The last few years for the Los Angeles Clippers have been a Rorschach test for NBA fans when it comes to success and failure. Talk to some fans and they will gladly tell you that the Clippers have done a great job of consistently being one of the best and most exciting teams in the league year after year. Talk to a critic and he or she will point out that the Clippers have not only failed to win a championship but have failed to even make it to the Western Conference Finals despite having significant talent.
Whatever the most accurate assessment of the last few years is, one thing is now unequivocally certain. The above-mentioned era is over. Superstar point guard Chris Paul is gone, off to the Houston Rockets to continue his personal and professional journey. The Clippers are now led by star forward Blake Griffin, who is now the team’s best player. Basketball Insiders spoke with former NBA head coach, assistant coach for the Clippers and current Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the franchise, Lawrence Frank.
The Clippers, led in part by Frank, had been anticipating and planning for an offseason in which their two best players, Paul and Griffin, would be able to leave via free agency.
“We were doing everything to try and keep them [Paul and Blake] and you’re ready, its more than two and three scenarios. It’s like 56 scenarios,” Frank stated.
The first domino to fall this offseason was Paul, when he made it clear to the Clippers that he intended to leave for Houston. Losing Paul left many fans and critics wondering if this was the moment the Clippers would blow up the roster and start a complete rebuild. Frank discussed that possibility.
“Yeah, having been someone who has been to the bottom. It’s not that that’s a path we weren’t willing to take. And I think those are options,” Frank said. “You study the history of the game, there’s no guarantee.”
Frank indicated that rebuilding is not as easy as it seems, giving perspective on the team’s thinking.
“When you refresh the whole roster, there is so much pain that goes into it,” Frank emphasized.
Frank is also specifically referring to his tenure with the then New Jersey Nets as a bottom dwelling team. Despite the Philadelphia 76ers being on the verge of potentially making the playoffs for the first time in years and nearing completion of a multi-year rebuilding process, many teams opt against losing on purpose. In fact, it’s arguable that no other team in the Western Conference is aiming to tear down and fully rebuild.
During the Paul era, the Clippers had a top-heavy salary cap with most of their cap space tied up in the team’s three stars – Paul, Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan. With Paul off the books, the Clippers received a number of players and assets in exchange for Paul and have been creative in shoring up the roster.
Frank talked about what they got in return from Houston, a package that included defensive hound Patrick Beverley, promising forward Sam Dekker and a first-round pick, which was later used in a trade with Denver. Frank framed the exchange from a viewpoint of losses and gains.
“[H]ow can we get maximum return for [Paul] leaving,” Frank stated. “[W]e feel very fortunate to get the players we got from Houston.”
This haul is even more critical considering the Clippers have done a poor job of drafting and developing their late draft picks the last few years, they haven’t had their own D-League team to farm from until this year and they haven’t done a great job importing overseas talent.
Frank went on to talk about what are his guiding principles for managing the team going forward.
“We’re just going to be really flexible and be ready. You have to nail your draft picks, you have to be really good playing in the margins,” Frank said. “There are going to be certain trades over the course of the time to help you win that championship.”
This sentiment confirms that the Clippers will likely keep an open eye towards improving the team as the off-season and regular season continues. For now, the Clippers are excited about their biggest trade acquisition, talented forward Danilo Gallinari.
“So with Danilo, Blake and DJ, we thought we could put together one of the best frontcourts in the league,” Frank said.
Of course, excitement over the unquestioned talent of this frontcourt is tempered by the fact that both Griffin and Gallinari have dealt with extensive injuries over the past few years.
Frank continued to rave about the guards the Clippers have in their rotation but pointed out the lack of a pass-first player considering the absence of Paul, the best pass-first point guard in the league.
“We didn’t think we had an elite facilitator,” Frank said. “We really need someone who can create for others.”
Enter European star guard Milos Teodosic. Teodosic has long flirted with the possibility of bringing his talent to the NBA. The Clippers recently signed Teodosic to a two-year deal following the loss of Paul and the trade for Gallinari.
“[W]ith Milos [Teodosic], we thought he was a guy [who] loved passing, Frank said. “[Y]ou like having a little bit of European flair and having everyone understanding that, all competitive high IQ guys that you hope all fit together.”
Frank certainly showed his enthusiasm for how Gallinari and Teodisic can supplement the players the Clippers already have and the hope that they can come together to create something great. Frank didn’t mince words in stating that after losing Paul, the team’s main goal was to re-sign and build around Griffin.
“[H]ow do we now build a team with Blake Griffin coming back? Blake says ‘I’m in,’” Frank continued. [H]ow are we going to build a team to complement our best players to be able to play to their strengths and the identity of our group.”
It’s clear in speaking to Frank that he frames the analysis from a front office point of view — building not only for the short term but the long term. Frank’s professional career has been a winding path. He has been an assistant coach, head coach and now front office executive. He made it clear that switching to a front office role was not an easy transition. However, that experience gives him a unique perspective that other front office executives may lack.
“The one thing as a coach you don’t really have great appreciation for everything that goes into it,” Frank said. “[T]he awareness that it’s 365, and just planning ahead and being three years out and five years out, and being nimble on your feet, being ready to adjust. There’s a lot to it.”
Despite the challenges of working in the front office, Frank seems to enjoy his new role and doesn’t seem to have much desire to get back onto the sidelines.
“I have zero ambition to go back and coach,” Frank said. “This is personally what I really want to learn and try be as good as I can be at.”
The Clippers made some solid moves to retool on the fly and, at the very least, should be an exciting team to watch next season. Los Angeles may take a step back from their standing in previous seasons, but there is reason to be excited for the team’s short term and long term future.
“The challenges that are ahead, and there are so many bright people not only in our front office but the other 29 teams, so that’s what drives you. It’s very exciting,” Frank said.
With Frank as one of their leading voices in the front office, the Clippers will surely continue to tinker and find new ways to improve the team now and in the future. It’s a new era of Clippers basketball, which their fans surely hope will bring about the kind of success that was hoped for but never achieved these last few years.
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