Midway through the season, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like title contenders. At 32-9 with a gaudy point differential, Chris Paul was clearly the third best player in the league, Griffin, Jordan, and Bledsoe all had improved, and the team's motley assortment of veterans, led by Matt Barnes, were playing better than anyone had a right to expect. Despite a tumultuous second half, the Clippers still finished the season a franchise best 56-26, but following a convincing playoff defeat in the first round, Vinny Del Negro is gone, the young guys regressed down the stretch, and the rumor mill has Chris Paul looking to jump ship, a possibility that would have been unthinkable several months ago.
Any analysis of the Clippers begins with Paul, an unrestricted free agent. Either the best or second best point guard in the league, depending on Tony Parker's most recent game, Paul is an advanced stats god (2nd among active players in PER, 1st in WS/48) and the Clippers entire offense for long stretches. The only fly in his resume's ointment has been a lack of postseason success, and it may be that Paul needs to accept a lesser role on a better team to succeed in the playoffs. This is not a criticism. Paul's teams have usually lost to 55+ win juggernauts, and it is doubtful that any point guard in NBA history would have been able to win a brutal Western Conference with the help Paul has received. The fate of Kidd's New Jersey teams in the Finals, prime Stockton's Jazz, and Oscar Robertson's Royals all attest to the difficulty of placing a team's destiny on the shoulders of its smallest player. The ability of teams to place larger defenders like Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha, Kawhi Leonard, and Andre Iguodala on Paul without worrying about mismatches elsewhere on the court only exacerbates this disadvantage.
Where, on the roster, will this help come from? The best candidate is Blake Griffin, who received an avalanche of criticism, both fair and unfair, after the Clippers' loss to Memphis. Griffin has played hurt during the past two postseasons, severely limiting his effectiveness. Criticized for not improving, Griffin has improved as a defender and in his general court awareness. However, he still has not shown much improvement from the midrange, hitting only a third of his shots beyond ten feet, and his rebounding has declined precipitously over the past two years, as he deals with more defensive responsibility. He is a fantastic passer and a much better post player than advertised, but like the similar Karl Malone, he is sometimes unable to successfully adjust to a halfcourt playoff style game. Improving his elbow jumper would be a huge boon to the Clipper offense, as his passing ability would allow him to act as a secondary creator from the elbow, relieving some of the pressure on Paul, and opening space for Paul to run pick and roll on the wing after the defense has been sent scrambling.
The other guy who was supposed to relieve Paul was the veteran Jamal Crawford, signed through 2016 to a midlevel deal. Crawford had an excellent regular season, averaging almost 17 points on relatively efficient shooting, and contending for 6MOY. In news that should shock absolutely no one, depending on Crawford in the playoffs backfired, as Memphis took him out of the series after an early explosion. He remains a nice player, but not one a title contender can count on in more than a supercharged JJ Barea/Gary Neal role, as opposed to "#2 scorer".
Of all of VDN's foibles, inconsistencies, and bewildering mistakes, perhaps the most damaging was his development of DeAndre Jordan. Jordan continues to show promise, despite an abysmal season from the line (.386), but his defensive limitations, and VDN's decision to play Lamar Odom ahead of him in 4th quarters this year, has kept the Clippers defense, the team's achilles heel despite all the nasty things I wrote about the offense, below its potential. With an engaged, disciplined Jordan clogging the lane for 32 minutes a night, the Clippers would have the pieces of a championship level defense. Instead, 24 minutes of shotblocking, shot altering, and pick and roll breakdowns have held back the team's defense, which instead thrived on the bench, led by Barnes and Bledsoe, creating turnovers, a skill that often disappears against disciplined playoff offenses (as it did against Memphis). The inveterate prankster has two years and over 22 million left on his current deal.
Matt Barnes inexplicably had a career year. He's been a really good role player the past few years, and a very underrated loss for the Lakers, on whom he would have arguably been the third best player this past year. I wouldn't expect him to be quite as good next year, but he should continue to be a very good player that GM's refuse to pay, possibly because he is one of the most annoying players in the league. And now, a brief mention of Caron Butler's 2013 season. That was it.
The Clippers' most intriguing asset is Eric Bledsoe, the shiny lure dangled in front of opposing GM's to catch the Clippers' next white whale in order to form a championship aquarium. Bledsoe was at his best early in the season as a foil for Chris Paul, coming off the bench to create 8 minutes of havoc, whiplashing the opponents once they had adjusted to Paul's meticulous surgery. The effect, like alternately fighting Hannibal Lector and Ash, befuddled and beat teams into submission. He was exposed after Paul's injuries/midseason vacation forced him into starter's minutes, and his lack of consistent shooting and penchant for very bad, no good turnovers torpedoed the offense. Many people would still love to take a chance on a 23 year old that averaged 15-5-5 with 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes, even accounting for the fact that some of those defensive stats came at the expense of ballwatching and indefensible gambling. A trade seems inevitable, as he is unlikely to get more than 15-20 minutes a game with the Clippers as long as Paul is playing, and if Paul isn't playing, what is the point of the Clippers, really?
There aren't any more interesting young players on the squad. Returning and departing bench players include Grant Hill (retiring), Lamar Odom's expiring contract, and free agents Willie Green (team option), Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins, and Chauncey Billups. Green and Turiaf are acceptable 9th men, Billups has barely been able to move following his Achilles injury, and Ryan Hollins continues to be Ryan Hollins. We're so sorry, Clippers fans.
As of now, the Clippers are still without a head coach. The organization may hire a defensive coach to develop Jordan and improve the defense, or an offensive coach to add creativity to the team's schemes, which are little more than "put Paul at the top of the key, and see what he does." Ideally, they would be able to accomplish both through the hiring of capable assistants, and a head coach that would defer to those assistants when needed. The direction the team takes will tell us a lot about what they perceive as their main weakness.
If Paul comes back, the Clippers will have minimal flexibility this summer, having sunk about 62 million into Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, and Bledsoe. Any improvements beyond their cap exceptions would have to come via a Bledsoe trade. The only avenue to opening significant cap space seems to be finding takers for Jordan and Caron Butler's expiring deal, the latter of which would likely necessitate surrendering a pick. Otherwise, it is what it is in Clipperland, a 48-53 win second tier Western Conference team next year, barring major improvements from young players. That is a slight step backward, because I think it's more likely that the veterans like Crawford and Barnes fall off than I do that Jordan and Bledsoe take their games to the next level, which leaves Chris Paul where he's been his entire career, in the 4-7 seed pseudo-contender range.