Clippers face questions as regular season looms

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Clippers face several big unanswered questions as they enter the regular season, and the answers may determine whether this is just a solid playoff team or a real contender in the Western Conference.

It's October, the NBA preseason, and every team faces unanswered questions this time of year. The Los Angeles Clippers return all five starters that began the season for them last year, which happened to be among the most successful seasons in their history as the team posted a franchise best regular season winning percentage and won an exciting first round playoff series in dramatic fashion. Somehow though, despite the stability among the starters, the Clippers seem to be facing more than their share of questions this offseason. About the only player on the roster who doesn't have significant issues hanging over him is Chris Paul, and even he is coming off thumb surgery. Almost everywhere else you look there are questions, and the answers could determine whether this is just a solid playoff team, or a legitimate contender in the powerful Western Conference.

Which Lamar Odom will they get?

Two years ago in his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers at the age of 31, Odom had arguably his best season in a fine NBA career and won the NBA's Sixth Man Award. Last season after being traded to Dallas, he was, without exaggeration, arguably the worst player in the league. Clearly whatever accounted for Lamar's terrible showing in Dallas was more than just the normal affects of age. Lamar's head and heart were not into basketball last season, and when the Clippers made the four team trade that brought him back to L.A. (while sending out Mo Williams, a key contributor to last season's success) they were banking on him getting his head and his heart straightened out. L.A. is Lamar's city, his home for all but two of his 13 NBA seasons, including four years with the Clippers after they made him the fourth pick in the 1999 draft, so there's reason to believe that he'll be happier back in California. If he plays like Lakers Lamar, he's exactly the player they need: a highly skilled big to complement Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, capable of making plays off the dribble, hitting a midrange jumpshot, or making a high-low lob pass to one of his athletic teammates. If he plays like Dallas Lamar, they might as well ask him to stop showing up as Mark Cuban did last year. Lamar has said all the right things since joining the team, but actions speak louder than words, and he was out of shape when camp opened, and has suffered from sore knees in part because of the extra weight he's carrying, so the jury is still out on this one.

Which Jamal Crawford will they get?

The parallels between Odom and Crawford are striking. Both were recent Sixth Man Award winners (Crawford won his in 2010, Odom in 2011). Both suffered through career worst seasons in 2011-2012 with new teams that were disturbingly happy to be rid of them after a single year. Both are being counted on to lead a deep Clippers bench this season and figure prominently into the team's hopes for improvement. When he's on, Crawford is among the best one-on-one scorers in the NBA. He has an uncanny ability to make difficult shots -- an ability accompanied by a deep-seated willingness to take difficult shots, and lots of them. So which Crawford will they get? In contrast to Odom, the early signs with Crawford are quite positive. He was excellent throughout the preseason, providing the exact spark off the bench the Clippers were hoping he'd bring. So far he looks like the Crawford that was the top bench player in the league in Atlanta a few seasons back, which would be huge for the Clippers.

How will Chauncey Billups play after Achilles surgery?

Billups is penciled in as the starter at shooting guard just as he was for the first 20 games last season before he ruptured his Achilles tendon. But the simple fact of the matter is that Billups hasn't played an NBA game in eight months, and it's difficult enough coming back after Achilles surgery, let alone doing so at the age of 36. Billups doesn't have to be an All Star for the Clippers, but he does need to be steady, and in particular he needs to shoot well from deep since the team has lost their best three point shooters from last season. Coach Vinny Del Negro has started Willie Green as a placeholder for Billups in the preseason, preferring to keep his second unit in tact, and Green responded by shooting 36 percent from the field. If Billups is physically unable to return or ineffective when he does, it changes what the Clippers want to do this season.

Does Grant Hill have at least one more productive season in him?

Hill could be the sneaky good acquisition of the offseason for the Clippers. A team that was defensively challenged last season, particularly on the perimeter, Hill remained an outstanding defender in Phoenix even at the age of 39. But he's defied his age for several seasons now, and he can't do it forever. Even if he's just a "locker room guy" he's probably a decent signing for the Clippers. If he can also be a defensive stopper, he's a great signing.

Can Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan make their free throws?

It's hard to imagine a top flight NBA team with a more glaring weakness than the free throw shooting of the Clipper bigs last season. At least Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin are gone, replaced by (slightly) better foul shooters, so it's not as if the entire big rotation is atrocious, but that will be small consolation if Griffin and Jordan remain liabilities at the line. The Clippers hired a new shooting coach this summer, Bob Thate, and he has worked on restructuring the shooting motion for both of the Clipper big men, but the early results have been less than promising to say the least: Griffin was 14-33 from the line and Jordan just 13-46 heading into the final preseason game. But there may have been a light at the end of the tunnel in the last game, as both Clipper bigs went 5 for 6 from the line. It's not unusual for shooting to get worse before it gets better when the mechanics change, and perhaps that last preseason game was a sign of good things to come, but it needs to get better fast at this point with the regular season just days away.

Are DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe ready to step up?

The Clippers added seven new players this offseason, but the continued development of Jordan and Bledsoe may be as important to their success as any other factor -- and more important to the future. Jordan is entering his fifth NBA season and in the second season of a $43M contract. Each October since he came into the league, the Clippers have trumpeted the offseason improvements in Jordan's game, and each season he has been useless on offense, incapable of making anything resembling a post move. But if preseason is an accurate gauge, this may actually be the season that Jordan becomes a scorer. He's averaging over 16 points per 36 minutes in the preseason while shooting 68 percent from the field. If he could make free throws, he would qualify as an actual offensive force. Bledsoe had a mini-breakout in last season's playoffs. He's an athletic freak who is a genuine game-changer when he comes off the bench. He already rebounds, blocks shots and comes up with steals at a rate that ranks him at or near the top for any point guard in the league. If he can stay under control while doing all those things plus make a couple of jump shots along the way he could emerge as a future star. He was the Clippers best player in preseason games against the Nuggets and Lakers, missing a triple double against the Lakers by one steal.

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There are of course other questions. You could make a virtually limitless list for almost any team in the league, including the old standby injuries and general health. But the above represents several significant issues that will legitimately impact how good this Clippers team can be depending on the answers. They don't all have to break perfectly in order for the team to be very good: Chris Paul has a tendency to make any team he's on very good. But if a significant number of the answers happen to come out the way the Clippers hope, they could find themselves challenging the top teams in the league during the playoffs.

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