Hope springs eternal.
It's a familiar mantra for people who follow the Clippers. There's always a somewhat plausible playoff scenario being conjured up; a million "what-ifs" that could lead to something great.
Of course, there's another three words that describes what happened when the team actually took the floor:
The injuries, growing pains and mental errors that notoriously plague the Clippers always seem to rear their ugly head sooner or later. Reality has struck consistently, with very little mercy.
This offseason, obviously, things are a little bit different. There is no "hope" anymore that the Clippers will make the playoffs -- it's now a steadfast belief. When you add the game's best point guard in Chris Paul, and two former All-Stars in Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, expectations begin to rise.
Just how good can the 2011-12 Clippers be? Let's take a look:
Here's where Chris Paul comes in. Although Gordon vastly improved as a creator in the pick-and-roll setting, the two are incomparable as passers. Paul's assist percentage (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the floor) was more than double that of Gordon's last year, at 45.8 percent to Gordon's 20.7 percent.
The simplicity of the Clippers' offense under Vinny Del Negro, which once proved problematic, should now actually benefit the team. As demonstrated in his masterful playoff performances against the Lakers, putting the ball in Paul's hands and letting him use a series of ball-screens is about the smartest thing you can do as a coach. It's foolish to worry about how Paul will fit into the Clippers' offense -- Paul is the Clippers' offense.
Remember that this is a guy with the highest offensive rating of any active player in the league. He's proven time and time again that he makes the players around him better. With Griffin -- the best player Paul has ever played with already -- and deep threats like Mo Williams (.386 percent career 3-point shooter) and Billups (.389 percent career 3-point shooter) to spread the floor, and Butler providing a scoring punch at the 3, the Clippers are almost guaranteed to sport a better offensive unit this season. They'll slow down with Paul leading the way (New Orleans was 29th in pace last year), but they'll learn to kill defenses methodically.
Even without the services of Gordon, it's still reasonable to assume the Clippers will continue to improve under Del Negro. Remember that the Clippers gave significant minutes to three rookies last year (Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Griffin), sometimes playing them all together at the same time. Although they're likely to play with less youthful energy, Paul, Butler and Billups will cut out a large portion of the silly mental errors the Clippers made on the defensive end last season.
On that note, the Clippers should also be able to utilize more zone defense this season -- a specialty of assistant coach Dean Demopoulos. All six current contributors in the Clippers backcourt register at or below 6-foot-3, which could be a problem. The Mavericks, with a similarly small backcourt, used an awful lot of zone en route to their championship last year. Expect the Clippers to follow a similar plan now that they have the veterans to handle it.
With Paul's ability to create turnovers (he's led the NBA in steals three times), and DeAndre Jordan's rim protecting steadily improving, the Clippers should creep into the top 15 in defensive efficiency -- the most necessary step to becoming a playoff team.
D.J. Foster writes the ClipperBlog for ESPN's TrueHoop Network.