As it does every year, ESPN is rolling out its NBA Summer Forecast series. Tuesday called for Western Conference predictions (see the full results here). The site’s basketball minds foresee the Los Angeles Clippers finishing as the third seed for the second consecutive year (click here for our thoughts on their Lakers prediction).
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) August 12, 2014
After romping their way to 57 wins–12 of which came without Chris Paul–ESPN’s 210-member panel envisions the Clippers winning one less game in 2014-15. Last year, the Summer Forecast correctly called for that 57-25 record, which it felt was good enough for the second seed. They and the rest of the world underestimated the San Antonio Spurs.
Never has “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applied more fittingly than to the summers had by the West elite. At least that’s how ESPN sees it. The champion Spurs brought back every significant piece of their title run. Oklahoma City simply trimmed some fat by losing Derek Fisher to retirement and letting Thabo Sefolosha sign with Atlanta. Drafting Mitch McGary and signing Anthony Morrow and Sebastian Telfair doesn’t move the needle in the other direction, either.
Though the Forecast only addresses the regular season, it’s a good bet this panel will have Timmy and the Gang representing the conference in the Finals. It does, however, take into account the increase in minutes management Gregg Popovich will likely implement on his veterans. That’s why seeing them projected to finish behind the Thunder doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
What grinds my gears is how the Clippers are being treated as an identical product to last year. For starters, when Paul was on the floor last year this was a 58-win team based on percentage. Three of the six losses without him were by four points or less. The Clippers are already a better team than a year ago simply with the best point guard in the league back healthy.
That doesn’t include the most impactful signing of the offseason among last year’s playoff teams in the West. It’s been beaten to death the spacing and outside shooting Spencer Hawes brings to the Clippers. That’s because it’s worth shouting about. Hawes drained 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts, good for 10th in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And he wasn’t just an occasional spot-up shooter in Philadelphia or Cleveland. Hawes chucked nearly four triples per game, more than John Wall.
It’s entirely possible the Clippers will have two players among the top-five vote-getters for 2014-15 NBA MVP. Blake Griffin finished higher than Paul last season in part for his performance in the point guard’s absence. Paul is a more prototypical MVP candidate as the team’s ball handler.
But Griffin’s game is only expanding towards LaMarcus Aldridge levels. His shooting percentages farther from the basket increased from 2012-13 to last year. Check the table below:
Blake Griffin's Growing Range, in field-goal percentage
It appears that the three-point line is Griffin’s next mission.
With Griffin’s increased versatility and Hawes’ ready-made perimeter game, Doc Rivers can throw even more pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll combinations at the defense.
This has the makings of a 59 or 60-win season. Trying to pretend that the San Antonio Spurs deserve anything other than top billing, even with minute managing, is folly. But with Scott Brooks still in charge, it is going to take something similar to Durant’s 29.90 PER from last season for the Thunder to have a better regular season than the Clippers. By the way, that’s the 20th-best PER in NBA/ABA history.
Is this the year the Clippers assert dominance not only in STAPLES Center, but the entire league? How many games do you see them winning in 2014-15? Let us know in the poll below.