Los Angeles Clippers season preview

The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead-up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!

Roster changes

Inputs: Brice Johnson (PF, NBA Draft pick No. 25); David Michineau (PG, NBA Draft pick No. 39); Diamond Stone (C, NBA Draft pick No. 40); Brandon Bass (PF, signed for one year, $1.5 million); Raymond Felton (PG, signed for one year, $1.5 million); Alan Anderson (SG, signed for one year, $1.5 million); Marreese Speights (PF, signed for two years, $2 million)

Outputs: Cole Aldrich (C, signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves); Jeff Ayres (PF, unsigned); Jeff Green (PF, signed with the Orlando Magic); Pablo Prigioni (PG, signed with the Houston Rockets); C.J. Wilcox (SG, traded to the Orlando Magic); Branden Dawson (SF, unsigned)

Retained: Austin Rivers (SG, signed for three years, $35 million); Wesley Johnson (SF, signed for three years, $18 million); Jamal Crawford (SG, signed for three years, $42 million); Luc Richard Mbah A Moute (SF, signed for two years, $4.5 million)

Biggest weakness

The Los Angeles Clippers have a problem — the hole between J.J. Redick at shooting guard and Blake Griffin at power forward. Last year it was filled primarily by Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, two positive defender who mostly cancel that positive out with their offensive shortcomings. Paul Pierce was no help and playing three-guard lineups with Jamal Crawford in that spot was an absolute disaster.

The Clippers have four very good players in their starting lineup, but finding a fifth to complement them on both side of the ball has been a challenge. It will almost certainly be a challenge this year as well.

The defensive ability of Johnson and Mbah A Moute will be important against the Kevin Durants and Kawhi Leonards of the Western Conference but the way they cramp spacing at the other end raises the level of difficulty for Griffin, Chris Paul, Redick and DeAndre Jordan, and ultimately, lowers the ceiling of the Clippers. There is not an obvious solution on the roster, no promising young wings ready to break out. And if you think Alan Anderson is the answer than I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The Clippers will likely be once again taking a piecemeal approach, an endless series of offensive and defensive trade-offs trying to get the right matchups at the right time.

Most important player

Two years ago, Blake Griffin was arguably the best player in the playoffs. With Chris Paul injured, he drove the Clippers through the San Antonio Spurs and put up a herculean effort against the Houston Rockets. He scored, inside and out. He facilitated the Clippers’ offense. He controlled the glass and dominated in transition. It was the flowering of Griffin, the full realization of his potential. Then the Clippers lost. Then Griffin missed all but 35 games, in part because he broke his hand punching a Clippers’ employee.

Now, I think it’s fair to say we’re not sure quite what Griffin is.

His play, particularly against the Spurs two years ago, was so brilliant but also so brief. We so prak Blake Griffin, the question is whether we will see it again. He could retreat from that level of performance somewhat and still be very good, but it wouldn’t be good enough for the Clippers. Realizing their goal this year means getting through the Warriors, there are simply too many playoff flameouts piled up behind them. The Clippers have as much talent as anyone else in the non-Golden-State division but Griffin is the key.

At his best, Griffin is the kind of player that can force Golden State to adjust their sets and their rotations. At merely his very-good, Griffin is likely another speed bump for the Warriors. Getting out of the Western Conference will require luck and big contributions top to bottom, but Griffin smashing through his ceiling is really the only viable path.

What does success look like?

— Tom West, @ClipperholicsFS, Clipperholics

For the Clippers, next season is about breakthrough. It’s what we’ve been expecting from them for years, to finally break past that seemingly doomed second-round barrier and make it deeper into the playoffs. To see Chris Paul shake off his own apparent playoff demons. To see the Clippers be more than a perennial 55-win team that hasn’t quite had the ability, depth, or most recently health to go further.

Next season, things may change. The Spurs have aged with their interior defense taking a hit after losing Tim Duncan and seeing him be replaced by Pau Gasol and David Lee. Meanwhile the Clippers are benefiting from roster continuity, solid depth, and the return of Blake Griffin for more than 35 games like last year, the second seed in the West could easily be within their reach.

After winning 53 games last season, despite a slow start, weak defense early on, roster changes, and no Griffin for 47 games, climbing to 58 is my prediction of regular season success for 2016-17.

There’s a chance for breakthrough. Even changing the offense somewhat to allow Griffin to have more playmaking responsibility and anchor the bench more often would be seen as tactical success from Doc Rivers.

Sadly for L.A., though, it may all end in that illusive Conference Finals appearance in the wrong year. The year that the Warriors formed a Kevin Durant super team. Making it that far would be realistic success after Durant’s decision, but it’s too hard to see the Clippers silencing all the critics with a championship at long last.