Western Conference Preview: The Los Angeles Clippers—How High the Moon

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This is the best team the Clippers have ever had. They have the personnel to win the West, but a couple of problems loom: They’re old and will probably have trouble staying healthy, and they have the NBA’s second-worst shooting percentage (68%), the real problem being that the team’s only two big men, PF Blake Griffin and C DeAndre Jordan, are the team’s only lousy foul shooters.

Griffin and Jordan need to be considered as a tandem. That’s because they are the only two bigs of any note on this team, and will be depended on to score, rebound, defend, block shots and do all the things that bigs do. As good as Griffin is, he can get better and probably will over the next couple of years. His post-up game needs work but he seems to have enough natural talent to do anything. Except shoot fouls. That’s a big point because he and Jordan are going to get fouled a lot, especially in the 4th quarter when you want them out there. You can see the enormity of the problem.

The Clippers were 40-26 last season, fifth best in the West, and one game behind the Lakers and the Grizzlies (both at 41-25), who finished tied for 3rd and 4th. The Clips want to move up a notch or two and get home court playoff advantage. They have a solid starting five , led by Griffin and PG Chris Paul, so during the off-season they signed five veterans to come off the bench—SG Jamal Crawford, PF Lamar Odom, SF Matt Barnes and SG Willie Green, all in their early 30s, and SG Grant Hill, who is 40. Like the Spurs, they need some more youth off the bench, but the quality the Clippers acquired can’t be denied. Crawford and Barnes won’t disappoint. Odom, back in his beloved LA, will probably return to form. Hill will be challenged for minutes by the above three and by starter Caron Butler. And Green will come in handy even if SG Chauncey Billups does come back successfully from his Achilles heel injury.

Jordan is a high-energy Bill Russell type. No shot to speak of but scores on dunks, put-backs, alley oops, opportunity points. He’s also a great shot-blocker and defender. He can’t allow his crummy foul shooting to inhibit his overall game.

Behind Griffin are Rony Turiaf, Kenyon Martin, Odom and Trey Thompkins, whom they drafted one year ago and had him on the court strictly in garbage time. I don’t get that. Why not give the guy some real minutes and see what he can do?  Behind Jordan is Ryan Hollins.

The backcourt is in good hands with Paul (backed by speed demon Eric Bledsoe) and Billups, a true combo guard who will start at SG (when healthy) but is quite capable at the point. Billups’ age and his injury are cause for concern. Behind Billups are Crawford and Green, with Travis Leslie also hoping for a roster spot. Like Thompkins, Leslie was used so little (4.5 minutes a game) that no one knows what he can do. Call it the Jeremy Lin Syndrome.

There’s a lot to like about the Clippers. They don’t turn the ball over—2nd best in NBA with 13.3 per game. (Some of the points they save there make up for some of the points lost on the foul line.) They are deep, versatile, they have an elite point guard and power forward, and lots of savvy veterans who can still play.

Another endearing quality is their lingering underdog status, despite recent success. They have a history of being the redheaded stepchild of Los Angeles, under-hyped even by LA media (though that may change in the wake of TimeWarner’s TV takeover of the Lakers).  I think it’s that history that drives this team. This organization can’t rest until they become NBA champions and, the really important prize, Los Angeles champions.

Topics: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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