The Clippers are a very dangerous team with their top six players — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Jamal Crawford — are healthy and some combination of them is on the court. But go much past that and things start to fall apart. The Clippers lack depth.
Doc Rivers, the team’s coach and GM, planned to help remedy that the same way he did last season — on the buyout market. That’s where they picked up Glen Davis and Danny Granger back then. This time around Doc cleared roster space — that was part of what was behind the Austin Rivers’ trade — and was ready to pounce.
But this year Josh Smith chose Houston. Kendrick Perkins — who played for Rivers in Boston — chose Cleveland. Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett were traded and not bought out.
That left the Clippers with nothing. It left Los Angeles flat-footed in a Western Conference where Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Memphis and others made moves to upgrade their rosters. Rivers tried to put a spin on it, speaking to Arash Markazi of ESPN.
“We like our team,” Rivers said Wednesday. “We actually like our basketball team, and if we could add something that can help that, we will. What people don’t understand is chemistry is so freaking important. Unless it’s somebody you think is going to really change your team, this team was a couple bad plays in Game 6 away from the Western Conference finals last year. We lost some guys and added some guys, but we like our team.”
The real problem was that Rivers’ tied his own hands this summer. He wanted Spencer Hawes and gave him the full mid-level exception to land the reserve big man. In doing so he triggered a hard cap on the Clippers of $4 million more than the luxury tax line, and the Clippers have been within a couple million of that all season. Meaning all they could ever do was offer minimum salary contracts to anyone who came available. It also made it hard to make a trade (not that the Clippers had assets people wanted, aside Crawford) because the Clippers couldn’t take on salary.
That said, I agree with Rivers, I like this team. But I don’t love it. And they don’t seem a team likely to come out of the loaded West.
The Clippers, at 37-21, are currently the six seed in the West. They are just 2.5 games out of the three seed, but they are also just four games up on the hard-charging eight seed Thunder.
This Clipper team has not been as good as the one that made the second round last season. That’s mostly because their defense hasn’t been as tight — they are giving up 104.2 points per 100 possessions, which is 2.1 more than last season. If you don’t think that’s much, it’s the difference between seventh best in the NBA last season and 18th this season. That defense has been better the last few games, but they need to sustain that — and do it with Griffin back in the lineup — before I’m a believer.
They’re just going to have to do it in-house, because there is no help coming.