So....Steve Ballmer seems fun! And he's certainly drawn some comparisons to Mark Cuban, who is pretty beloved in Dallas. How goes the new ownership? And how do y'all feel about the job Doc Rivers is doing in his expanded role?
When Donald Sterling's racist rant first hit TMZ, there were those in the Clips Nation community who thought "That's it, the franchise can't survive this." At the time, I tried to look at the possible upside: maybe this will finally be the thing that forces the league's hand, gets Sterling out of the league, and the Clippers can finally get a decent owner. I'm not sure I believed my own rhetoric at the time, and I certainly never imagined this. The contrast between Sterling, who might as well be an extra on "The Walking Dead", to Ballmer, who likes to dance to Fergie jams, could not be more stark.
We know from examples in New York and Brooklyn that money alone does not buy success in the NBA -- but we also know that it helps a lot. As it happens, Sterling's worst penny-pinching was already more or less a thing of the past. The Clippers actually paid the luxury tax for the first time ever last season, before Ballmer's arrival -- but Donald Sterling was never going to be a "money is no object" type of owner, while Ballmer's enthusiasm and virtually bottomless pockets (at $22.5B he's worth nine or ten times more than Cuban) will likely mean that Ballmer will never say "No" when Doc Rivers says "I need this."
As for Doc, the jury is out on the VP of Ops guy. Look, you've been in pressers with Doc -- he's pretty great. He's smart, he's articulate, he's an amazing communicator, and he uses all of that well in his coaching. But ultimately he's going to be judged by results. By any measure, the team is underperforming against expectations this season (by how much is open to debate). But more importantly, Doc's key off-season acquisitions Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar have not been good and are a major reason that the Clippers' second unit has struggled. I tend to give Rivers a pass on Hawes and Farmar for the simple reason that they are both shooting far below their 2013-2014 levels, which is not his fault, and I hope that they can break out of their shooting slumps eventually.
In the bigger picture Hawes and Farmar represent Doc's obsession with shooting, an approach that I happen to think is valid, but which is fundamentally changing the way the team plays. From the Eric Bledsoe trade to drafting C.J. Wilcox to the free agency signings, it's all been about shooting -- and there's plenty of room to quibble about any and all of the moves.
The Mavs shook up their team a little to get an elite point guard, thinking that was the move they needed to contend in a Western Conference that is basically "The Hunger Games: NBA Edition." Can the Clips can make a run with the team as currently constructed? If not, what could they possibly do on the trade market to help their chances?
Can the Clippers make a run as currently constructed? Sure they can. This is a team that was the third best team in the NBA last season by pretty much any statistical measure, and the five West teams currently ahead of them in the standings do not include the two teams that were actually better than the Clippers last year. There's an ebb and flow to an NBA season, and I doubt that anyone would be shocked if, for instance, the Clippers had the best record in the second half of the season, despite their lackluster play so far. If that were to happen, the narrative in the punditry would be "We always knew this team had talent and would be a contender, they just had to figure some things out, and good thing for them that they played their best ball at the end of the season." (By the way, I'm not saying that's what is going to happen, simply that it could happen.)
Now, a Clipper run presumes a few things, most notably that Farmar and especially Hawes start to play better. The big rotation isn't great right now -- but bear in mind that Big Baby Davis joined the team after being bought out last February and immediately became the first big off the bench, so it's still better than last season, and would be a lot better still if Hawes were playing better.
Having said that, the Clippers clearly have some glaring weaknesses that they are trying to address. Small forward is an obvious problem, if only because the other four starting spots are so impressive. As it happens, Matt Barnes is playing very well at present -- but the Clippers would dearly love an upgrade at the three. In particular, they would like to find a wing stopper -- someone to defend the Durants and the Hardens and Thompsons of the conference. The problem is, the Clippers have no financial flexibility and very little in the way of trade assets. Ballmer may have unlimited resources, but the Clippers are hard-capped and limited to signing minimum contracts for the rest of the season. As for trades, they don't want to give up Jamal Crawford, their only productive bench player right now, and guys like Reggie Bullock, Barnes and Wilcox won't bring in a lot. All of which means that the Clippers will be closely following the buyout market looking for help in the bargain bin once again. They found Hedo Turkoglu, Davis and Danny Granger there last season -- they've got their eye on Andrei Kirilenko already, and we'll see what else happens as the deadline draws near.
As for the West, how ridiculous is this? As of now, there seem to be eight teams with legitimate championship aspirations. There will not be a single easy series in the postseason for anyone. Any one of those eight teams could lose in the first round or win the title and I wouldn't be shocked. And that all assumes that Phoenix comes back to earth from their current form and settles into a nice 50 win season in which they miss the playoffs. Sheesh.
CP3 and Blake are the cornerstones of this team, but they haven't seemed to be quite their usual dominant selves this season. The bench also seems to be a big problem. Yet, the team as a whole returned most of the key players from last season. What is the issue with team chemistry this year?
I wish I knew Becks, I wish I knew.
Let's start with Griffin and Paul and point out first of all that they've been awfully damn good. Just not as good as people want them to be. Griffin's rebounding and shooting percentages are down. The shooting percentage is easy to explain -- he's taking more jumpers. Now, it's valid to ask "why?" or to say he should just stop and focus on getting to the rim, but my take is that expanding his game to include a more reliable jump shot (and it is vastly better) is a good thing, and that the regular season is the time to work on it. It's a process, and it goes without saying that mid-range jump shots are the least efficient shot in the NBA -- but sometimes you have to take them, and it's another weapon. If (and this is a big if) Blake returns to being aggressive in taking the ball to the rim when it really matters, allowing the threat of the jumper to set up those forays, then it's all good. If he becomes complacent and sits on the perimeter, then it's a problem. The rebounding drop off is inexcusable and he needs to do better there, but at the same time he is reaching new and exhilarating heights as a playmaker, averaging five assists per game which is easily the best mark in the league this season for any player his size.
As for Paul, his PER this season is 25.2 compared to 25.9 last season, so sure, he's a total slacker. That's the weird thing about this season -- something FEELS wrong, but you can't put your finger on what exactly. The two things I'll say about Paul -- he's getting to the line less, and he hasn't played his best in big games.
The bench has been terrible, as I mentioned mostly due to the poor play of Hawes and Farmar, who are seventh and eighth on the team in minutes this season. Both are in shooting slumps, which is the one thing we figured they could do when they came here. The other big team-wide problem has been defense, where the team has been very average this season.
Is there a chemistry issue? Is it a psychology problem? Maybe it's physics or sociology or Russian literature. Pick your college course -- your guess is as good as mine. Things aren't clicking for them, and everyone knows it. They've still won two-thirds of their games even without being in top form, and to a man the message seems to be "We'll get there."
Last year's first Clippers-Mavericks matchup was a game for the ages (ugh). The Mavericks have a pretty different look to their team this season, though. How do you see the two teams matching up this time around? Will it be just as thrilling?
Well, the Clippers' offensive efficiency this season is better than it was last season, when they led the league -- and the Clippers are still almost 2 points worse per 100 possessions than the Mavs this year. So if you like offense, this should be a very entertaining game indeed.
Sadly, the Clippers are 3-7 against the league's top 10 teams this season, and they've been pretty bad in most of those games. So LA is going to have to correct that season-long trend if this is going to be a good game.
The matchups will be interesting -- Carlisle liked to stick Marion on Griffin last season, which is no longer an option. Dirk is either going to have to guard Griffin or Jordan, and the Clippers will try to punish him in the post and on the offensive glass either way. But the Clippers will struggle to defend all the perimeter weapons on the other end.
We sent the Mavericks' starting five on the Oregon Trail earlier this week. Which Clippers player do you think would survive the longest on the Oregon Trail and why?
Hmmm. Let's see. J.J. Redick would clearly not do well. He's way too pretty for that sort of thing, although he would probably be pretty good with a rifle.
Chris Paul would use his wiles to good advantage and as such would no doubt do well on the Oregon Trail. And Griffin is such a physical beast that he could probably hold his own fighting a grizzly bear.
But I'm imagining a scenario where the party has to withstand a long winter without much food, and I'm going to say that Glen "Big Baby" Davis is the lone survivor. He's got plenty of insulation against the cold and could go without food for several months.
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Thanks as always for the great back and forth, Steve! You can follow Steve on Twitter, or for more on today's matchup (including my answers to Steve's Mavs questions), head over to Clips Nation.