It's been so easy over the years to poke fun of and dismiss the LA Clippers that one forgets that every once in a while you have to take them kind of seriously heading into a season. This particular assemblage, for instance, does possess two All-Stars (Baron Davis and Chris Kaman), one World Championship Gold Medalist (Eric Gordon) and a former number-one overall pick (Blake Griffin) that many saw as a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year until knee surgery kyboshed his freshman season. Combine them with a decent support crew and a head coach that took the Bulls to back-to-back Playoffs appearances and you have an intriguing mix to play with heading into this season. While health and chemistry remain question marks, you have to at least pay attention to this club going into November, which is more than you've been able to say about the Clipps for at least a handful of years.
It all starts with the combination of Davis and Griffin. Davis has spent two years in LA playing the role of petulant superstar, a part that includes poor conditioning, bickering with his coach and some of the least efficient play of his career. Despite the natural ability to be one of the most dominating weapons at the point guard spot, Davis has played like a disinterested man ever since Elton Brand spurned him and the Clippers by signing in Philadelphia two summers ago. He hasn't shot above 41% from the floor since arriving at Staples Center, hasn't shot above 31% from behind the arc and his defense has never been more indifferent than it has been since suiting up in red, white and blue. If this relatively healthy group can motivate him, though, and get him to start playing with the kind of passion he demonstrated in Golden State, he could turn the fortunes of this team around single-handedly. His playmaking ability is only a small notch below the best in the game, he can get into the paint at will (34% of his shots last year were still at the rim) and if he chooses to be he can be a rallying force for his whole team like he was with the Warriors. He has to want to do those things, though, and no one knows what it would take to get him to care enough to want to, but if Vinny Del Negro has the answer he could make the Clippers really relevant, really fast.
Of course, should Baron not perform up to his abilities (let's face it, that's the likely outcome here), then Del Negro can still look to lean on Griffin and his hunger to get out on the court as an anchor for his team this season. Griffin has been described consistently as a man with the body of Karl Malone and the athleticism of LeBron James. Of course, in practice neither of those things matter because it's how he uses those gifts that going to determine how good he can be, not the mere fact that he has those gifts at his disposal. He has to prove he's willing to play defense, which was a weak area of his game at Oklahoma, he has to prove that he's capable of being a go-to scorer every night and he has to prove that his surgically repaired knee is ready for the grind of an 82-game schedule. There is no question that in flashes (like at Summer League last year) he's looked downright dominant, but the NBA is a different beast. Going up against guys like Gasol, Nowitzki, Duncan, Bosh, Garnett, Boozer, Randolph, Jefferson and Amar'e every night has a way of cutting a guy down to size. Plus, conventional wisdom says that it takes longer for bigs to develop at the NBA level than wings and guards, so the pressure being applied to Griffin may be outsized considering all the factors working against him. So, while he and Davis COULD provide the core to a very intriguing club, there are still lots of questions as to whether or not they will. It's what makes this team intriguing, but it's also why so few are taking them seriously as an NBA threat.
The fact is that after decades of relative ineptitude, any Clippers roster has to work overtime to prove that they have overcome the curses of years gone by. Maybe they'll be a greater force in the Conference than most expect they'll be, but the fact is that as long as you have the name ‘Clippers' emblazoned across your chest, it's just really hard to take you seriously. They'll have to work to change that perception.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - BARON DAVIS
Davis has three years left on his deal with the Clippers at $41.6-million. If the Clippers can just get him to play to a level that could make him enticing enough to trade, they'll call it a victory. He was supposed to be one-half of the great Clippers renaissance when he signed (Brand was the other half) but instead he's been an unmitigated disaster, both on the court and off of it. With all of the youngsters on this club, though, he's going to be looked upon as a leader based on what he has already accomplished when motivated and happy. He needs to set the right tone for this club because another year like the last two and he could start poisoning the well of a whole new generation of Clippers players, which is the last thing this long-suffering franchise can afford to have happen.
SG - ERIC GORDON
Eric Gordon is a talented guy, but he's not the star the Clippers are trying to sell him as. All of his shooting numbers dropped last season, his career PER of 14.5 sits below the league-average of 15, and no matter how good he becomes he's always going to be undersized as a 6-foot-3 shooting guard. At best he's going to be Ben Gordon, a streak shooter that can shoot you into and out games and one that is probably ideally suited to be a spark plug off of the bench. He's a role player, a gunner that needs to significantly up his shooting numbers (.571 True Shooting Percentage) to warrant more shots, and while he could become deadly in that role, that is not the role of a star in the NBA.
SF - RYAN GOMES
Until the team feels comfortable that rookie Al-Farouq Aminu can steadily play the NBA small forward spot (he's something of a tweener heading into the league), the Clippers will probably let utility-type Gomes keep the spot warm for him. Gomes is something of a plug-n-play kind of guy, in that he doesn't do any one thing particularly well, but you can stick him in several places on the roster and have him perform. He started 64 games last year for the Timberwolves and scored 10.9 ppg and grabbed 4.6 rpg while being a consistent threat from behind the arc. He'll never wow anyone with his play but for what he is he is a perfectly serviceable option until something better comes along.
PF - BLAKE GRIFFIN
There are few players heading into this season that are as fascinating as Griffin. The hype was pretty substantial last year before everyone found out that he was going to miss his rookie season, and while injury concerns have damped the excitement there is still enough left to warrant a close look at the Clippers during the first weeks of the season. Remember, this guy was a force in college, going for 22.7 ppg, 14.4 rpg while shooting 65% from the floor. While he was turnover-prone (3.3 per-game) and shot a horrid free throw percentage (59%), his upside still has people salivating over the potential for the future. One of the big questions heading into the regular season is how much responsibility Del Negro is going to throw at Griffin right out of the gate, though one assumes that if he shows even the slightest ability to handle pressure he's going to get all of it dumped on him early on. He's the future of this club and they are going to waste no time in seeing what he's going to give them going forward, so they just have to hope he's ready for it.
C - CHRIS KAMAN
When healthy, Kaman is flat-out one of the best centers in the NBA. He went for 18.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg in his All-Star year last season, and he'd be considered a cornerstone of the club too if it weren't for the fact that he's averaged only 63 games per season over the last six years. He played 76 games last year, though, and if he can put together another season or two together like that he could start catapulting up the rankings of the league's best big men like Brook Lopez has in New Jersey. There simply aren't many guys like him left and so if the can prove able to stay on the court then there is no telling how high his stock can climb – which is especially relevant to him since his contract is up for renewal at the end of next season.