Arguably, the Los Angeles Clippers had the deepest bench out of any team during the 2012-2013 season. Led by former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, the charismatic, quick point guard Eric Bledsoe, and the slashing small forward Matt Barnes, the Clippers subs were effective in bringing a fast dynamic to the court, a great contrast to the slower pace typically enforced by the team’s floor general, Chris Paul. Eventually, the Clippers that came off the pine were collectively dubbed “A Tribe Called Bench,” an affectionate reference to the 1990s rap group “A Tribe Called Quest.” Unfortunately, this widespread distribution of talent throughout the roster could not protect Los Angeles from a first-round elimination in six games to the Memphis Grizzlies, a disappointment further accentuated by a four-game losing streak to end that series.
Rather than twiddling their thumbs and hoping that some phenomenal talent would fall into the team’s lap, the Clippers front office immediately went to work after the playoffs and made some bold transactions, some that may have even felt treacherous to the casual Lob City fan. There are a lot of new faces in Los Angeles, but the ones that are the same will be even more critical to the successes that the team does or does not realize this season.
Last Season: Chris Paul/Eric Bledsoe/Maalik Wayns
This Season: Chris Paul/Darren Collison/Maalik Wayns
In a rare instance where a top NBA player’s free agency period was short-lived and drama-free, Chris Paul agreed to re-sign with the Clippers for a five-year, $107 million deal nearly the first moment in which he was able to do so following the moratorium. Aside from owner Donald Sterling further erasing any outsiders’ doubts about his willingness to dip into his coffers for his franchise, the Clippers cemented their status as an attractive location for free agents, managing to sign Collison for a two-year, $2 million deal.
The latter point guard returns to his college roots (UCLA), taking a hometown discount for the chance to win a ring. It is also to be noted that Collison played as Paul’s back-up in their stints in New Orleans, so good chemistry should be already be in play by the time team practices begin. Although Collison does not possess flashy athleticism, he is fully competent as a back-up at the 1, a position where Bledsoe deserved to be top dog rather than second or third wheel.
A deficiency in Bledsoe’s game, though, is his shooting; while very capable of getting to the basket, the young guard was very turnover-prone, and he does not create his own shot that well from any great distance. However, since Bledsoe was playing in limited minutes, masking his weaknesses, the Clippers cashed in on his potential, sending him and small forward Caron Butler’s expiring $8 million out for a return of shooting guard J.J. Redick and small forward Jared Dudley.
Wayns is still only a year out of college; he may get some burn in garbage time, but he most likely will not graduate to second on the point guard depth chart unless injuries arise in front of him.
Last Season: Willie Green/Jamal Crawford/Chauncey Billups (injured)
This Season: J.J. Redick/Jamal Crawford/Willie Green
As respectable a job Green did filling in most of the season for the injury-battered Billups (who played out of position from point guard anyway), Willie is simply a one-dimensional player, not necessarily a starter-caliber guy. Sure, he was part of the franchise-record seventeen-game win streak for the Clippers, but the victories accrued during that time proved to be somewhat of a fluke. These games were earlier on in the season, when the team won more on sheer talent than anything else; a lack of solidity in the roster and coaching was underscored when the team bowed out early in the playoffs. Billups was extremely inconsistent on both ends of the floor and proved unable to live up to his nickname, “Mr. Big Shot;” after deferring the blame from himself following the Clippers’ playoff exit, he took his baggage to the Pistons.
With the addition of Redick, the Clippers gain a high-IQ guard that can hit from long-distance (a career 39% clip), defend his man well, and stretch the floor to free up the paint more for bigs like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Crawford, although 33, still employs a nasty crossover and a very respectable ability to create his own shot in isolation possessions. Having contributed sixteen points per game last year, Crawford will be a major scoring component off the bench again, and Green, a consummate professional, will play as needed and do his best to add what he can in a pinch.
Last Season: Caron Butler/Matt Barnes/Grant Hill
This Season: Jared Dudley/Matt Barnes/Reggie Bullock
After the Clippers secured Chris Paul’s signature, the next objective was retaining the small forward Barnes, who had what may have been a career year for him at age 33. By re-upping, Barnes took most of the Clippers’ mid-level exception, the money available to be offered by teams over the salary cap without luxury tax punishment, but for this roster, it was likely worth every penny. Barnes serves as an energy player that can hit the long-ball at a decent rate and make a solid move or two to the basket, and he isn’t afraid to crash the boards or get in anyone’s face. He brings an enforcer-type attitude the Clippers sorely needed more of against the “grit and grind” Grizzlies, and his return is very welcome to this team.
However, Dudley is not a name to be forgotten on this revamped squad. Having come over from the lackluster Phoenix Suns, Dudley serves as a SG-SF swingman that, like Redick, shoots very well from the three-point line (40% career) and also plays well as a wing defender.
Butler, like Billups, had seen his prime pass him by at least two years ago, no longer being the lock-down perimeter player or spot-up shooter that originally warranted his three-year, $24 million contract.
Hill was unjustifiably benched for most of the season, despite being saddled with bone bruise injuries early on. He showed he still had something in the tank when given the opportunity to play, one of the most memorable instances being when he defensively shut down Carmelo Anthony in the fourth quarter of a regular season game against the Knicks.
Although not quite as bold as Barnes, Dudley also is willing to stand up for his teammates, a trait that will quickly come to be respected by his peers and his new Los Angeles fans. Another plus is that Dudley’s contract is roster-friendly ($4 million a year), which will allow more breathing room for other free agents to come over during the next offseason.
Bullock is an unproven rookie and does not possess particularly great handles, but he embodies the “3 and D” player that the Clippers were looking for in this year’s draft. He possesses some polish after spending three years under Roy Williams on the UNC Tar Heels, but he will have to prove he is deserving of playing time, starting with his efforts in the Summer League.
Last Season: Blake Griffin/Lamar Odom/DaJuan Summers
This Season: Blake Griffin/FA/Brandon Davies
Griffin, associated with all complimentary superlatives in dunking, is one of the two main X factors going into this season. He has demonstrated marked improvement in his offensive and defensive capabilities, but he must continue to develop a post-game repertoire that is not reliant on his athleticism, lower his propensity to lose the ball under the basket when double-teamed, and stop leaking out on opportunities to gain a defensive rebound. His free-throws, while at a career high of 66% last year, are also still a work-in-progress. However, Griffin’s work ethic is praised by nearly all of those who can attest to it, and it would not be a surprise to see the power forward improve considerably in at least two of the aforementioned aspects of his game by the beginning of the new NBA calendar.
Odom left a lot to be desired, being no more than a hollow shell of his former Heat, Laker, or even past Clipper self. Coming into training camp overweight, he spent a good portion of the regular season just getting back into shape during game-time. With a poor showing at the line (47%) and a rather pathetic year overall, it seems like a stretch for the Clippers to want Odom back at even a fraction of his previous annual salary ($8 million). As such, it will make sense for Los Angeles to look elsewhere for a second-string power forward on the cheap.
Davies has a partially guaranteed contract; after averaging around 18 points and 8 rebounds per game as a senior at BYU this past year, he will look to justify himself as member of the Clipper roster during the Summer League.
Summers is ultimately a tweener between a small forward and power forward; he did not play a role much greater than being a guy used for practices, and he was recently cut by the team.
Last Season: DeAndre Jordan/Ryan Hollins/Ronny Turiaf
This Season: DeAndre Jordan/Ryan Hollins/FA
The other big question mark for the year will be Jordan. Although he is one of the few players that is not an injury risk on the team, he has been plagued by inconsistent defense and nonexistent offense. In spite of a high field-goal percentage buoyed by dunks, Jordan has an ugly free-throw slash (39%) that may determine his playing time. Players like Shaquille O’Neal were capable of staying in the game for long stints in spite of poor free-throw shooting due to an unmistakable presence on both ends of the floor; Jordan has no range outside of a few feet from the basket, and his wavering dedication to protecting the rim and getting rebounds garnered him only 24 minutes of action per game last year. When initially drafted, Jordan fell from a projected lottery pick to an early second-rounder due to questions about his drive and motivation; it remains to be seen whether the young center is willing to put in the effort to take him to the next level, something for which he has the tools but has not shown the willingness to achieve.
Hollins is not particularly wasteful; he has six fouls a game, and he will certainly use them in the back-up minutes he receives. He is physical despite his rather slender seven-foot frame, weighing in at 240 pounds, and he provides a certain kind of energy that is beneficial to the squad as a whole.
Turiaf gradually lost playing time over the season, often turning the ball over when not spoon-fed the ball in the absence of defenders. He recently signed with the Timberwolves. It would not be a surprise to see the Clippers add another quality big man either at PF or C, depending on who is available.
Last Season: Vinny Del Negro
This Season: Doc Rivers
Del Negro just did not cut it as the head coach for a team as skilled as that of last year. Some players for the Clippers raved about how they had never played with such freedom before; unfortunately, that was likely a large contributor to the team’s premature downfall. Del Negro brought with him from his time coaching the Chicago Bulls a notoriously poor three-point line defense; this and free-throw shooting were two exploitable weaknesses that were unable to be shored up for the playoffs, and thus ended the era of Vinny.
With Rivers looking to leave Boston, which is in the process of reloading its roster, the Clippers took advantage, making a rather uncommon transaction to gain a reputable head coach for a paltry future first-round draft pick, likely to be in the late twenties. Rivers commands respect, but he doesn’t hold back his own for those with whom he associates and coaches. As a player, Doc was known for his defense, and that’s something he hopes to successfully implement as a mainstay of the new Clippers roster.
Rivers also has gained acclaim for his ability to draw up plays out of timeouts, a skill Del Negro ostensibly lacked. The former point guard has already touted young players like Griffin and Jordan to have the potential to become defensive standouts; it will be interesting to see if he will able to put his money where his mouth is.
Overall, the Clippers should prove to have another strong regular season, potentially jockeying for a top seed in the tough Western Conference with the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets, and other teams. Whether the Clippers live up to their hype is up to the Clippers only, but with a great coach, elite point guard, talented frontcourt, and strong bench, the team is certain to make a run for it all this year.