probably the second best point guard in the league. He is, however, a maniacal competitor that seeks to involve his teammates before picking up their slack when it matters most. His teams have always been efficient and his tenacity on defense makes him one of the toughest players to play against. His critics like to reference his lack of playoff success as a flaw in his game, not taking into account what his teams would look like with even an average point guard in his place.
JJ Redick: A-
Judging on fit rather than on stand-alone ability, Redick is a perfect complement to Paul’s playing style. He has always been a knockdown shooter who excels running off screens for catch and shoot jumpers and he’s a decent defender thanks to time with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. He is crucial for the team to be able to play its best lineup as he provides the spacing and off-ball attention the offense needs to thrive.
Wes Johnson/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute: C
By far, the weakest position of the Clippers starting unit is this wing spot next to Redick. This hole only gets more important against Western Conference teams with dominant small forwards, like the Spurs and Warriors. It was clear last year that Paul Pierce couldn’t fill this role and while Alan Anderson may compete for the job, he doesn’t seem like the answer either. Mbah a Moute mostly got the starting job last year because of his defensive ability but his 30% average from three makes it hard to play him for important minutes. Johnson shoots more respectably but still isn’t the answer for Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard. This position is a huge hole for Doc Rivers, the GM, who has repeatedly missed out on filling it.
Blake Griffin: A
An undeniably elite power forward, Griffin is the second most important player on the team. His ability to score in the post, pass out of double teams, and run the floor makes the Clippers almost impossible to guard when fully healthy. His athleticism makes him impossible to keep off the glass and his finishing ability provides demoralizing highlights on key possessions. It was a popular opinion that the Clips were better off without him during his injury last season, but that is simply not true. A team can’t lose a top-10 player (and rarely can get trade equity) and hope to compete in the playoffs. Without Griffin, the team was a one-trick pony that relied too heavily on Paul and likely contributed to Paul’s injury in last season’s playoffs.
DeAndre Jordan: B+
Only one flaw keeps him from being one of the most effective two-way centers in the league. When playing, he is one of the best rebounders, defenders, and finishers at his position, but the hacking strategy limits his role in big moments. Next season’s rule change aims to eliminate fouls away from the ball in the last two minutes, fouls on inbounds plays, and giving flagrants to players who jump on another’s back. This can only help him and the team, but there will still be times when his inability to touch the ball in the final seconds hurts them.
The bench has been an Achilles heel for the team for as long as the core has been together. It contributed to their collapse against the Rockets two seasons ago. The constant wear and tear because of extended minutes (on their most important pieces) has created a negative impact.
While Jamal Crawford won last year’s 6th Man of the Year award, the bench outside of his offense is dismal. Next to him is Doc’s son Austin, who would probably not have gotten a second chance if he had a different last name, but after being cut from New Orleans he has fared decently and is an adequate backup. The rest of the bench is in much more trouble especially if a viable rotational big man does not emerge after letting Cole Aldrich walk.
The pickups of Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson, and the return of Paul Pierce do not inspire much confidence. While Anderson may compete for a starting job if he returns to his pre-injury form, not much has been asked of Speights or Felton in recent years. Pierce, now 38, did not look like himself last season. He only averaged 18 minutes and a career low in scoring for a team that desperately needed stability at his listed position.
The bench makes every injury sustained by any of their four key contributors almost untenable.
Head Coach/GM/Team Spokesman Doc Rivers : A-
Doc’s tenure as GM is checkered at best. From putting his son into too big a role, to signing past their prime players that hurt more than help, he has a bad history with acquiring talent. Initially, his new role looked promising; getting Redick in the Bledsoe trade was brilliant. But the three other veterans he once traded for – Jared Dudley, Jeff Green, and Lance Stephenson – have not stayed with the team long. His other signings and free agent work, outside of locking DeAndre Jordan inside his own home, have been one failure after another. Admittedly, the limits of the salary cap places strain on all teams with three max players, and with Redick’s contract expiring, signing guys like Glen Davis or Josh Smith is rarely the answer to playoff depth.
As a head coach and leader of his team however, Doc has been great. He made a team that was once a laughingstock into a legitimate contender that every team respects. He then went on to handle the Donald Sterling situation as well as only a few people alive could have. Just this past year he salvaged the season despite the damage from the embarrassing Blake Griffin incident that could have resulted in inner turmoil and disaster. He has handled every incident regarding the team with a class and grace that few others would be capable of, as well as tactically being as sharp as always.
Overall Grade: B+
The Clippers will be an above average team and a contender for the second best team in the West. They have always matched up well against Golden State. They have strengths in their frontcourt where Golden State is weakest and Chris Paul has always been a tough matchup for Steph Curry.
If, however, they get unlucky and, if one of their key contributors gets injured, they will likely be out in the first or second round again. One of the best ways to avoid injury is to play star players less which the Clippers simply can’t afford to do. Any slip in the standings means more road playoff games and tougher early round opponents.
The Clippers will be good, and possibly great this year, but it will be their core four contributors and the guys behind them doing just enough to pick up the slack that will determine how far they will go in the playoffs. This may not be their last season together, but it is definitely their most important one.
Once again, it is now or never for the current best show in LA.
photo via llananba