LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers enjoyed the greatest season in team history last season. They won a franchise-best 56 games, won their first division title and 17 straight games along the way.
They celebrated this milestone by firing their head coach and revamping their roster.
Perhaps nothing speaks to the new expectations of the Clippers more than their approach to this offseason. It’s no longer enough to re-write their own record books, they want to win an NBA championship.
They took a big step in that direction when they acquired Doc Rivers from the Boston Celtics and made him their head coach and senior vice president of basketball operations. Combine that with locking up Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for the next five years and for the first time in team history the Clippers have a solid foundation for continued success.
With Clippers training camp starting next week, let’s take a look at the top 10 questions heading into the 2013-14 season.
1. What will Doc Rivers’ impact be?
No matter what you think of Vinny Del Negro and the job he did with the Clippers over the last two seasons, it was clear he had lost the team by the end of their fourth consecutive loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first road of last season’s playoffs.
Rivers is universally respected by players and his peers and is the perfect face of a franchise trying to establish itself as a contender. He not only comes in with the cache of having won a championship recently but he also comes into the organization with more authority in the front office than just about anyone not named Donald Sterling. He won’t be thought of as a figure head.
The Clippers became relevant when they got Griffin, they became a playoff team when they got Paul and they feel they now have become a championship-caliber team with Rivers.
2. How long will it take this year’s team build chemistry?
One of the main reasons Rivers has decided to take his team down to San Diego for the first week of training camp is to build team chemistry. He doesn’t want players coming to practice in the morning and driving home in different directions in the afternoon. He wants them to go golfing together at Torrey Pines, walk the La Jolla shores and maybe even go to Sea World.
Teams like Oklahoma City and San Antonio will open the season miles ahead of the Clippers in the chemistry department because their coaching staff and core group of players are the same. The Clippers need to find a way to fast-forward that learning process and Rivers believes getting away from home for a week and spending time together will accomplish that goal.
3. What will the depth chart look like?
The Clippers will likely add a few camp bodies but if they decide to keep 15 players on their opening night roster the only real battle may be between Brandon Davis and Lou Amundson for a reserve role in the front court. Most of the other positions are pretty much set. If the Clippers go with Davies and keep 15, here’s how the depth chart would look:
PF: Blake Griffin -- Antawn Jamison -- Brandon Davies
The Clippers are clearly stacked in the backcourt where Paul and Redick are not only a formidable duo but you’re not going to do much better than Collison and Crawford when it comes to backups in the backcourt. Where the Clippers are thin is in their front court depth. Griffin, Jordan and Dudley are solid starters but can the Clippers depend on Jamison, Mullens or Hollins if Griffin or Jordan go down or get in foul trouble?
4. How will this year’s version of “A Tribe Called Bench” look?
Last year’s second unit was so good that they had a nickname, T-shirts and a music video that played in the second half of games they closed out. This year’s unit will look slightly different with Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Grant Hill gone. While the loss of Bledsoe will certainly hurt the Clippers’ ability to change the pace of the game, Collison is a solid replacement and the Clippers figure to be much more proficient offensively when they go to the bench with Jamison and Mullens. The problem will be on the defensive end where neither figures to be much of a factor. The Clippers are still one of the deepest teams in the league but they are still thin in the frontcourt, which didn't hurt them much in the regular season but was a huge factor when they were outmuscled in the playoffs.
5. Is this the season DeAndre Jordan lives up to his contract and potential?
It seems like this has become an annual question for the Clippers since Jordan signed a four-year, $43 million contract in 2011. The answers going into this season are very much like they have been in the past. Jordan has been a gym rat in the offseason. He is working on his free throw shooting and his offensive game and figures to have a career season. That’s what the message was before last season where he shot 38.6 percent from the free throw line during the season and 22.2 percent from the line in the playoffs. He was constantly upset with Del Negro for sitting him at the end of games but that won’t change with Rivers unless Jordan can improve his free throw percentage significantly. Rivers has told Jordan that he can be an all defensive player and an all star if he wants it bad enough. We’ll see this season how badly Jordan wants it.
6. How will the addition of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley change the Clippers' starting lineup?
The biggest roster changes the Clippers made were trading Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe for Redick and Dudley and letting Chauncey Billups leave. Now they have a new starting shooting guard in Redick, a new starting small forward in Dudley and a new backup point guard in Collison. When Rivers talked to his staff, especially Alvin Gentry, about what the Clippers needed and who they should target, Redick and Dudley’s names immediately came up. Gentry had coached Dudley in Phoenix and knew how well he could fit into their system. Rivers was looking for outside shooters who were good system defenders and void of any ego and he found two of them in Redick and Dudley. As much as the Clippers liked Billups, he was never healthy during his time in Los Angeles, playing all of 42 games over two seasons. The Clippers' starting lineup will now have more consistency with Redick and Dudley and the ability to space the court for Griffin and Jordan with Redick and Dudley’s ability to shoot from the outside.
7. What does the long-term commitment of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin mean?
It means the Clippers are no longer a flash in the pan or a fad that will go away next season. There was always this cloud hanging over the Clippers over the first two years of their run that Griffin might leave or Paul might leave. Well, they’ve locked up Griffin, Paul and Rivers for the foreseeable future and that makes the Clippers a destination franchise right now. They’re no longer a team in flux trying to find their identity. They have a solid foundation and are trying to build on it now.
8. Will history be made again?
The Clippers don’t have much history to speak of so last season was significant in the sense that they finally won over 50 games, won the division and won 17 games in a row. Now that they have those minor milestones out of the way, the goal is to win 60 games for the first time in franchise history and advance to their first Western Conference Finals and beyond. The Clippers have the talent to do that but it won’t be easy with Oklahoma City and San Antonio still viewed by many as the class of the West.
9. Who will be this year’s most unsung, important signing?
Let’s call this the Matt Barnes Award after Barnes became one of the most important players on the team after signing a minimum deal just before training camp. The Barnes of this year’s team could end up being Byron Mullens, who signed a two-year deal worth $2 million. The seven-footer has played both power forward and center and gives the Clippers a stretch four off the bench, which they've been looking for recently. Rivers watched Mullens put up 25 points, 18 rebounds and 4 assists against his Boston Celtics in February. In that game, Mullens hit 62.5 percent of his shots (10 of 16) and was 80 percent from behind the arc (4 of 5). If Jordan continues to struggle at the line, Mullens could be the one manning the paint for the Clippers late in games.
10. How much will the Clippers miss Lamar Odom?
The Clippers wanted to re-sign Odom this offseason and if he hadn’t had his issues off the court, he would probably be with the team right now. Odom was one of the Clippers' better defensive players off the bench (even if his offensive numbers were dreadful). He was also a leader in the locker room, along with Billups, which is where his loss will likely be felt most.