L.A. Clippers preview: Chris Paul's mandate to win

USA TODAY Sports

Armed with a coaching upgrade and a $107 million contract, the excuses are running out for Chris Paul. Can he finally lead his Clippers deep into the postseason?

If this were any team but the Clippers, and any point guard but Chris Paul, we'd never have heard the end of L.A.'s first-round dismissal in the 2013 Western Conference playoffs.

The Clippers had their best regular season ever, and by no small margin. Their 56 wins shattered the franchise record from 1974-75, when they were the Buffalo Braves and notched 49 victories. Perhaps that fabulous regular-season success softened the blow of the 4-2 series loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, which came after L.A. took a 2-0 lead.

But mostly, it was that the Clippers were banged up and led by Vinny Del Negro. The Notorious V.D.N. took the fall, CP3 got over $100 million, and now it's going to be much more difficult for the Clippers, and Paul specifically, to avoid major scrutiny if a long playoff run doesn't materialize.

To be clear, Paul doesn't deserve additional scrutiny based on last year's Clippers collapse. But stars of his magnitude are rarely afforded deference from the public and the loudest shrieking heads in the T.V. box. LeBron James certainly wasn't. The Minnesota edition of Kevin Garnett wasn't. The Clippers lost because their schemes were easily cracked, Marc Gasol had his way with DeAndre Jordan and Zach Randolph dominated a gimpy Blake Griffin as the series wore on. L.A.'s superior depth -- vital in the regular season -- didn't do much to quell Memphis's superior starting five. Not because of CP3. But then the Cavaliers rarely lost because of LeBron, right?

And now, there's nothing stopping an anti-CP3 onslaught if the Clippers aren't major postseason factors. L.A. will be a favorite in the Pacific and a favorite for a top-3 finish in the West. No team in the Western Conference, outside of perhaps the Warriors and Rockets, did more to bolster its championship aspirations than the Clippers in the offseason.

CP3 no longer has a fall guy on the sideline. Again, CP3 didn't need the fall guy; the fall guy, V.D.N., deserved a good portion of blame. But nothing is going to get the media narrative to blame Doc Rivers for any failure the Clippers experience this season. He's the championship piece this team was supposedly missing. Now it's up to CP3 and Griffin to play up to that level, fair or not.

It's remarkable how similar the Clippers' 2012-13 season was to CP3's previous top campaign, the 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets. That team went 56-26, too, with Paul having a season for the ages (21 points, 11.6 assists, 2.7 steals, .524 eFG). Tyson Chandler and David West were excellent, and the team's defense was pretty solid. But after demolishing the Mavericks in the first round, CP3 and the Hornets fell to the Spurs in a seven-game heartbreaker. Paul has never made it past the second round since, and his team never had a regular season like that again until 2012-13.

That makes 2013-14 feel like a culmination of sorts for CP3. Though he's just 28, expectations are incredibly high and the pieces seem to be in place. While CP3's production has been consistent, he'll be expected to squeeze more out of Griffin and Jordan, which means getting them even easier buckets. Defense will also be a huge priority, especially given Rivers' arrival. Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick should help, and Darren Collison will offer a different look. But again, the world expects CP3 to get Griffin and Jordan to impose their will on less athletic frontlines more frequently. Paul has always been commended as a leader, a coach on the floor. This season will test that ability.

Mostly, it will be gorgeous fun to watch. It's Chris Paul, after all.

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