2011-12 was a landmark season for the Los Angeles Clippers, long considered the Lakers’ “weak sisters” in the NBA. With the addition of Chris Paul, the Clippers rose from up-and-coming young team to legit playoff contenders, and they didn’t disappoint. The Clips’ 40-26 record was their best ever in terms of winning percentage, and their first time to win more than 60% of their games in the franchise’s 42-year history. Best of all, they performed creditably in the playoffs – the Clips won a hard-fought seven-game battle versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, before getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semis. What can we expect in 2012 from the Clippers?
As the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin tandem goes, so do the Clippers. CP3 was every bit the dynamic and exciting point guard he was at New Orleans, averaging 19.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 2.5 spg. He facilitated the offense efficiently, dazzled with game-winning heroics and played disruptive defense all season long. Best of all, he meshed perfectly with Griffin, who kept on pounding in those double-doubles with regularity. Probably the only thing Griffin (20.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 55% FG) can’t do is shoot free throws – he made just 52% of his foul shot attempts, down from 64% as a rookie. We’re hoping the left knee injury that took him out of Team USA for this year’s Olympics won’t come back to haunt him once the 2012-13 season rolls around. And speaking of injuries, Chauncey Billups (15.0 ppg, 4.0 apg) was playing very well as a converted two-guard when an Achilles tear ended his debut Clippers season after just 20 games. He should be starting again this season, but as he’ll be turning 36 in September, we don’t know how much longer he can hold up playing starters’ minutes. Mo Williams was traded to the Utah Jazz a few weeks back, in the trade that netted Lamar Odom. He was productive (13.2 ppg, 3.1 apg) off the bench, but very inconsistent. His minutes will likely go to new acquisition Jamal Crawford.
Caron Butler (12.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg) was a mild disappointment at starting small forward. While it was admirable to see him step behind the arc more often (he shot 36% from long range and averaged a career-high 4.1 three-point attempts a game), it was often maddening to watch him get hot in the first half and cold and/or tentative in the second. Still, he’s young enough (32) to bounce back and adjust to coach Vinny Del Negro’s system. DeAndre Jordan (7.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 63% FG) was the fifth offensive option in the starting lineup, but any offense he provides is just icing on the cake. His real value is on defense, where he has proven to be capable of swatting shots at an alarming rate. Like most other young big men, though, he was inconsistent and prone to foul trouble.
The Clippers will have a more experienced bench in 2012-13, thanks to the addition of veterans Crawford, Odom and Grant Hill. Crawford (13.9 ppg, 3.2 apg) suffered through sub-40% shooting with the Portland Trailblazers, but he’s still capable of providing instant offense off the bench. Lamar Odom, on the other hand, has a lot to prove in his second stint with the team that drafted him way back in 1999. 2011-12 was an absolutely miserable season for Odom, who averaged 6.6 ppg and 4.2 rpg for the Dallas Mavericks in only 20 minutes per game. His protracted feud with flamboyant owner Mark Cuban led to his exile from the Mavs lineup towards the end of last year’s shortened season, and shortly before that, he even found himself in the D-League. Odom may not get the minutes he used to receive just two years ago, but if he’s happy, he won’t have another season like the last. Hill (10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg) is the Clippers’ latest free agent addition. Fresh from five productive years with the Phoenix Suns, Hill (who’ll be turning 40 this October) will provide veteran savvy, strong fundamentals and leadership skills as a reserve small forward.
As it stands, Crawford, Odom and Hill may be the Clips’ first three players off the bench. What about the rest of ‘em? Eric Bledsoe’s sophomore season was a wash – the young point guard was plagued by injuries and averaged just 3.3 ppg in 11 minutes of action per game. We’re expecting him to bounce back and provide quality minutes as the second guard off the bench. Currently, Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons and Randy Foye are free agents – Martin’s days as a frontcourt stopper are well behind him, and it’s still hard to believe Simmons was once named Most Improved Player. Foye (11.0 ppg, 39% 3P) played well when Billups’ injury got him promoted back to the starting lineup. Unfortunately, Crawford’s signing may make him superfluous, so we’re not expecting him back. Neither are we expecting Martin and Simmons to return as backup forwards. If one or both of them go, second-year man Trey Thompkins may get more minutes at power forward, or even center.
As for the coaching situation, Del Negro has received his share of criticism, as the Clips famously blew a 24-point lead in Game 3 of the Spurs series. He has been scored for poor player rotations, questionable coaching decisions and an over-reliance on the Paul-to-Griffin pick-and-roll play. That said, he’s still a relatively young coach who could do better if he learns from previous mistakes and makes better use of the alternative options the Clippers have on offense.
Summing it all up, this season may be even better for the Clippers, thanks to a stronger, more veteran bench corps. They still lack a capable reserve at center, but other than that, all the pieces are be in place for another playoff run – and perhaps Staples Center home court advantage in the first round.
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