A mere two seasons ago, with Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan leading the way, the Los Angeles Clippers were one of the youngest teams in the NBA, a team that on multiple occasions during the season featured a starting lineup comprised of five players under 23 years of age.
Gordon is gone, but Griffin and Jordan and fast-emerging third year guard Eric Bledsoe are still around and still young, and the first impression of the high-flying, SportsCenter friendly Clippers remains that of a young and athletic group. But after the most successful season in franchise history, the front office has added a slew of veterans to the roster to help the team take the next step.
The biggest difference in the Clippers from two seasons ago of course is the addition of Chris Paul, who at 27 is not exactly old, but entering his eighth season in the NBA is also a seasoned veteran. Paul, third in MVP voting last season beind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, is the main reason the Clippers went from a .390 winning percentage before his arrival to a franchise-best .606 rate in his first season in L.A. and the team has every intention to build on that improvement. Bearing in mind that the 2011-2012 Clippers were assembled on extremely short notice between the end of the lockout and the delayed start of the season, with Paul himself arriving via trade less than two weeks before the first game, the Clippers had more need for a full off-season of re-tooling than most teams.
The summer got off to a dubious start when Neil Olshey, who had just finished third in NBA Executive of the Year voting for his work in acquiring Paul and putting the roster together, left the Clippers to take the General Manager position in Portland. So here was a team in need of a re-design, suddenly without a chief architect.
Rather than scrambling to replace Olshey in a panic, the Clippers decided to take their time and manage the off-season with a three person team made up of Team President Andy Roeser, Head Coach Vinny Del Negro, and Director of Player Personnel Gary Sacks (recently promoted to VP of Basketball Operations replacing Olshey). The three-headed GM then set out to address the Clippers needs. They essentially preserved the team's starting five while completely remaking the bench.
Let's look at the big moves:
June 29, Traded Mo Williams for Lamar Odom. There were several other parts involved in this four team trade, but for the Clippers it boiled down to losing Williams and adding Odom. This trade addressed a variety of needs at the same time. The problem with last season's roster wasn't a lack of talent, but the fact that so much of the talent was redundant. The Clippers had too many small guards (Paul, Williams, Bledsoe, Chauncey Billups and Randy Foye) and too many bigs who could bang, but couldn't shoot or make plays (DeAndre Jordan, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin). In one move, the Clippers alleviated a log jam of small guards, while adding a playmaking big. Of course, the big question with Odom is whether his abysmal season in Dallas last year was an aberration or the new normal. If Lamar can return to anything approaching the player he was with the Lakers two seasons ago, this trade is a huge win for the Clippers.
July 5, Re-signed free agent Chauncey Billups. From the moment that Billups was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles last February, both he and the Clippers said that he would be back. It's possible that he won't fully recover from such a severe injury, especially at his age (he turns 36 this week). But even if he's just a locker room presence, a former Finals MVP is not a bad guy to have around a team trying to take the next step in the playoffs.
July 11, Re-signed restricted free agent Blake Griffin. In the big picture, this was obviously the most important transaction of the off-season. It was also the least surprising as it was all but a foregone conclusion that Griffin, voted second team All NBA in just his second season, would re-sign.
July 11, Signed free agent Jamal Crawford. If one wishes to quarrel with the moves the Clippers made this off-season, this is probably the place to start. Crawford is 32 years old, has never been a very efficient player, and is coming off a poor season in Portland. Having said that, he's also a big guard who has made a career out of scoring off the bench, something the Clippers need. Look at it this way -- NIck Young is more or less a poor man's Jamal Crawford, and Young was vital at times for the Clippers at the end of the season and in the playoffs and Young will make more in Philadelphia next season than Crawford will make in L.A. Back to that glut of smallish guards from last season, the Clippers desperately needed to add some size to their backcourt. Crawford was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year just three seasons ago and he was among the best shooting guards available this summer. Not everyone loves Crawford, but he fits the Clippers needs very well.
July 17, Signed free agent Grant Hill. This is a sneaky good pick up for the Clippers in my opinion. Hill is old, that much is true -- depending on whether Kurt Thomas (one day older than Hill) plays another season, he'll either be the oldest or second oldest player in the league this year. But he was still far and away Phoenix's best perimeter defender last season, and one of the only player's in the league capable of defending from the one spot to the four spot. The Clippers single biggest weakness last season was on the defensive end, particularly on the wing. Is it unrealistic to expect Hill to be a wing stopper at the age of 40? Perhaps, but he was still doing it at 39. He defended Paul when the Suns played the Clippers last year, and would have defended Griffin had the Suns not needed him on Paul. At any rate, like Billups, Hill is one of the true class acts in the NBA -- even if he's just filling a roster spot, you could do much worse than to have this guy around.
There were miscellaneous lesser signings and trades as well, specifically bigs Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf, guard Willie Green and forward Matt Barnes. All told, seven new faces joined the roster, with at least three of them figuring to feature prominently in the rotation. With the starters more or less set from last season (though Billups may still be recovering when the season starts which could force Crawford into the starting five) what the Clippers essentially did this summer was to build one of the deepest benches in the NBA. In ESPN's #NBARank series, Crawford, Odom, Hill and Bledsoe are all ranked in the top 130 in the league -- given that there are 30 NBA teams with five starters each, that implies that these guys are all starter quality, and that seems like a reasonable assessment of these players.
The single biggest accomplishment of the Clippers this off-season was to make the roster coherent. So many things about the hastily assembled makeshift team last year made no sense, as anyone who ever watched a second unit of Evans, Martin, Williams, Bledsoe and Young would attest. Those guys played hard and achieved great heights, particularly in the playoffs, but the pieces seem to fit together better this year. Now there will always be a big capable of scoring on the floor, there are actual options to backup the small forward spot, and gone will be the extended stretches with three small guards.
But will the retention/addition of veterans Billups (36 this week), Hill (40 in two weeks), Odom (33 the first week of the season) and Crawford (32) end up being a blessing or a curse? As the games pile up, will we be describing them as "seasoned" and "experienced" or as "geriatric" and "over-the-hill"? These are the big questions for the Clippers after their busy off-season.
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