The L.A. Clippers surprised very, very few people by being very, very good in 2011-12 on account of trading for Chris Paul. As such, it should not surprise you that we think the Clippers will be very, very good in 2012-13 on account of still having Chris Paul.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Clippers, with CP3 and Blake Griffin leading the way, were an offensive juggernaut in '11-12, ranking No. 4 overall. The positive results were pretty much across the board: L.A. was No. 7 in shooting, No. 2 in turnover rate (thanks be to CP3) and No. 4 in offensive rebounding. The Clips finished just No. 20 in free throw rate, but that isn't because the team failed to draw a goodly number of fouls. It's because Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who combined to take about 40 percent of the team's free throws, can't shoot. The Clippers were No. 29 in free throw percentage; if they had shot just league average from the stripe, L.A. would have been No. 10 in free throw rate. So if, as promised, Griffin and Jordan learned how to shoot this summer, expect L.A.'s offense to be even better.
And that isn't even accounting for roster improvements. Chauncey Billups played just 20 games in '11-12 before injury struck; he's only now cleared for limited drills, but should return to the court fairly soon. He's quietly been one of the league's best offensive players for the past decade. Having him available at either guard position is an immense luxury, provided he looks similar to the Billups we're used to.
The Clippers lost their explosive young gunner Nick Young, who went over to the Sixers after a half of a season back in his hometown. But Jamal Crawford (a high-volume scorer and passable playmaker) has arrived and Grant Hill developed (and possibly lost) a three-point stroke in Phoenix. If you consider Billups an addition, the offense has been upgraded. If not, the team has at worst stayed level. Randy Foye will (stunningly) be missed, but Crawford and Hill are able replacements.
But the biggest addition for all of the above factors is one massive question mark: Lamar Odom. If Odom plays like he did for Dallas in '11-12, every minute on the court is a minute wasted. If Odom plays like he did for the Lakers in '10-11, the Clippers could win their division ... a division that includes the Lakers. Odom's size and playmaking can help the Clippers' offense be even better. Or, Odom can go M.I.A. and slink off into the sunset, as he had appeared to do just eight or so months ago. Who knows?
Defense is another story entirely, though it should be noted that the Clippers create turnovers well (thanks, CP3), ranking No. 9 in 2011-12. The team should be good on the defensive boards, as Griffin and Jordan are both elite in that category. But the team finished just No. 14 on the defensive glass in '11-12, and lost Reggie Evans (who didn't play much anyway). Caron Butler had a down year on the glass (he rebounded like a two-guard at small forward), and this is one area where playing Billups at two-guard is a problem, because he (unsurprisingly) rebounds like a point guard. But this is a promising category if Butler and Hill can step it up and help the frontcourt duo.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
It needs to be said, and I'd prefer to get it out of the way and not dwell on it: Vinny Del Negro still coaches this team. That is a problem.
Defense is the bigger problem. The team ranked No. 18 last season, including No. 20 in shooting defense. And frankly, the team might have gotten worse defensively. Kenyon Martin hasn't been retained (he's just floating out there in free agency, possibly waiting for some other big man with a guaranteed deal to get injured) and Evans is gone. Odom is a good defender at both forward positions, but creates a bit of a problem ... because Griffin isn't guarding centers or small forwards anything close to effectively. So to hold on to hope defensively, you almost have to play Odom at small forward when Griffin's on the floor, and a center (Jordan or Ronny Turiaf, just ANYONE but Ryan Hollins, for the Love of Darko). If you play an Odom-Griffin frontcourt with Hill or Butler at small forward, you are begging for points to be scored on you repeatedly. Unless, of course, the opponent is also going small, which is common in today's NBA. So maybe the coach can ... uh ... hell, I really thought I'd gotten it out of the way so I wouldn't dwell on it.
Griffin in general is a problem defensively, not because he's straight-up bad, but because opponents will attack him mercilessly, because he's Ground Zero for the new flopping policy (justified or not) and because the Western Conference is stacked with nimble power forwards. Jordan provides nice off-ball help, but showed how far he has to go on defense last season. CP3 is an elite defender at the point, small forward should be fine with the additions of Odom, Matt Barnes and Hill, and two-guard is only a moderate problem (if that) with Billups, Eric Bledsoe and Crawford (and I suppose Willie Green, if I have to). But the frontcourt is quite plainly going to struggle defending the better frontcourts they face. Do you feel comfortable on defense with Griffin and Jordan guarding Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard? Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap? Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic? Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis? Elton Brand and Dirk Nowitzki? Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee? (OK, I'll stop.)
There's some potential for improvement here given Odom's versatility and the apparent (and refreshing) pleasure with which Griffin and Jordan learn the game. It'll be up to the coach to figure ... oh, I am so sorry. I am sorry.
It will be miraculous if ...
Dallas doesn't boil over with rage if Lamar Odom plays well this season.
Chris Paul doesn't thrash Steve Nash two ways to Riverside during the Lakers-Clippers season series.
Blake Griffin escapes the season without at least five dust-ups, including two with DeMarcus Cousins.
We see the headline "Vinny Del Negro, Coach of the Year" on a website other than Bleacher Report, Slate or The Onion.
Ronny Turiaf compares DeAndre Jordan to Bill Russell one more time without losing my fandom forever. FOREVER RONNY.
The entire world minus Lakers fans does not root for the Clippers against the Lakers.
Blake Griffin escapes the season without a flop fine, even if undeserved.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Chris MF Paul
Team X-Factor: Lamar Odom
Team Finish: 2nd in Pacific | 4th in West
Best Championship Hopes: Potential legit championship contender, if Odom/Jordan break right and the coach can ... oh, dammit.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.