Blow It Up? OK Then What?
The LA Clippers again faced an early exit in the postseason, making it five straight years of 50-plus win regular season basketball, only to be home in early May. Injuries have played a huge factor in the Clippers’ woeful playoff runs over the last five years, however, the popular narrative coming out of this season is that this group has run its course. This may be true. The question facing the Clippers is what other choices do that have?
Re-Signing Chris Paul
Some have suggested that it’s time to move on from the Clippers core, which starts with point guard Chris Paul. Paul has until June 29 to decide on his final year—a $24.268 million contract option. The prevailing thought is Paul will opt out of the deal and seek a new maximum deal from the Clippers that would clock in at five years and just about $205 million.
Some have argued the cap money would be better used elsewhere, but the truth of the matter is the Clippers have $59.748 million in cap commitments for next season. They also face a $36.4 million cap hold on Paul, a $32.06 million hold on forward Blake Griffin and a $14.17 million hold on guard J.J. Redick. Between the cap commits and the cap holds, the Clippers won’t have any meaningful cap space.
So, let’s say the Clippers decide to pass on Paul and Redick, but keep Griffin. That leaves roughly $10 million in cap space to find a replacement starting point guard in free agency? None of the elite guards are coming for that kind of salary.
If the Clippers opt to retain Paul, but not Griffin or Redick, their cap picture changes to roughly $5.8 million in space.
There is no scenario in which re-signing Chris Paul doesn’t make the most sense for the Clippers, if only to get him under a contract and potentially trade him at some point the future, assuming he does not demand a no-trade clause, which is likely.
Some have suggested Paul should move on to a playoff team closer to competing, such as the San Antonio Spurs.
If Paul leaves the Clippers, he is eligible for a new four-year deal worth $152 million, A full $53 million less than a Clippers deal. The Spurs, as they sit today, have $73.476 million in cap commits, leaving them with roughly $28.5 million in cap space. That also assumes that Pau Gasol opts out of his $16.19 million deal. That’s tough math for the Spurs and even more so for Paul, would not be able to get a maximum deal.
Monetarily, leaving $53 million on the table would be foolish for Paul, who turns 32 years old on Saturday. Signing a four-year deal at 32 puts him at 36 years old at contract’s end and extremely unlikely to command another maximum deal. Fans love to talk about leaving money on the table, but $53 million is a small fortune, not smaller annual raises.
Re-Signing Blake Griffin
Much of what was just said about Paul is true of Griffin. He too has until June 29 to decide on his $21.3 million player option, an option he will not likely exercise. Griffin becomes eligible for a five-year deal worth almost $175 million if he remains with the Clippers. If he leaves, he’d only net a four-year $130 million deal elsewhere.
As much as Griffin has struggled with injuries, when healthy, he is still one of the more potent players in the NBA. Some point to durability, but some of Griffin’s injuries have been fluky in nature. It’s not as if the same problems are recurring over and over, he has had new issues that come with the game.
The problem with not re-signing Griffin is the Clippers couldn’t use the money elsewhere. It really is a case of signing him or losing him for nothing, and given that losing him wouldn’t open any meaningful cap money, is there any scenario in which you don’t keep the player?
Beyond the spite of getting a guy off the roster, there is nothing practical in not keeping him. After all, the Clippers have won 50-plus games over the last five years. Losing Griffin for nothing makes that even harder to accomplish, especially considering there is no one on the roster that can come close to what Griffin produces when he’s healthy.
Re-Signing J.J. Redick
So, if the Clippers have to re-sign Paul and Griffin, then why not re-sign Redick? Like with Paul and Griffin, if Redick walks, the Clippers don’t open cap space. They would have to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.
So, this is a pure economics question. Do you simply eat the cost to fill the roster spot with a quality player versus a replacement that may not be as effective?
The Clippers had this issue last summer when it was time to re-sign Jamal Crawford, who netted a three-year $42 million deal. They can either pay the expense, which had no meaningful cap consequence or try to replace the roster spot with a cap exception.
Beyond the need for some kind of change in the roster, it’s simply a cost to the Clippers at the point they’ll be at after re-signing Paul and Griffin. Unless Redick gets insane with his asking price, re-signing Redick is simply money, something Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has said he’d be happy to spend.
Parting Ways With Doc Rivers
So, let’s address the elephant in the room—can the Clippers go anywhere with Doc Rivers as the head coach? That’s a real and debatable question.
The problem with Rivers is that he carries the reputation of a championship coach, the problem is he’s won just one championship and he did it with three Hall-of-Famers on the roster at a time when the East wasn’t ruled exclusively by LeBron James.
Out west, Rivers isn’t Gregg Popovich, but he’s far better than most coaches. What gets overlooked about Rivers in L.A. is that he’s won 217 regular season games in four years and did it with a ton of injuries to major players.
So, let’s play the same game with Rivers as Griffin and Paul, let’s say the Clippers move on and pretend that losing him would have zero impact on whether Paul or Griffin would re-sign. Who replaces him?
Would the next guy fare any better with the durability issues? Rivers isn’t a great X’s and O’s coach, but he won 62.2 percent of his games this year. Sure, guys like Tom Thibodeau, Lionel Hollins, and Scotty Brooks were fired after similar regular seasons, but in those cases, the front office lost faith in the coach. Rivers is the front office in L.A.
The Rivers conundrum is like many of the other decisions facing the Clippers. They could replace Rivers and retool the entire front office, as well as the coaching staff. That might make some frustrated fans feel a little better, but it would not guarantee the team would be any better, and Ballmer would add $22 million in additional expense to the pile to make the change.
So, if the above holds true and Paul, Griffin, and Redick are back because it makes the most sense to keep them, then the Clippers face their annual problem of how to fill in the bench.
This is where the Clippers have routinely struggled, outside of the constant that is Jamal Crawford, the Clips have not been very good at fielding a bench, and it’s because they never have money to spend. Paul Pierce is retiring, so he’s gone. Marreese Speights is believed to be opting out for a bigger payday. Luc Mbah a Moute is likely opting out, and one of the guys the Clippers would be smart to try and retain.
The good news is the salary cap exceptions go up as part of the new labor deal, so there will, in theory, be more money to spread around. With the Clippers likely getting up over the NBA’s luxury tax line, they will need to be creative to fill in the bench and this is where the Clippers need to hit on something.
A Big Trade
The last piece to the puzzle is a trade. While fans would love to see Griffin signed-and-traded to get something for him, there is no value in that for Griffin other than being able to land on an over-the-cap team, and there is no leverage to force that.
However, there is some leverage with Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks and Anthony are headed for a messy divorce this summer, and while the Knicks will ultimately decide to trigger a trade, Anthony can control where with the no-trade clause in his contract.
The Clippers and the Knicks discussed an Anthony trade in January and were unable to get a third team involved to make the math and the players work. This scenario likely gets revisited.
The problem for the Clippers is the players they could move – Austin Rivers, Crawford, Wes and Brice Johnson are not attractive pieces at all, especially not to the Knicks.
The question is whether the Clippers can find a third team this summer that would take future picks in exchange for playing middleman on a deal? It’s far easier to find such a trade partner in the offseason given the roster flexibility and cap room teams will have in July.
If Anthony gives the Clippers a gift and says the Clippers are the only team he’d agree to a trade with, things get better for the Clippers. They’d still have a depth issue on the bench, but would have a core of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and Anthony, and that’s as solid a roster on paper as anyone else in the West—if they fit and stay healthy.
As much as the Clippers runs have been frustrating, in context, winning 50-plus games every year with the injuries the Clippers have endured is pretty impressive. When you factor in that the Clippers are actually a national draw (they not only sell tickets, but often land on national TV), there are worse situations in the NBA. While the goal of every team should be to compete for a championship, having the base layer the Clippers have to work with is better than most in the NBA. While it’s frustrating to watch a team fail in the postseason like the Clippers have, they are not that far away from being an upper-tier team.
What would the Clippers have looked like if Blake Griffin stayed healthy? While that is an annual question these days, some teams in the NBA would love to have the Clippers’ problems, and while blowing it up sounds great, it’s easy to forget that rebuilding a team is a brutally slow process. Just ask the Magic, Suns, Sixers and Kings.
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