The talk of Tinseltown didn't center around the Lakers for once last season, and the Los Angeles Clippers have Chris Paul -- and NBA commissioner David Stern -- to thank.
Paul invigorated LA's downtrodden franchise after a deal was nixed by Stern that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. Instead, Paul landed with the city's basketball step-child and led the Clippers to their second playoff appearance since 1997. They finished one game behind the division-champion Lakers in the Pacific, but established a legitimate rivalry with their fellow Staples Center resident.
With his contract expiring at the end of the season, the Clippers would be wise to keep Paul, arguably the best true point guard in the league. Paul, still only 26, ranked second in assists-to-turnover ratio last season (4.38) to go with 19.8 points per game. The former Hornet has never played a full 82- game schedule and had surgery on his thumb after helping the United States win the Olympic Gold medal this summer, but should be in fine form when the season tips off.
Blake Griffin was to join Paul in London, but suffered a left knee injury just one day after signing a five-year contract extension in July. The 23-year-old power forward went under the knife to repair a medial meniscus tear and is expected to be 100-percent, but an injury to the same knee that forced him to miss the 2009-10 season is a major cause for concern, especially considering the amount of abuse the high-flyer puts on his body.
"Lob City," Griffin's nickname for the Clips after they traded for Paul, will need more than the dynamic duo (both Paul and Griffin finished in the top-10 in efficiency rating) to get past the Western Conference semis, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The season-ending Achilles injury to veteran Chauncey Billups in February certainly didn't help, and players like Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Randy Foye, and DeAndre Jordan failed to pick up their games when it mattered most.
Jordan, a highlight-reel waiting to happen, rebounded well (8.3 RPG) and was second in the league in blocks (135) but has no offensive game to speak of other than his rim-shaking dunks. Butler, Williams and Foye all averaged double-figures during the regular season, but failed to do so in the series against the Spurs. Williams and Foye headed north to the Utah Jazz this year, while Butler is back for his second go-around with the Clippers.
Filling the void in the backcourt will be scorers Jamal Crawford and Willie Green, two players who have come off the bench most of their careers but can fill the bucket regularly. Crawford, the 2009-10 Sixth Man of the Year, finished first in the NBA in free throw percentage last season (92.7-percent), but has reached the postseason just twice in his 12-year career. Green, a nine-year vet, has never been on a team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
The acquisitions of Matt Barnes and Grant Hill figure to offset that postseason inexperience, though both veterans will also be looking for their first NBA title as well.
Another old face will be in the mix, as the club traded from Lamar Odom in June. Odom had a forgettable season in Dallas that saw him average career lows across the board.
2011-12 Results: 40-26, second in Pacific; lost in West semifinals to San Antonio.
ADDITIONS: G Jamal Crawford, G Willie Green, C Ronny Turiaf, C Ryan Hollins, F Grant Hill, F Matt Barnes, F Lamar Odom
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Chris Paul SG- Jamal Crawford SF- Caron Butler PF- Blake Griffin C- DeAndre Jordan
KEY RESERVES: G Eric Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups. G Willie Green, C Ronny Turiaf, C Ryan Hollins, F Grant Hill, F Matt Barnes, F Lamar Odom
FRONTCOURT: Griffin finished fourth in the league with 41 double-doubles last season, and his incomparable in-game dunks rival anything the great Dominique Wilkins did in the mid-90s to earn the title "The Human Highlight Film."
But Griffin has become somewhat of a liability in crunch time due to his free throw shooting -- a woeful 52-percent last season summed up with consecutive airballs during a game in March. Surgery in the summer may have kept Griffin from working on one of his few shortcomings.
Jordan, a terrific defender at the rim, needs to improve at the other end, because his alley-oop throw downs are still the only above-average skills he possesses.
Butler, now two years removed from knee surgery, along with Barnes and the 40- year-old Hill will rotate at small forward, and if Vinny Del Negro can keep the veterans' legs fresh, the trio should take some of the pressure off Griffin and Paul.
BACKCOURT: Paul's numbers are otherworldly, and it spoke volumes of his talent when Olympic head coach Mike Krzyzewski gave him the controls down the stretch in a tight Gold Medal game against Spain.
With very little time to prepare for last season -- and scant practices during -- Paul still carried the Clippers to new heights and raised expectations for the franchise. The only thing missing from his resume is postseason success, and that could change if the club's upward trend continues.
"I'm excited about this season," Paul said. "Our locker room is filled with a lot of veterans and guys that know what it takes to win."
The newly-acquired Crawford may keep his usual role in coming off the bench, but could be in the starting lineup when the season begins because Billups is still slowly returning from surgery,
How the shoot-first guard meshes with his new teammates will be an interesting development, though any pure scorer like Crawford will benefit from a playmaker such as Paul creating more opportunities.
BENCH: The Clippers are certainly deeper this year, but with a lot of new faces, Del Negro will need to distribute minutes so as not to upset the apple cart.
Hill will be just as important in helping his coach manage the egos in the locker room, and the respected veteran can also be an asset at both ends even though he's slower and not the lock-down defender he used to be.
"This is the deepest team I've been on," Hill told the team's website. "A lot of the guys who also signed here have been around for years. They chose here to come and play. ... I don't know five years ago that would have happened."
Billups, an NBA champion with the Pistons in 2004, helped the Clippers jump out to a 19-9 start before suffering a season-ending injury. He will likely be limited in his return, but look for him to be quickly inserted back into the starting lineup if he's even a fraction of his former self.
A guard who learned first-hand from Billups was Eric Bledsoe, a Kentucky product who has done very little in his two seasons after being selected with the 18th overall draft pick. But Bledsoe showed promise in the postseason, including a 23-point, five-rebound, four-assist effort in Game 1 against the Spurs. The 22-year-old did it on a big stage, and if he can become consistent, the Clippers should have another solid option if Billups can't return to form.
Role players like Green, Barnes and centers Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins must fall in line behind the stars, something Odom had trouble doing in Dallas. Odom parted ways with the Mavericks mid-season after his lackluster showing through 50 games. The Clippers signed their former first-round pick with the hope of him resembling the player who helped the Lakers win two titles.
COACHING: Del Negro may be coaching for his job. In the final year of his contact, the Clippers will need to improve or someone else will be brought in to extract more wins from this talented bunch.
Del Negro was fired after two mediocre years on the Bulls' bench, and another quick hook could be coming if LA doesn't turn the corner.
OUTLOOK: Even with the new additions, the Clippers' success depends on the health of Paul and Griffin. If the two can stay on the court, and Del Negro can integrate the new blood, the Clippers will be the LA team hoisting a Pacific Division banner this time next year.