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Waiting Game: How Long Until the Clippers are Relevant in the West?

Posted By Taylor Smith On Mar 29 2011 @ 2:32 pm In Los Angeles Clippers | No Comments

By now, you’re probably well aware of the Clippers’ situation.

They haven’t appeared in the playoffs since the 2006 season, and won’t be making a return trip this season. However, considering all the excitement, interest and attention that the team has been able to generate this season, you’d have to call 2010-11 an absolute success, right?

So, with all of this young talent and seemingly limitless potential, what is the next step, and when can we expect the Clippers to take it?

Well, obviously, the next step would be getting the team back to the postseason.

Vinny Del Negro was able to take two relatively undermanned Bulls teams to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, so he’s been there before. If the next step is just getting the team into the playoffs, Vinny has shown that he’s capable of being the guy to do so. So they’re fine on that front.

The talent on the roster is there (for the most part), as well. The young tandem of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon is about as good as any other under-25 duo in the entire league. Everybody wants to play with stars, and everybody wants to play in Los Angeles.

Having two players of that quality at such a young age is an ideal position for a rebuilding team, such as the Clippers, to find themselves. If they’re interested in luring any attractive free agents, they’re suddenly an extremely appealing destination. So they’re fine on that front, as well.

Now, quite a bit of how long it will take the Clippers to reach the playoffs once again also hinges upon the quality of the rest of the Western Conference.

Considering the NBA is a league in which we’ve only seen eight franchises win at least one championship sine 1983, there isn’t a whole lot of parity, meaning it isn’t easy for an up-and-comer like the Clippers to assert themselves and win big immediately.

Fortunately for our lovable little Clips, it appears as though many of the powers-that-be in the West are getting a little long-in-the-tooth.

The San Antonio Spurs, who have won four titles since 1999, have a core group of Tim Duncan (34 years old), Manu Ginobili (33) and Tony Parker (28). While Parker should be in the prime of his career age-wise, the Spurs won’t be nearly as formidable once Duncan calls it quits.

R.C. Buford and company have always run things extremely well, so there’s always a chance that San Antonio is able to reload a bit before Duncan retires. Still, though, because we can’t know that for sure, let’s just assume they have to enter rebuilding mode.

The two-time defending crosstown Lakers are obviously led by Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. Jackson, who has won a league record 11 championships as a head coach, has said publicly that this will be his final season at the helm. While a head coach leaving a team with as much talent as the Lakers may not hinder them much, it’s tough to tell how it will really affect things.

Kobe himself is just 32 years old, but he’s been playing in the league since 1996. He’s got a lot of mileage on those legs. He appears to have declined physically a bit, as expected, but he’s been able to adapt and adjust his game to suit his physical limitations. Considering how hard Kobe works every single day, it’s tough to envision his decline to come any time within the next three or four years. So, as long as he (and 30-year-old Pau Gasol) are contributing heavily in Lakers uniforms, they’re likely to continue their reign of terror.

How about the Dallas Mavericks? While they haven’t yet won a championship, this is a franchise that has still won over 50 games in each of the last 11 seasons (including this one). So, if nothing else, they’re still an annual threat to win the entire thing. Dirk Nowitzki is still a top-1o player in the entire league, but he is 32 years old. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Caron Butler are all over 30, as well.

Nobody tries harder than Mark Cuban to try and keep that championship window open, so he can be expected to make the moves and spend the money necessary to earn that elusive ring. When you win 50 games every season with no real payoff (aka: championship), picking at the bottom of the first-round in every draft doesn’t make it easy to rebuild on-the-fly. Once Dirk retires, what’s left? Are the Clippers supposed to be worried about a team led by Roddy Beaubois? I don’t think so.

With the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns all having lost superstars to the Eastern Conference since July, they’re all seemingly behind the Clips in terms of rebuilding.

The two younger teams that really appear to be standing in the way of the Clippers’ path to the top of the conference are the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Blazers’ efforts have been slowed by rampant injury problems, so if that problem persists, then can they really be taken seriously?

Sam Presti has done a wonderful job taking OKC from the dregs of the NBA and turning them into a 50-win team seemingly overnight, and they appear as though they’ll be a force to be reckoned with for the next decade, assuming they can keep their core group together.

So, the window is about to be cracked wide open for the little Clippers. As the young Clippers continue to grow together, there’s a decent chance that perennial playoff shoo-ins like the Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers, Suns, Nuggets and Jazz will be trying to pick up the pieces.

We have seen teams in the cellar randomly become overnight powerhouses in recent years (Celtics, Heat), but with the lockout looming, who knows how easy putting together a super roster will be?

If Neil Olshey and the Clippers’ brass can continue to draft well and spend wisely, and if the main talent on the floor can stay relatively healthy, there isn’t any reason to believe that the Clippers can’t be at or near the top of the Western Conference for the next 10 years.

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