The first came in May, when the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals before falling to Houston. With DeAndre Jordan becoming an unrestricted free agent and Chris Paul pushing 30, there were worries that the proverbial window of opportunity for this team was beginning to close.
That nearly proved to be the case over the July 4th weekend, when Jordan verbally agreed to a monster contract with the Dallas Mavericks, which would have been devastating for Los Angeles.
With no cap maneuverability, L.A. would have been forced to sign players from the scrap heap – or convince players to take far less than market value to play for a team that would have just lost a key franchise cornerstone – and take a large step back in the West’s constantly competitive hierarchy.
Then came the well-documented dramatics surrounding the emoji-filled tug of war between Dallas and Los Angeles, culminating with Jordan’s seeming change of heart and ultimate return on a max contract to Doc Rivers’ squad. That chain of events turned the Clippers’ offseason from the league’s worst to one of the league’s best.
Jordan’s re-signing changed everything. Instead of picking from the scrap heap, Rivers was able to lure veterans Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni to dramatically improve the Clippers’ depth – the team’s most glaring weakness a season ago.
With the team’s core pieces back and an improved bench, the Clippers have the talent to once again fulfill the quest for its first ever trip to the conference finals. But will they get to that point? Or beyond? (They are 12-1 to win the championship at a top online sportsbook).
These five things to watch could determine their fate for the 2015-2016 season.
1. Does DeAndre Jordan still know his role?
Despite being considered the third-best player on this team behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan is really, really good at basketball at both ends on the floor. His reputation on the court is irreparably stained by his struggles at the free throw line, but he was among the league leaders in several significant statistical categories, as this chart shows:
|DeAndre Jordan||No.||NBA Rank|
|Field Goal %||71||1|
|Rebounds Per Game||15.0||1|
|Two-Point FG %||71.3||1|
|Effective FG %||71.1||1|
|Defensive Win Shares||5.4||1|
|True Shooting %||63.8||3|
|Blocks Per Game||2.2||4|
|Free Throw Attempts||471||5|
|Offensive Win Shares||7.4||9|
Jordan led the league in rebounding, field goal percentage and defensive win shares and was second to Tyson Chandler last season in offensive rating. To suggest he isn’t a top-flight center in the NBA is ludicrous. And because he is a top-flight center, it would be justifiably frustrating for Jordan to be the unquestioned third option for the Clippers behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
That mindset of wanting a bigger role in a team’s overall scheme – along with an alleged personal rift with Paul, which won’t be speculatively discussed here – was a major factor in Jordan’s agreement to a contract with Dallas. But since Jordan had a change of heart and returned to his familiar Los Angeles surroundings, he still needs to be okay with being in the shadow of his two All-Star teammates.
If Jordan is not complicit with this arrangement and it somehow impacts his stellar play on the court, it has the potential to undermine the Clippers’ chemistry. But if Jordan continues to play at the level he did last season, L.A. has the chance to go further into the playoffs than it ever has.
2. How will the new pieces fit?
After Jordan returned to the Clippers and the team retained its contender status, it allowed Doc Rivers – whose work as a GM has been questioned – to improve the team’s depth with several very intriguing additions.
Paul Pierce reunites with Rivers, hoping to bring leadership and championship pedigree to a team in need of some toughness. Beyond the inevitable superlatives you have to address when writing about Pierce, he became a strong “3 and D” player last season, shooting 38.9 percent from the arc. The 104 defensive rating he logged in Washington last season will inevitably improve while being on the same floor as Paul and Jordan.
The more intriguing addition is Lance Stephenson, acquired from Charlotte on June 15 in a classic shake-things-up trade. For a variety of reasons, Stephenson’s play with the Hornets plummeted so dramatically that he started just 25 of the 61 games he played and was routinely benched during the fourth quarter by Charlotte coach Steve Clifford. He shot 37.6 percent overall (and an appalling 17.1 percent from three) to go with an 85 offensive rating. “Born Ready” had a negative win share total last season.
Somewhere within Stephenson is the ability to be tenacious defender and strong rim finisher. In Indiana in 2013-2014, Stephenson shot 54.5 percent from two and 68.4 percent at the rim, according to Basketball-Reference. If Rivers can bring Stephenson back to form, he would be an enormous difference-maker. But if Stephenson’s continued poor play comes with a bad attitude, it would be an unwanted distraction for a team with championship aspirations.
The same could be said for Josh Smith, signed away from Houston after he was such a disaster in Detroit that the Pistons waived him outright in the middle of the season and ate the remaining $27 million on his contract. Rivers has to be careful in how he deals with Smith as well, but the player who shot 38 percent from three in Houston’s 17-game playoff run last season is in there somewhere.
RELATED: Clippers salaries and analysis
Beyond that headlining trio, Los Angeles added guard Wes Johnson from the Lakers, center Cole Aldrich from the Knicks and point guard Pablo Prigioni from the Rockets. In 24 regular-season games with Houston, Prigioni had a plus-14 net rating per 100 possessions. The Clippers now have a deep roster, but Stephenson and Smith will be the ones to watch as boom-or-bust gambles. Will the new additions gel with the roster’s core?
3. Will the Clips remain ridiculously efficient?
The main reason for the Clippers’ success last season was how great they were on offense. Los Angeles finished first in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), second in points per game, second in field-goal percentage and third in 3-point percentage.
As long as the team still has Paul, Griffin, Jordan and J.J. Redick, it will be good offensively. But it will be interesting to see how players such as Pierce, Stephenson and Smith impact the team offensively. With the Western Conference as competitive as it is, any dip offensively from any of the team’s four mainstays could be the difference between a conference finals appearance and a loss in the first round. During the regular season, the Clippers scored 109.9 points per game in wins and 99.8 points in losses.
Amazingly, L.A. scored exactly 106.7 points per game both before and after the All-Star break last season. Can the Clippers continue that kind of consistency this season?
4. Will the defense remain mediocre?
So the Clippers want to win a championship? History shows that they better improve their defense.
Los Angeles finished 15th in defensive rating last season and 16th in scoring defense, about as average and mediocre as it gets. If you take a look at the most recent NBA champs, you will see that being an average defensive team won’t win you a title.
|Defensive Rating||League Rank|
|14-15 Golden State||1|
|13-14 San Antonio||3|
|09-10 L.A. Lakers||4|
|08-09 L.A. Lakers||6|
|06-07 San Antonio||2|
|04-05 San Antonio||1|
|02-03 San Antonio||3|
|01-02 L.A. Lakers||7|
|00-01 L.A. Lakers||21|
The last 14 NBA champions had a defensive rating in the top 10 during the regular season. Jordan is an elite defender, but Paul’s defensive rating was its highest since the 2009-2010 season, when he was with New Orleans.
Pierce and Stephenson have the ability to help, but the Clippers just aren’t a great defensive team. We will see whether a team of efficient offensive players want to make the jump on the other end.
5. How much better can this team get?
Rivers quite evidently decided that the team he had last season wasn’t going to cut it, so he shook things up and made some additions from outside the organization. The bench should definitely be improved this season after finishing 23rd in scoring, 27th in assists and dead last in rebounding, according to HoopsStats. The defense has room to improve as well, as noted above, but it will be interesting to see if this team has already peaked.
If the Clippers can’t make the jump to the next level, they will look back at the series against Houston from last season and wonder what could have been.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.