A very successful off-season has transformed the Clippers, turning them into one of the most star-studded teams in the league.
As the Los Angeles Clippers finally enter the delayed and compressed 2011-2012 NBA season, they face a challenge they have never encountered before: high expectations. The 2006-07 team had some expectations to be sure, after having advanced to within a game (a last second shot, really) of the Western Conference Finals the season before. But those expectations were relatively modest: to make the playoffs (expectations they failed to meet in lackluster fashion, it should be noted). This time, it's Dickensian: the expectations are great.
Even before the team acquired Chris Paul, the best point guard in the league, the team was significantly more visible than is their norm. With the presence of Blake Griffin, last year's Rookie of the Year and the only player with his own Alert System on SportsCenter, the Clippers had made the league's Christmas Day TV lineup. But back when the schedule was made, it would have sufficed for the team to entertain, a virtual certainty with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan around. After acquiring Paul, the expectations are different: people will actually expect the team to win.
The Clippers have no one but themselves to blame for these high expectations. No team had a better 'off-season' (a term that refers to a period of about 10 days in this case) than the Clippers. In the course of less than a week, they added three multi-selection All Stars, each acquisition more unlikely and exciting than the last.
First they signed free agent Caron Butler, a two time All Star who was coveted by both the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs. True, Butler is coming off a serious injury, and the Clippers had to pay a pretty penny for him (3 years, $24 million), but he fills a significant need, and seems genuinely pleased to join the team. That last bit is important - free agents suddenly want to play for the other team in LA.
Next, after walking away from a trade for Paul when the price was too high, the Clippers made a bold play for five time All Star Chauncey Billups. Billups had been waived under the new CBA's amnesty rule, a process which allowed teams under the cap to bid on him before he could become a free agent. Despite warnings from Billups and his agent that he wanted to control his own destiny and would not look kindly on any team that claimed him, the Clippers were undeterred. They won the services of the former Finals MVP for a mere $2,000,032 (the 32 being Griffin's jersey number for good luck) and figured he'd warm to the idea of playing with Blake Griffin.
The next day, the job of convincing Billups not to retire got significantly easier when the trade for four time All Star Paul went through. The Clippers had to give up a lot to get Paul - Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected 2012 first round pick from Minnesota. But to acquire an NBA mega-star in his prime, you absolutely do whatever it takes. The Clippers have gone after some big names before - in 2004 they believed they had a deal to move Kobe Bryant across the hall. Last summer they were one of the teams invited to make a pitch to LeBron James. But after being snubbed so many times in the past, the Clippers finally got the big prize.
How much have the expectations for this team risen? Consider this: on December 2, before Butler or Billups or Paul were Clippers, point guard Mo Williams guaranteed that the team would make the playoffs. At that time, a mere three weeks ago, the statement was beyond bold. The Clippers won just 32 games last season - what was Mo thinking with such a guarantee?
Now? The Clippers are a virtual lock to qualify for the post-season, and it would be considered a major disappointment if they did not. In fact, many pundits are predicting a top 4 finish in the Western Conference, which would give them home court advantage in the first round at least. Most telling of all? The word "Championship" was uttered countless times in Chris Paul's introductory press conference without a hint of irony, and without a single guffaw from the assembled media.
Can the Clippers handle this strange new experience of being expected to win? You have to remember that the players that are causing the expectations are mostly new here. Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups know a lot more about winning than they know about the history of the Clippers. The expectations the public and the media are placing on this team are certainly no higher than the expectations these guys have for themselves. These are hyper-competitive basketball players. As Paul said at his press conference, "I don't just want to win. I have to win."
Preseason hasn't done much to tamp down those expectations either. In the compressed run up to the season, the NBA scheduled two preseason games for each team with their closest geographic neighbor - for the Clippers, that would be the Lakers, who can't get much closer (geographically). The Clippers dominated the first game and held on in the second. With the media spotlight focused on the teams (fueled by the narrative of the Lakers losing out on Paul only to watch him land with their Staples co-tenants), these seemed like much more than pre-season games. By sweeping these games, the Clippers only fueled the expectations machine - now the talk is that they're just plain better than the Lakers, a team that won 25 more games than the Clippers last season.
There are still plenty of questions for the LAC. Do they have enough size to contend with the biggest front lines? Can their collection of point guards and combo guards, with nary a pure shooting guard in sight, coalesce into a productive backcourt? Who will defend the big shooting guards of the league like Kobe? What about the Chris Paul's knees? But even with those reasonable doubts, it sure looks like this team is going to be very, very good. Paul immediately makes everyone better, especially Griffin and Jordan, who both have the ability to finish at the rim provided Paul gives them a sliver of space and a pinpoint pass - which he can like no one else. Billups appears to have plenty of gas left in the tank. On paper, the starting lineup looks to be among the best in the league, and the bench features Williams, Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes, two starters and a key reserve from last season's Clippers team.
The stakes are high. The Clippers need to win not just for winning's sake, but also to keep Paul around. As part of the trade, Paul agreed to opt into the final year of his contract, which means that he is signed to the Clippers for two seasons currently. Unless the Clippers want this trade become an expensive two year rental, they need to prove to Paul that this is a team where he can consistently address his need to win.
Can the Clippers actually live up to all of these expectations? I can't wait to find out.