No. 4: Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 56-26
T-2nd place in West; lost 4-3 to Houston in Round 2
It might not be explicitly expressed as such, but the Clippers are entering a do-or-die season.
Scratch that. A mere five months after saying there's no need to blow up a team that was a quarter away from reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, coach and president of basketball ops Doc Rivers had an about-face during training camp, stating that it might be time to dismantle the team if the Clippers don't realize their championship aspirations this season.
For all of Rivers' rhetoric (in whichever direction), the fact is he has achieved in two seasons what his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, achieved in three: one division title and no playoff trip beyond the second round. Job security won't be an issue for Rivers, but the legacies of several players will be on the line this season.
Unlike the 2013-14 campaign, the Clippers' starting lineup remained relatively healthy last season, with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan appearing in all 82 games. Blake Griffin missed the most games (15) due to elbow surgery after a staph infection. With the lineup relatively intact, the starting five led the league in minutes played, raw plus-minus and were fourth in net rating among all lineups with a minimum of 250 minutes played together. On the other hand, their bench was among the worst in the league, with one of the lowest percentage of minutes played and net ratings. Simply put, you could describe any given Clippers game as a race for the starters to build a lead big enough that the bench couldn't blow.
Among the starters, Griffin's continued evolution as a multifaceted superstar talent allowed for the Clippers to continue to push the creative bounds of their offense, with a good deal of success between Griffin and Jordan connections on lobs as defenses tried to prevent Griffin from finishing off rolls to the rim. Jordan enjoyed a career year, leading the league in field-goal percentage for the third consecutive season and leading the league in total and defensive rebounding rates for the first time in his career. That led to a spirited, if misguided, debate as to whether Jordan ought to be the defensive player of the year, an argument that was debunked by ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh.
Elsewhere, Rivers became the first NBA coach to coach his own son after the Clippers acquired Austin Rivers in a three-team trade in January. While much maligned during his short NBA career, Austin Rivers experienced a bump in efficiency and productivity once with the Clippers -- albeit not enough of one to make him actually efficient or productive.
While the Clippers enjoyed their greatest playoff moment in franchise history by dispatching the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round, they arguably suffered their lowest playoff moment in franchise history by blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets, including Game 6 at home when they led by double digits in the fourth quarter.