On Friday night, the Los Angeles Clippers’ season came to an end. They fell just short in Game 6, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers on the road. The team was severely undermanned after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to season-ending injuries, along with J.J. Redick playing through a bruised heel and Austin Rivers suffering an elbow to the face in Game 6 that required stitches.
Now the Clippers are focused on the future, which is more in question than it has been in some time. It may seem overly dramatic to ask whether a team with two top-level big men and one of the best overall point guards in the league should be broken up, especially when the team was ranked sixth in offensive and defensive efficiency this season. However, before the season started, Clippers president of operations and head coach Doc Rivers admitted that this question had to be asked if the team fell short in the postseason.
“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told Zach Lowe of ESPN before the 2015-16 season started. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”
To be fair, any team that loses its two best players and has several other players hobbled by nagging injuries is going to be vulnerable in the postseason, including the Golden State Warriors. Once Paul and Griffin went down, the Clippers’ season was effectively over – it was just a question of how long they could hold off the inevitable. To their credit, the team fought until the very end, pushing the Blazers in Games 5 and 6, falling just short in each game.
Still, as Rivers pointed out before the season started, a team can become stale after repeated failures. The Clippers just ended their fifth year with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as the team’s Big Three and they still haven’t reached the Western Conference Finals. In addition, Griffin and Paul have player options for the 2017-18 season and Redick’s contract only runs through next year, meaning next season could be their last with the Clippers. However, Jordan has a player option in 2018-19, so there is no urgency with his contract situation.
Current cap projections provided by Basketball Insiders’ salary cap guru Eric Pincus have the Clippers with just $10.5 million in potential cap space this offseason (in their best-case scenario), which is the lowest figure in the league. As a result, the Clippers will not be able to make a major free agent acquisition, which means if they give this roster another run, it will be largely the same with small changes around the edges.
With all of this in mind, the Clippers’ front office needs to determine whether to push forward with this same group knowing that Paul, Griffin and Redick are all likely to be free agents after next season, or cash in their chips and start over.
Rivers isn’t the most equipped coach to handle a rebuild. In fact, when the Boston Celtics went into fire sale mode in 2013, Rivers took off to Los Angeles to lead a potential contender rather than oversee Boston’s rebuild.
Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, three unprotected first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), with the right to swap first-round picks in 2017. The Nets went nowhere with the talent they traded for, while the Celtics assembled a young, talented and scrappy roster that plays disciplined basketball under top-notch head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics remained competitive since the trade and now have more assets than just about any team as well as the flexibility to add more talent through free agency and major trades.
Teams learned from the Nets’ mistakes and will be more hesitant to offer the same compensation in future mega-deals. However, Ainge hasn’t made it a secret that he’s looking to cash in some of his assets for a young star player. He has pursued Kevin Love in the past, so a player like Griffin would certainly grab his attention if he were made available. The question is what might Ainge be willing to give up in exchange for Griffin.
Griffin could be traded straight up for a package of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, along with potential draft considerations. The Celtics have enough young, affordable players that this basic scenario can be adjusted to take out a player like Smart in exchange for Jared Sullinger or Terry Rozier, among several other variations. The point is, the Celtics have the young players and draft assets to make a move for a player like Griffin. This would give the Clippers young, developing talent that will be under team control for many years, while potentially replenishing their depleted draft assets.
Then imagine a scenario where the Cleveland Cavaliers fall short this postseason, and LeBron James demands the team trade for Chris Paul as a condition to re-signing. It wouldn’t be difficult for these two teams to structure a deal that essentially swaps Paul for Irving, giving the Cavaliers perhaps a better chance at a championship next season and the Clippers a younger point guard to grow alongside the revamped roster.
The Clippers’ starting lineup would look something like Irving-Redick-Crowder-Sullinger-Jordan. The team would have more young talent locked up, with more draft assets to bolster the team moving forward. With some luck, the Clippers would follow the Celtics’ path of remaining competitive while maintaining better cap flexibility and roster versatility.
Another added benefit with this route is the Clippers push the clock back on their possible window of contention. By the time the revamped roster is ready to truly contend for a championship, dominant teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers could be regressing.
If this approach seems too optimistic, just consider the circumstances that recently surrounded the team that just dispatched the Clippers. The Blazers lost Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo (who they traded Will Barton and other plays for no less) and, of course, LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency. They received no compensation for these valuable players. They did trade Nicolas Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. Henderson and Vonleh aren’t top-notch talents, but Henderson is a serviceable wing and Vonleh still has significant room to improve his game as a stretch-four. The Blazers also traded a future second-round pick (that will never be conveyed) to the Orlando Magic for Moe Harkless, who was a major factor in Portland’s first-round victory over the Clippers.
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t wait to rebuild his team. He saw the writing on the wall and acted aggressively. He acquired young talent like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee to grow and develop alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Just about everyone doubted this team’s ability to compete this season, but now they have a shot to upset a banged up Warriors squad in the second-round and a bright future as a result of their cap flexibility.
The Blazers managed to do this without having two top-15 players to use as trade chips. The point is that if the Clippers decide that this roster’s window is closed, they can rebuild on the fly, acquiring young, diverse talent while replenishing their draft assets. There are a countless number of ways for the Clippers to go about a rebuild, but if done effectively, they could come out in a better long-term position, like the Celtics did two seasons ago.
However, this isn’t an obvious path to take. It’s not often that a team has a roster that can contend, so giving up on it prematurely isn’t something that should be done recklessly. Look at the Dallas Mavericks for example. They weren’t championship favorites in 2011, but they pushed forward with their roster and upset the Miami HEAT in the Finals. The Clippers may find the same fortunate circumstances if they keep this roster together.
As we have seen in this year’s playoffs, injuries can happen to anyone at any time. Again, the Blazers have a chance to upset the Warriors if Stephen Curry’s knee injury keeps him on the sideline, or limits him in any significant way when he returns. That would give the winner of the Spurs-Thunder series a much easier path to the Finals.
When talking to Lowe before the start of the season, Redick said that he though the Clippers still have a few years to contend in the West.
“The championship window in the West is so narrow,” Redick said. “Ours might only be open another couple of years. But you need some breaks. Golden State was the best team in the league, but they also had everything go right for them. They didn’t have one bad break. I don’t have any doubt about the DNA of our team.”
The injuries to Paul and Griffin derailed the team’s championship hopes. Before their injuries, the Clippers had a clear path to face the Warriors in the second-round. The Blazers weren’t going to roll over, but they barely managed their last two victories against a depleted Clippers squad. With a little bit of luck, the Clippers could have upset the Warriors, with the Spurs or Thunder waiting for them in the Western Conference Finals.
It could be equally argued that even with a healthy squad, the Clippers still would be severe underdogs against the Warriors, Thunder or Spurs and the Cavaliers, who are the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. Bringing this team back next season may not change that dynamic considering that each of those squads are likely to bring back those same rosters (though Kevin Durant’s free agency could change that quickly for the Thunder), so there is arguably no point in trying again with this same Clippers roster. Especially when they have little free agent spending power and their biggest acquisitions would likely be re-signing Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green.
Considering Doc’s record of trusting and relying on veterans, recently avoiding Boston’s rebuild and his willingness to move draft assets for slight roster upgrades (and sometimes even just cap flexibility), it’s likely that he gives this roster another shot next season. Like the Mavericks in 2011, that may work out for him. But if things fall apart again in the postseason, the Clippers will enter 2017 free agency with the prospect of losing Paul, Griffin and Redick for no compensation and just a few draft assets to rebuild with.
This isn’t an easy choice for Doc and the Clippers’ front office. The best approach to this offseason is probably to test out the trade value of everyone aside from Jordan and see if a successful on-the-fly rebuild is possible. If not, then they can move forward for possibly one more run with their existing core and some fringe moves around the edges. After five years of bad luck, injuries and costly mistakes, perhaps next season could be the one where everything goes right.
The Clippers are out of the spotlight now that they have been eliminated from the playoffs, but they will be one of the most interesting teams to keep an eye on during the summer. We possibly saw the last of these Clippers on Friday night, which is a shame when you consider how many opportunities have passed them by over the last few seasons.
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