Are the Clippers contenders to reach the NBA Finals? Yes, in the name of Donald T. Sterling, they are.
This promises to be one of the most shocking transformations in the history of sports, given that it was 13 years ago that the Clippers were featured on SI's cover as the worst franchise in sports history. That was no exaggeration then, and it is no exaggeration now to envision Sterling -- who in 32 years of Clippers' ownership has generated just four seasons above .500 -- sitting courtside next June.
Sterling, who in the past has refused to make good on the money guaranteed to his fired coaches, paid $7 million per year (and gave a No. 1 pick in compensation) to hire Doc Rivers as his new coach as well as senior VP with authority over the roster. He was able to land Rivers because Sterling had already empowered Chris Paul to transform a franchise that rarely had stars and didn't know what to do with them when they had them. Sterling built a practice facility better than most in the NBA, and his organization is now renowned for treating the players with courtesy and respect. He is the NBA's version of Ebenezer Scrooge turned into real life.
The Clippers aren't going to be favorites to win the West next season -- neither Paul nor Blake Griffin has ever played beyond the second round. But they are going to give themselves a chance because the team has filled out the perimeter with shooters that will provide space for the two stars to create.
They added likely starters Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick as well as rookie shooting guard Reggie Bullock to a perimeter cast that already featured Jamal Crawford (who deserved to win the Sixth Man award last season), Willie Green and Matt Barnes. It is not unlike the formula that defined the Celtics and liberated Rajon Rondo to become an elite point guard under Rivers.
The difference between the Celtics and the Clippers is that Rivers' former team surrounded its point guard with superior options -- Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. His new team has a superior shooter and leader in Paul, who, unlike Rondo, must be guarded out to the three-point line.
The Clippers' run of contention over the next two to three years is going to depend on Griffin's ability to improve as a midrange shooter and a low-post scorer. Rivers could be a terrific influence on Griffin, inspiring him to commit to those areas of improvement every day. Griffin must fill out his game because the Clippers must be able to score through him in the halfcourt throughout the latter rounds of the playoffs, and also because if he doesn't become more sophisticated with the ball, then the paint is going to be crowded with two big men who are too easy to guard when the game slows.
It is one thing to accept that center DeAndre Jordan is going to be limited to finishing lobs around the basket; the Clippers can't go far if Griffin isn't able to produce from the block. They are going to have more space because they'll be surrounded on the perimeter by so many dangerous shooters. The question is whether the Clippers' big men can exploit that space. The Clippers haven't improved the depth of their frontline, which was a weakness last season.
The West is going to be crowded at the top, to the extent that the Clippers can't be assured of earning homecourt advantage. The Thunder believe they would have returned to the Finals last June if not for the knee injury to Russell Westbrook; their young big three of Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka can be expected to keep improving next season. The Spurs should also be favored ahead of the Clippers, based on the emerging stardom of Kawhi Leonard.
Then there will be the Warriors, who added Andre Iguodala to their young strong rotation; the Grizzlies, who will be expecting to build on their run to the conference finals (despite the departure of coach Lionel Hollins); and the Rockets, who will be seeking to fill out their relatively thin rotation around James Harden and Dwight Howard.
The good news for Rivers is that he'll be able to define the Clippers as a team of unfulfilled talent. This promises to be a hungry team loaded with players at or approaching their peak. It is going to be driven by Paul's history of postseason frustration, Crawford's pursuit of respect and the additions of Dudley and Redick, a couple of self-made NBA starters. The loss of Eric Bledsoe should be offset by the arrival of Darren Collison, who can provide speed off the bench as Paul's backup.
Will they fill out their frontline? Will they bond to challenge the Spurs and Thunder? As important as those issues will be, they are less important than the rhetorical question that promises to be asked throughout the inspired season to come: Can you believe these are Donald Sterling's Clippers?