NBA Saturday: Clippers Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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Over the last seven years, the Los Angeles Clippers have maintained a level of success beyond anything the franchise has ever previously experienced. The 2010-11 NBA campaign was Blake Griffin’s rookie season (since he missed the 2009-10 season with a knee injury), which marked the beginning of a new era for the franchise.

Griffin exploded onto the scene, throwing down an impressive alley-oop three minutes and twenty seconds into his first NBA game. Since then, the Clippers have worked to establish themselves as one of the best all-around teams in the NBA. They achieved this, in significant part, by trading for Chris Paul, developing DeAndre Jordan into a defensive force, bringing in a respected coach in Doc Rivers, and trading for JJ. Redick, who has been a perfect fit as the team’s starting shooting guard.

Unfortunately for the Clippers they have not been able to get past the Western Conference Semifinals. It seems each season the team comes undone due to some assortment of injuries, fatigue and a few significant meltdowns in high-pressure situations. Despite repeatedly coming up short in the postseason, this team has collectively maintained a steady confidence in their ability to compete for a championship. However, the Clippers enter the upcoming NBA season with serious questions that will likely hang over the team for the better part of the campaign.

Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are both set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2016-17 season. This has led to a lot of speculation recently about whether team president Doc Rivers will trade Griffin in order to bring back significant team assets and avoid the risk of losing him for noting in free agency. Earlier this week, Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported that a three-team trade had emerged, which would send Griffin to the Boston Celtics.

While there is some sense to proactively moving a player before losing him for nothing in free agency, people should remember that Griffin is still one of the best all-around players in the NBA when healthy. It’s easy to forget how good Griffin is since we haven’t seen him play at full strength since December of last year. At the beginning of last season, Griffin was averaging 28.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and four assists with an impressive true shooting percentage of 63.1 percent from the field. Griffin was picking up where he left off from the 2015-16 postseason, where he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, one steal and one block per game against the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Griffin put his full arsenal on display and showed how devastating he can be when he is hitting his jumper and aggressively attacking the basket consistently.

However, Griffin suffered a partially torn left quadriceps in the Clippers’ Christmas day matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers. This injury held Griffin out for several months and limited him significantly in the postseason. Griffin’s inability to make a full recovery was one of the major reasons (along with Paul suffering a broken hand) why the Clippers fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Portland Trail Blazers. The Clippers are hoping for better luck with injuries this upcoming season. However, with Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors this offseason, the Clippers may not have the talent to get past their Bay Area rivals even with a clean bill of health.

Durant joining the Warriors adds another layer of complication for Los Angeles. The Clippers made their pitch to Durant, but he ultimately opted to take his talents to the Bay Area instead. By missing out on Durant, the Clippers only option was to re-sign their own free agents, including Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute and Wesley Johnson. The Clippers also added Marresse Speights and Raymond Felton on bargain contracts, which should help their depth. However, it’s still hard to envision a scenario where the Clippers, or any team for that matter, can beat the Warriors four times in seven games. So while the Clippers’ window of contention is still open heading into this season, it’s likely a small window at best.

“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.”

Roughly nine months after saying that his team is on the borderline, Rivers is still operating with essentially the same roster, which now is collectively another year older. This is another issue for the Clippers since Paul is now 31 years old, Redick is 32 and Jamal Crawford is 36. Each of these players are past their physical primes, though they still are very, very productive. But at some point their production will drop off and considering their respective ages and the injury histories of Paul and Redick, this could happen sooner rather than later.

With an aging roster, two star players on expiring contracts, and a dominant Warriors team in the Bay Area, the Clippers are stuck between going all in on this season as constructed, or making big moves to bring in assets that can help them push their window of contention down the road. This is what Celtics general manager Danny Ainge did a few seasons ago when he moved his aging stars for assets.

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’ aggressive plan to contention failed, while the Celtics assembled a young and talented roster that has exceeded expectations under head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics have remained competitive since, still have plenty of assets and recently used some of their cap space to sign Al Horford in free agency.

These sort of aggressive deals don’t always work out so well, but there is sound reasoning behind it. This is the dilemma the Clippers find themselves in. They can’t callously move on from Griffin considering he is in his prime and dominant when healthy. However, if the team struggles in the early part of the 2016-17 season, or they suffer more drama like they did last season, Rivers may be more receptive to the trade offers teams put in front of him. As Rivers told Zach Lowe roughly nine months ago, this team is on the borderline. Figuring out how to best handle this situation is a dilemma the Clippers will have to endure heading into next season.