After a disappointing first round exit from the playoffs last season, the Los Angeles Clippers found themselves at a crossroads. Change was necessary. In the exciting off-season that followed, major personnel changes and front office adjustments were made. The Clippers now enter the 2017-2018 season a significantly different franchise. Will these changes positively impact the Clippers standing in the Western Conference? Here is the 2017-18 Los Angeles Clippers season preview.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Los Angeles Clippers Season Preview

What Worked Last Season

The Clippers’ 2016-2017 season was disappointing to say the least. Bright spots here and there, but overall, the franchise faced a number of obstacles and fell short of expectations.  Not much worked for the team; both player chemistry and coaching quality were way off.  One player that stood out for his overall improvement, however, was Austin Rivers.

Rivers continues to be one of the most maligned and under-rated players in the NBA.  His accomplishments are often overshadowed by rumors of favoritism from his father, Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers. Kevin Durant recently described him as “irrationally confident”; a trait that sometimes makes him difficult to appreciate. Nonetheless, and regardless how you feel about Austin, it is undeniable that he demonstrated tremendous improvement during the 2016-2017 season.

Off-season work with Sam Cassell and J.J. Redick paid off for Rivers, who finished the season with career high averages of 12 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game.  He shot a respectable 44.2% from the field, 37.1% from deep, and 69.1% from the free throw line, also career highs.  Rivers’ improved ability to finish at the rim, reliability as a wing defender, and solid ball handling skills were particularly noteworthy.  The then 24-year-old looked an awful lot like Chris Paul at times, with his controlled weaving in and out of the lane while running the Clippers’ offense.

Rivers’ similarities to Paul came in handy when Paul was inactive in January and February due to injury. The Clippers relied on Rivers heavily during that time. Rivers also effectively filled scoring voids when Redick and Jamal Crawford experienced mid-season slumps.  In 29 starts for the Clippers, which came across all three perimeter positions, Rivers averaged a respectable 16 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds while shooting 46% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc.

Rivers should continue to be an important asset for Los Angeles during the 2017-2018 season.

What Needs Improvement

In order to succeed in the upcoming season, the Clippers need to develop consistency and stay free from injury.

Consistency

The Clippers opened the 2016-2017 season with a 14-run, but could not sustain the success.  Although they finished as the fourth seed in the Western Conference, and with a respectable 51-31 record, the Clippers’ performance was wildly inconsistent.  Despite boasting an extremely talented roster including the “Big Three” of Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan; three-time 6th Man of the Year Crawford; and sharp-shooter Redick, the Clippers never reached full potential. Chemistry was lacking, defensive efforts frequently fell short, and offensively, the Clippers’ sets had become boring and predictable. Lob City had become Snooze City.

Frustratingly, a number of the Clippers’ losses in 2016-2017 were at the hands of sub-.500 teams including the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards.  The Clippers also suffered an incredibly embarrassing Christmas Day loss to crosstown rival Los Angeles and a few months later blew an 18-point lead in the final five minutes of a contest against the Sacramento Kings.

Injury

Some of the inconsistency in the Clippers’ performance last season can be attributed to the absence of key players due to injury.

All-star power forward Griffin missed seventeen games between in December and January due to an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose bodies from his right knee.

On January 17, 2017, just days before Griffin was set to return, Paul tore a ligament in his thumb, requiring surgery.  The injury caused the Clippers’ floor general to miss 14 games.

The dynamic duo would not reunite on the hardwood until February 24, but things did not start clicking until a month later. The Clippers lost 7 of 12 games before going on an 11-2 run to end the regular season. Fans were optimistic about entering the playoffs on an uptick, but that feeling was short lived. Griffin suffered an injury to the plantar plate of his right big toe late in Game 3 of the Clippers’ first round series against the Utah Jazz.  Within 24 hours, it was confirmed that Griffin would miss the remainder of the NBA postseason for the second straight year.

Griffin’s absence changed the course of the Jazz series. The Clippers struggled to find a consistent third scorer to join Paul and Jordan, and Griffin’s size and athleticism were definitely missed on defense. Los Angeles lost the series in seven games.

Injuries may continue to play a role in the Clippers’ 2017-2018 season. Griffin’s toe surgery was a mere five months ago. Although he has returned for training camp and reports feeling “good,” Griffin’s long term durability is questionable. He has missed substantial portions of the last three seasons due to various injuries.

A number of other Clippers players are also coming off injuries. New acquisition Danilo Gallinari is still recovering from a right hand fracture.  Rivers (mononucleosis) and off-season pick-up Milos Teodosic (calf injuries) have also taken time off recently due to health issues.

Off-Season Changes

The off-season brought about major changes to the Clippers’ roster and front office.

“When life gives you lemons…”

The biggest story of the Clippers’ off-season was, of course, Paul’s trade to the Houston Rockets. Although the Clippers acquired a number of solid rotation players from Houston in return — most notably Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell  — the loss of Paul was, and will continue to be, significant for the franchise.

The Clippers also lost Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Redick and Raymond Felton (free agency); Paul Pierce (retirement); and Crawford and Diamond Stone (trade).

The Clippers responded to all the loss by re-signing superstar power forward Griffin, purchasing two promising draft picks (Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell), and signing additional talent in free agency (Gallinari, Teodosic, and centers Willie Reed and Marshall Plumlee).  Now that the dust has settled, the outlook for the Clippers is surprisingly much better than expected. Despite a clear downgrade in the point guard position, the changes in personnel, and related salary savings, allowed the Clippers to upgrade and add depth nearly everywhere else in their lineup.

The chemistry of the Clippers new squad has yet to be tested, but the roster is younger and deeper than it has been for years, which bodes well for the future. Among other positives:

  • The addition of Gallinari remedies the small forward problem the Clippers have struggled with for years.  Gallinari will be a viable 3rd scoring option, mitigating the the loss of Redick and Crawford and spreading the floor to make it easier for Griffin and Jordon to work in the post.
  • Dekker will provide versatility off the bench; with the ability to play either the small or power forward position.
  • Beverley, although no Chris Paul, has a solid skill set to bring to the point guard position. The elite defender, nicknamed “Mr. 94 Feet,” will make a solid backcourt for Los Angeles whether paired with Williams or Rivers.
  • Serbian superstar Teodosic’s flashy facilitation and pass-first style should fit right in with the pick-and-roll and lob-and-jam plays to which Los Angeles fans have become accustomed. Teodosic will be essential to the success of the Clippers second unit.

With this newly added depth and youth, expect the Clippers to adopt a more physical and up-tempo style of play in 2017-2018. This will favor and complement the supremely athletic Griffin and Jordan, ensuring they perform at All Star levels.

Bottom line: there is reason to be optimistic about this line-up and about the future.

Front Office Changes

In June it was announced that Lakers legend Jerry West would be leaving his job as an executive board member of the Golden State Warriors to join the Clippers in a similar capacity. West’s vision and guidance is believed to have contributed significantly to the Clippers successful restructuring in the last few months.

Additionally, in a long overdue move, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer relieved Coach Doc Rivers of his duties as President of Basketball Operations, leaving him to focus solely on coaching. It’s put up or shut up time for Rivers, who has received valid criticisms as of late for his inability to maximize the potential of talented players and failure to take the Clippers beyond the Western Conference Semi-Finals.

2017-18 Predictions

The Clippers will remain highly competitive in 2017-2018. Los Angeles is now Griffin’s team, and he will return to superstar form.  He has already adopted the role of team leader, welcoming and embracing his new supporting cast.

With so many roster changes, including many relatively untested players, it is difficult to predict exactly how the Clippers will fare this coming season.  However, given the squad’s depth, youth and athleticism, they should not be written off as a championship contender.

Prediction: The Los Angeles Clippers will finish above .500 and will enter the playoffs as the sixth seed in the West.

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