Legitimate title contention isn't going to come easy for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Offseason acquisitions of Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison, along with the retention of Chris Paul, look great on paper. But what's written on paper doesn't win championships. The Clippers need only look to their Staples Center co-habitants, the Los Angeles Lakers, to see that.
Pairing Dwight Howard and Steve Nash with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol rendered the Lakers instant favorites last year. Injuries and a lack of chemistry, however, left them clinging to fading postseason hopes. And when they finally did sneak into the playoffs, battered and bruised beyond comprehension, the San Antonio Spurs sent them packing after four straight games.
This year, it's the Clippers who are the toast of the town and envy of the NBA. Shrewd summer maneuvering has given them a team that should theoretically contend. But before we crown them champs or even genuine threats to the Miami Heat's throne, we must first remember they haven't done anything yet.
Regular-season games haven't been played, playoff contests haven't been won and there are no previous titles the Clippers can point to as proof of their status. As Rivers was quick to remind Paul, he and the rest of the team haven't accomplished anything.
"He pretty much told me I wasn't anything," Paul said of Rivers, according to the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch. "He told me I hadn't done anything, and he was right."
In other words, the Clippers aren't perfect; they have something to prove. They have obstacles they must leapfrog before they can plant their flag in territory they've been eyeing for almost two years.
Life After Lob City
May Lob City rest in peace while also making sporadic returns from its shallow grave.
High-flying dunks and murderous alley-oops have defined the Clippers for two seasons. With a point guard like Paul, and two athletic bulls like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, it only made sense for the Clippers to found Lob City.
Now that Rivers is governing the sidelines, Griffin told ESPN's Shelley Smith that Lob City is no more:
"Lob City doesn't exist anymore. Lob City is done. We're moving on and we're going to find our identity during training camp, and that will be our new city. No more Lob City."
Playing above the rim is what Los Angeles' front line is still built for, so straying from it entirely is counterintuitive. But it's more important that the Clippers find their identity outside of Lob City.
By no means is dunking dead in Los Angeles. Defenders will still be posterized, and highlight reels created. Only now, the Clippers want more; Rivers wants them to be known for more than their athleticism or ability to take flight.
"Our offense is going to have a totally different look this year," Griffin told Smith. "Our offense is going to have a lot of movement and floor spacing. I'm looking forward to it."
Establishing a new identity on offense, and then mastering it, will take time. Becoming an even more defensively aware team will take time. Building chemistry with new faces and adjusting to life after Lob City, that's all going to take time. And effort.
"Let's try to get them both, but I understand what he's saying," Rivers said of the Clippers' direction to Smith. "I think the message there is people look at us as a showtime team and not a winning team, and we want to be a winning team, but you can do both."
How seamless the Clippers make the transition from "showtime" to a more complete team will say a great deal about where they stand upon season's end.
DeAndre Jordan's Progression
Jordan can dunk. He can block shots (1.4 per game last season). And he can run the floor extremely well for someone his size.
Yet he's still limited overall. Since Rivers intends to rely more heavily on him this season, that needs to change, most notably late in games.
"I tend to want to stay big at the end of games, so he'll be on the floor a lot," said of playing Jordan extensively in the fourth quarter, per ESPN TrueHoop Network's Fred Katz.
Playing more in the fourth quarter likely means more minutes in general, and Jordan has never averaged more than 27.2 per game. Increased playing time is something he must adjust to.
More importantly, the Clippers must account for his abysmal free-throw shooting.
Through five seasons, Jordan is converting only 42.4 percent of his free-throw attempts. Andre Drummond is the only other active NBA player, who has attempted at least 100 total free throws, to have hit a lower percentage of his freebies during that time (37.1; 2012-13).
Late in games, his poor performance at the foul line is a liability, hence Vinny Del Negro's decision to play him an average of only five minutes per game in the fourth quarter last season, per NBA.com (subscription required).
Jordan must improve upon the 38.6 percent clip he shot from the charity stripe last year if the Clippers want him to play big minutes in the fourth. That, or the Clippers better plan on blowing teams out daily.
Conventional wisdom also suggests Jordan could have a difficult time fitting into Los Angeles' new offensive scheme. As discussed earlier, Lob City is no more; Jordan will have to score points in other ways, which could prove problematic.
Last season, 25.8 percent of Jordan's plays came in post-ups, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). In those situations, he knocked down 49.6 percent of his shots, compared to the 64.3 he hit overall.
Creating his own offense is something he'll have to familiarize himself with even more, though. Almost 67 percent of his baskets came off assists last year, according to hoopdata.com, well above the league average of 60.6 and center average of 63.8.
Below, you'll see how his percentage of made baskets off assists compares to that of the league and center average since he entered the Association:
Generally, centers make more baskets off assists than any other position. But Jordan's number has been higher than the average every year. While the differences have been marginal, they matter more when you consider the Clippers will be deviating from that lob-heavy attack they've ran with for two seasons.
Floor spacing remains an issue, too. Per hoopdata.com, Jordan has never averaged more than 0.3 shot attempts a night outside of nine feet. With the Clippers focused on stretching the floor while also playing Jordan and Griffin together, the former's lack of range will be something to monitor.
Rivers has already told Jordan he expects him to contend for Defensive Player of the Year, which is huge.
The comment itself isn't as important as what it represents. Rivers and the Clippers will be counting on Jordan more. He'll be assuming a more prominent role—a different role. They'll ask him to do more.
Whether or not he is able to find enough success to complete Los Angeles' version of a Big Three will be a driving force behind whether or not the Clippers themselves are a success.
Other Western Conference Contenders
The Western Conference is still a mess of talent, and that doesn't make Los Angeles' quest for a title any easier. For the Clippers to even think about reaching the NBA Finals, where the Miami Heat or some other Eastern Conference powerhouse will await, they must first labor through a gauntlet of intraconference hostiles.
Though the San Antonio Spurs are another year older, doubting their relevance is routinely stupid (see last season). Beginning the year without Russell Westbrook could skew the Oklahoma City Thunder's record in the wrong direction, but they still have this lanky star named Kevin Durant. You might have heard of him.
Then there are the Memphis Grizzlies, who ousted the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs last year. They're still not built to light up the scoreboard, but they can defend better than just about everyone.
Mark Jackson's Golden State Warriors are not to be slept on, either. Los Angeles' division rivals are built to perform on both ends of the floor, and if Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut can stay healthy, they'll make a play for the Pacific crown. I'm not even kidding.
People are quick to adorn the Houston Rockets in championship robes, but like the Clippers, they still have questions to answer. Can James Harden and Howard make for a better pairing than Kobe and Howard? Can Howard play power forward (no)? How many games will they lose before they realize he can't play power forward?
Finally, you have the sleepers. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets don't look like contenders, but they're talented and deep enough to where they could impact the playoff seeding significantly.
Writing the Lakers off already isn't a smart move, either. Kobe has a chip on his shoulder, and that can be dangerous for everyone who isn't fitted in purple and gold.
Navigating the labyrinth of talent out west isn't going to be easy for any team. Not the reigning conference champion Spurs or always-potent Thunder. But it will be especially difficult for the ones who formerly resided in Lob City. They'll be juggling internal transitions in addition to outside rivals, more so than many of their peers.
The Western Conference's makeup can be a talented, cold-hearted entity. And the more cold-hearted the competition is, the hotter the Clippers must be to legitimately contend for a title.
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