Can the Clippers Finally Get to the Conference Finals?Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
As the NBA season draws near, Grantland’s NBA staff will be asking and attempting to answer a series of 20 pressing questions facing players, teams, and coaches.
This is a pivotal year for the three central characters in Clipper-land. By the time the Western Conference finals begin in May, Chris Paul will be on the wrong side of 30, Blake Griffin will be squarely in his prime, and Doc Rivers will be nearing the end of his second full year in L.A. Each of these guys is supposed to be among the best in the world at his particular job. Expectations have never been so high for this organization.
The big question is this: Will they be playing in those conference finals?
If they make it, it will be a result of Rivers finding ways to optimize their terrific offense, improve their defense, and utilize their deep bench. If they fall short, it will be because they couldn’t become anything more than the sum of their ballyhooed parts. Make no mistake: This is the year. The Clips could reach unprecedented heights, almost by default; the Spurs aren’t getting any younger, and the MVP in OKC is hobbled.
The Clippers begin the 2014-15 season with a combination of breadth and depth rarely seen in the NBA. They are talented, versatile, and have the kind of long roster that should enable a good coach like Rivers to exploit matchups against almost any team in the league. The Spurs cruised through the Western Conference playoffs last year, thanks in large part to a super bench that helped them torch the feeble second units of the Blazers and the Thunder. The Clippers have the potential to do the same. Not only do they bring back the Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, but their bench is also littered with a handful of serviceable NBA veterans, including my favorite addition to their team, Spencer Hawes.
On the surface Hawes may seem like a random add, but he provides the Clippers with the exact kind of stretchy big they really didn’t have last year. He is head over heels in love with the top-of-the-arc 3, and he has every right to be. Out of the 21 guys who shot at least 100 times from there last season, here are the five most accurate:
1. Carmelo Anthony, 46 percent
2. Spencer Hawes, 46 percent
3. Kevin Durant, 43 percent
4. Dirk Nowitzki, 42 percent
5. Stephen Curry, 42 percent
That’s pretty good company, and Hawes did that in a year he played for the Sixers and the pre-LeBron Cavaliers. It’s fair to expect he’ll get better looks given his new dreamy offensive ecology alongside Paul and Griffin.
From a coaching perspective, Hawes provides Rivers with a perfect yin to the yang that is DeAndre Jordan. These guys play the same position but couldn’t be more different, offensively. Jordan dominates the paint; Hawes liberates it. On nights when you need more muscle, you have Jordan; when you need spacing, you have Hawes. The latter also gives the team a really good free throw–shooting big man to help them finish close games. No offense, DJ.
Hawes gives Rivers a spacing piece that will free up the paint for Griffin in ways that Jordan is unable to. Last year, Griffin led the NBA in scoring close to the basket, and when he shares the floor with Hawes this year, opponents will be even less equipped to stop him with helping bigs.
His interior dominance aside, Griffin is still a work in progress. He continues to work hard on his jumper, and that work is beginning to pay off. As I wrote about him last season, “the road that connects bad to good almost always has to pass through ‘average’ along the way.” Average is where his jump shot is right now. But for a guy who entered the league four years ago with no range at all, average is really encouraging. If he can knock down more than 40 percent of those 18-footers beyond the elbows, he will not only extend his career, he will also immediately become one of the truly unstoppable offensive forces in the league.
Griffin hasn’t achieved his dominance all on his own. He may be the team’s best player these days, but Paul was the key reason the team led the NBA in offensive efficiency last season. Paul led the NBA in assists and steals, and while he scored 19 points per game, his assists accounted for another 25 per contest, according to the league’s player tracking data. In fact, Paul assisted on 32 percent of Griffin’s 718 made field goals.
As a scorer, Paul blends a strong pullup game and cagey rim attacks in a way that makes him one of the league’s most efficient scoring point guards. For years, he’s been one of the league’s best 2-point jump shooters, and that midrange game will once again be one of the team’s key weapons.
Beyond Paul and Griffin, the Clippers have a litany of solid offensive weapons. Looking at their leading scorers, by area, shows that, while Griffin and Jordan dominate the paint, and Paul and Griffin produce in the midrange, it’s the team’s sharpshooting role players who thrive along the perimeter. In addition to Hawes, the team will rely on J.J. Redick, Crawford, and Matt Barnes to drain the 3s created by the superstars inside the arc.
The Clippers set a franchise record for wins last season and went on to oust a strong Golden State team in the playoffs. Sure, they kind of collapsed against Oklahoma City, but given the unbelievable turmoil in their organization, it’s fair to give them a pass there.
There will be no passes this year. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for this group. They have all the right pieces in place, they have the heroic new owner, the coach, the offense, the bench, and the motivation. And with a few cracks showing in Oklahoma City, this might be the best chance for Paul and the Clippers to finally reach the winning side of the conference semifinals.