After winning their first Pacific Division title the Los Angeles Clippers flamed out in the first round of the NBA playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies. After a strong regular season the early playoff exit forced some needed changes. Head Coach Vinny Del Negro is out, replaced by one of the most respected coaches in the NBA, Doc Rivers. The Clippers also re-made an already solid bench, emphasizing character guys with the ability to play multiple positions and hit the three point shot. In a loaded Western Conference the Clippers should be in contention for the top overall record in the west. After consecutive strong regular seasons expectations have risen in Clipper-land, with a deep playoff run expected from the club’s burgeoning fan base.
Here are five things to watch as the Clippers head into the all-important 2013-2014 regular season:
After leading the Celtics to an NBA title and several team playoff runs Doc Rivers is now regarded as one of the elite coaches in the NBA. He’s a well respected game manager who players love to play for. His Celtics teams played hard and played tremendous defense. Basketball is a confidence game and elite NBA head coaches can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a franchise. Vinny Del Negro was widely regarded as a great guy but one of the worst in coaches in the league. His late game decisions and rotation choices often left Clippers fans shaking their heads. The presence of Rivers on the bench should pay dividends come playoff time. His reputation for coaching defense should improve an area where the Clippers had some struggles in the past few seasons. Most importantly the presence of Rivers signals to the Lakers and the rest of the Western Conference that the Clippers are locked and loaded and legitimate NBA title contenders.
The End of Lob City: The Clippers open court style and the incredible athletic ability of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan helped create “Lob City” at STAPLES Center the past couple of years. The Clippers made plenty of Sportscenter highlights but had difficulty adjusting to the half-court nature of playoff basketball. With Rivers the Clippers will now employ the half-court style Rivers employed in Boston, which stresses balancing the floor and player movement. It’s a proven style of play and the Clippers made some wise moves in the offseason to build a bench that will compliment the style. The Clippers may not be as exciting as in years past but the revised style of play should pay dividends come playoff time.
The Revised Bench: The Clippers had a strong bench last season, one of the elite groups in basketball. After starting strong they fizzled towards the end though, and went through bouts of inconsistency. Early signs are positive regarding the Clippers offseason additions. Jamal Crawford, who provided so much instant offense off the bench last season, has returned and should make a run for top sixth man in the NBA once again. Darren Collison had an up and down season last year in Dallas, but is a solid veteran point guard who should prove an excellent backup to Paul. Phoenix Suns import Jared Dudley is a character guy who can hit the tough three point shot while providing solid defense off the bench. If there are any questions regarding the Clippers depth it’s related to their interior backups. Lou Amundson, Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens each have their own strengths, but may have their hands full with some of the deeper front courts in the Western Conference.
Blake Griffin Time? Due to his remarkable athletic ability Blake Griffin has become one of the most popular players in the NBA, a human highlight film that rivals past greats like Dominique Williams. With the Clippers as serious title contenders it may be time for Griffin to put it all together and become one of the most dependable post scorers in the league. The Clippers more conservative style may eliminate some of the open court opportunities that Griffin likes to cash in on. The key for Griffin is to prove his ability to capitalize in the half court game. If the Clippers star can elevate his game to superstar levels the Clippers just may have the classic “two superstars” needed to take home an NBA crown.
The Health of Chris Paul: The Clippers have the best pure point guard in the NBA. They also have a player who has suffered from knee problems and missed thirty-five games in his two seasons as a Clipper. The Clippers will go as far as Chris Paul can take them. The presence of Darren Collison will give the Clippers a solid player to spell their superstar and keep him fresh for a playoff run. Paul is already hinting to an interest in perhaps a shorter NBA career than many and his chronic knee issues may eventually force a truncated career. He’s in the prime of his career now and the upcoming couple of seasons may represent the zenith of his NBA career. It’s essential for the Clippers to breakthrough and make their deep run this season, with Paul leading the charge.
Prediction: The Clippers win the Pacific Division again and eventually lose to the Heat in the NBA finals.