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Why you should watch the Clippers in 2017-18

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, center, talks with referee Mark Ayotte, left, with referee Dedric Taylor during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

This summer brought about significant change for the Los Angeles Clippers after yet another disappointing playoff exit. The biggest change, of course, was the trade of Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets. This offseason also involved Doc Rivers finally relinquishing his post as president of basketball operations after years of failing to surround his stars with enough complementary talent.

The CP3 era in L.A. brought plenty of highlights and wins, but between injuries, questionable supporting casts and flat-out choke-jobs, it never resulted in the conference finals trip that has been so elusive for the future Hall of Fame point guard. He wanted a fresh start with a different contender, and now the Clippers are trying to pick up the pieces.

While replacing Paul’s talent will be nigh impossible (J.J. Redick is also a tough loss), there is now less pressure. Not having the controlling point guard around could make things more loose in L.A. Redick admitted there was “no joy” in the way the team played last season, so the fresh start could be best for all sides, even if the Clippers have taken a step back in talent level.

Point Blake

The Clippers got the feisty Patrick Beverley in the Paul trade to start at point guard. They also signed European sensation Milos Teodosic and drafted Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans in the second round. Austin Rivers and Lou Williams can fill in at point guard if needed. L.A. has no shortage of options to replace Paul, but a less traditional one also exists: Blake Griffin, proud owner of a massive new five-year deal.

Griffin has been one of the best playmaking bigs in the NBA his entire career. He has handed out no fewer than 3.2 assists per game in every season, with the last three years delivering an average of about five dimes per contest. There have been 11 instances of a player listed 6-10 or taller averaging four assists per game over the last three seasons, and Griffin represents three of those.

The Clippers do a good job making sure Griffin gets plenty of touches in the frontcourt. Out of all forwards and centers, he ranked sixth in frontcourt touches, per NBA.com’s tracking data, with DeMarcus Cousins the only other true big to finish ahead of him. L.A. especially likes using Griffin at the elbow, where he averaged seven touches per game. Only Marc Gasol, Cousins and Greg Monroe got more elbow touches last year.

Using Griffin as a primary playmaker makes a lot of sense with Beverley on board as the starting point guard. Beverley doesn’t need to dominate the ball, as we saw in Houston playing next to James Harden, and he can spot up beyond the arc while Blake is doing his thing. Beverley is a 37.5 percent 3-point shooter for his career. He hit 40 percent from deep just two years ago.

Speaking of 3-point shooting, Griffin himself has added range to his game. He hit a respectable 33.6 percent from deep on nearly two attempts per game last season, and he is 6-of-13 from distance in three preseason games.

Griffin’s game isn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing when he is forcing post moves and flailing around on drives to the basket, but if he can limit that, consistently drain treys, and act as an effective hub of the offense, Griffin should be a real fun watch this season.

Remember when he was “just a dunker?”

Here comes The Rooster

In another attempt to replace Paul’s production, the Clippers acquired Danilo Gallinari in a three-team sign-and-trade deal. It cost L.A. Jamal Crawford, but when healthy Gallinari is a far more effective player than Crawford. At 6-10, The Rooster is a versatile forward who can score from all levels and get to the charity stripe at a high rate.

The “when healthy” caveat is important, though. Gallinari has dealt with myriad injuries in his career and hasn’t played in more than 71 games since 2009-10. In fact, he has reached the 60-game plateau in only four out of eight years. The 29-year-old is already dealing with a foot injury this preseason, so the Clippers must be cautious.

Los Angeles Clippers' Danilo Gallinari, of Italy, flexes his muscles for photographers during an NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Gallo missed 19 games last season, but it was also arguably the best season of his career. He averaged 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and he did it with a sterling 62.2 true shooting percentage. That was thanks in large part to his 38.9 percent mark from long range and over 90 percent clip from the free throw line.

What will be especially intriguing to keep an eye on is how Doc Rivers juggles his frontcourt rotation. Rivers will start big with Gallinari, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but Gallinari should play plenty of stretch four with both Jordan and Griffin getting time at the five. Gallo played 62 percent of his minutes at power forward last year, per Basketball-Reference.com, though he has played slightly more at small forward in his career. Hopefully Rivers won’t keep Gallinari chained down to one spot too much and will instead deploy him in a variety of ways.

Magic Milos

The 30-year-old Teodosic has been creating highlights for years in Europe, and now the Serbian is finally bringing his eclectic playing style to the NBA. Already this preseason we have seen some of his magic, including this channeling of his inner Pete Maravich:

The Clippers coined themselves “Lob City” when they acquired CP3 in 2011, and while Paul’s departure puts an end to that era, Teodosic will try to keep it going in spirit. Jordan should be the recipient of plenty of passes like this:

Teodosic will have his struggles on the defensive end, but at least he should make the Clippers fun again.

Williams’ wizardry

When you think of drawing fouls, James Harden immediately comes to mind. Harden led the NBA with nearly 11 free throw attempts per game last season and led all qualified guards with a .575 free throw rate.

But while Harden is the master, Lou Williams isn’t far behind.

Williams finished fourth among guards with a .458 FTr in 2016-17, a year after blowing away the competition with a whopping .612 mark. He finished sixth in 2014-15.

Williams is small and not as quick as he once was, but he is incredibly crafty. He has turned drawing fouls into an art form. I swear he uses Jedi mind tricks to get officials to call fouls against his defender. If a defender is guarding Williams too tightly, Lou will find a way to draw even the smallest bit of contact and bait a whistle:

The question is if Williams will continue getting as many free throws with the supposed new emphasis on not awarding trips to the charity stripe when a player draws contact before gathering for a jump shot, or when he blatantly initiates the contact. Since he uses Jedi mind tricks, I’m sure he’ll manage.

The excitable Steve Ballmer

Clipper owner Steve Ballmer can be quite, uh, animated from his front-row perch at games:

No matter whether the Clippers are doing well or not, you’ll likely see a funny Ballmer reaction shot.

Will Clippers keep up in West?

Ultimately, it will be a tall order to keep up in the loaded West. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are essentially mortal locks to make the postseason. After that, there is a group of seven, maybe eight teams, that will be fighting for the remaining four playoff spots, with the Clippers in that group.

With good health, it isn’t hard to see L.A. having a successful season and snatching one of those postseason slots. But there are significant injury concerns, and a major injury or two could derail the year.

If the worst-case scenario takes shape, would the Clippers entertain moving Jordan at the trade deadline? He can become a free agent next summer and will be turning 30 in July. That may seem like a panic move, but it is something L.A. should at least consider if things go bad.

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