The Clippers put their pieces together last year and stormed to the best regular season in franchise history before falling with a thud in the playoffs. They have a few more pieces to fit in with the core of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin this season, so can they make a jump to the elite level in the Western Conference? Camp opens today at Playa Vista, then they head to UC San Diego for five days to get the project underway.
— What will be Doc Rivers’ greatest impact?
As senior vice president of basketball operations, Rivers went to work right away and in a flurry, he pulled in veterans J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison and Darren Collison and retained Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins. Now it’s up to Rivers, the head coach, to make it work on the court. Will he be able to make the moves pay off the way he did by leading Boston to two NBA Finals series and one league crown? Rivers’ most important take for his players on the court is to meld them into a better defensive team, particularly one that can defend the perimeter better. And if he can somehow coax DeAndre Jordan to greatly improve his free-throw shooting, he’ll have a shot-blocker to depend on in the fourth quarter.
— What improvements has Blake Griffin made in his game?
It would have been a nice suggestion for someone to have sat Griffin down after last season, given him video of Karl Malone’s progression throughout his career, and locked him in a room for months of study. It’s no secret that Griffin could create more room for himself closer to the basket by developing a better perimeter game and his free-throw shooting needs substantial improvement after shooting only 66 percent last season. Griffin’s rebounding numbers also dipped considerably last season, and his production also went down following the All-Star break. And Rivers has already challenged Griffin to take his game to new levels defensively, and a more complete Griffin takes him to true dominant status in the league.
— How long will it take to define the roles of the newcomers?
Dudley, Redick and Jamison have made their careers from the 3-point line, but they also know how to defend it. It will now be up to Rivers to find the right combinations for what parts of the game they will be on the court to perform their duties, not to mention accept whatever plans Rivers comes up with. Collison is a no-brainer backup for Chris Paul, which should come as a great relief to Jamal Crawford and his instant offense off the bench. Hollins, Barnes and guard Willie Green proved last year that they no problem with the roles they were handed, but it’s a little more crowded off the bench this time around, even for the Clippers. Rookie Reggie Bullock will have to be worked into the mix as well.
— Is there a Defensive Player of the Year on this team?
One of the first challenges Rivers laid out when hired by the Clippers was to proclaim that Jordan could be the league’s top defender. If the 6-11 Jordan brings his game to that status, the Clippers are onto something. But it will be a chore to convince Jordan that he will have to add more than dunks and blocked shots to his repertoire. Jordan’s offensive game is so limited, he averaged only six shots per game in 2012-13. Certainly, being on the court for more than 24 minutes per game limited his rebound average to 7.2, but he Jordan has to earn his minutes because shooting free throws at a 38.6 percent clip has kept him saddled on the bench.
— Dealing with Expectations
Last season, the Clippers waltzed through December without a defeat to stamp themselves as a contender in the West. By season’s end, they were easy pickings for the Memphis Grizzlies to solve in the playoffs. But with Chris Paul back with his max contract and Rivers at the helm, they enter the season sneaking up on exactly nobody — especially at Staples Center, with their co-tenants in a bit of turmoil. If the club picks up on Paul’s will to win, they could live up to the potential they couldn’t reach last season.